The OF Blog: Ever felt like you were beating your head against a wall?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Ever felt like you were beating your head against a wall?

I do.

Question why there is a need to create a new term for "setting" and get blather that seems a bit strange.

Concede (as I did over the past two years) that perhaps a different term ("world building") might have become necessary in order to describe better the extra steps that writers of secondary-world fantasies are doing and then some people insist that not only should the story construction techniques of mimetic and surrealist writers be conflated back into what the secondary-world people are doing, but that the neologism of "world building" is the only correct term, critical theorists be damned (and perhaps burned at the stake, for all I know).

Try to puzzle out how this conflation could even take place by utilizing fictions set in places that actually exist or to explore reasons why writers in other traditions reject vehemently such terms as "world building" (or even fantasy, for that matter) and it gets to the point where it seems some want to argue that even physical places have no true "reality."  Strange...

Guess I should have learned by now that it'd be much easier to let the epic fantasy people who want to have their cake and eat it to in terms of inclusion/exclusion of terms/story elements continue arguing their own topics and be off in their sandbox away from the discussions taking place revolving around other fictions and related cultural histories.  Much easier that least my forehead wouldn't be (metaphorically) as bruised!

Now back to reading The Golden Ass, The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard, and Modern Arabic Fiction (but not all at once, of course)...


axe said...

Damn, I didn't expect you of all people to be so bitter on a literary disagreement. And slightly pretentious.

Am disappointed.

Larry said...

Not bitter, just frustrated, more or less, as it's more a case of feeling like I'm failing to communicate effectively more than anything else.

Liviu said...

I read the thread and was fascinated again how easy is to get into hair-splitting, angels on the pin...

My "rough" take is that any distinction between "setting" and "world-building" as *words* is meaningless, but that there is a clear distinction between secondary world fiction - including future sfnal Earth or other planets btw there and "historical/present Earth" fiction, which is on the same par to the distinction between a biography and a fictional character

Wolf Hall has great worldbuilding while the setting of Jacqueline Carey Kushiel series is an alt-Earth with this or that differences make sense imho, but there is a clear distinction in the constraints of one vs the other; again fictional characters vs "real documentable people" imagined/remembered is the rough analogy

Incidentally this distinction is why I love sff over "regular" fiction as I love fiction over biographies...

axe said...

>> Not bitter, just frustrated, more or less, as it's more a case of feeling like I'm failing to communicate effectively more than anything else.

Aah well, I get that. But then again, the whole debate is on such a relative topic - one which is constantly in flux over the years and in between people, that there is no point banging your head about it. Instead, think of this as a survey as to where people are currently drawing the line between "setting" and "worldbuilding" and let it go at that.

Long time lurker and fan btw.

vacuouswastrel said...

I know you'll ignore this comment (*waves* hello! not actually ceased to exist despite being sent to Coventry!), but pull yourself together, man.

You would feel less as though you were banging your head against the wall if you hadn't built your own entirely fictional wall to bang your head against.

Yes, everyone sensible agrees (including any respectable critical theorist) that critical theorists should be damned - their job is to describe, not dictate.

But in this particular instance - what on earth are you taking? Nobody has ever said that "world-building" is the only 'correct' (whatever that may mean) term. You've said we've said it, repeatedly, and every time you've been corrected. If you kindly took the time to read anything that anyone else had written, you'd notice that your deluding yourself through the creation of ridiculous strawmen.

Likewise, nobody said to you that real places were not real - that would clearly be ludicrous. Again, this is a fiction dreamt up by yourself, seemingly in order to justify your refusal to engage with criticism.

Similarly, you did not address why non-fantasists might not like the term - which is a good thing, really, since nobody cares whether they like or use the term - but rather tried to establish that there was a distinction behind the use of the term, which is an entirely different point. As we've all said, there are differences in connotation between the terms, and that can explain differential patterns of usage - this is irrelevent to the question of whether there is a denotational distinction, as I'm sure you are aware, being an intelligent man, however much you have tried to conflate the two in this discussion.

Finally, it is utter nonsense to describe this as a battle against "the epic fantasy people". Just because people at that board generally like the work of one particular epic fantasy writer does not make us 'epic fantasy people'. In my own case, I'd say that currently my favourite books are One Hundred Years of Solitude, The God of Small Things, and Blindness; going more strictly into fantasy, I'd put the Silmarillion and the Book of the New Sun as the most impressive works in the genre; the best book I've read this year was A Canticle for Leibowitz. Most books I read, however, are philosophy books. I don't see myself as a mere "epic fantasy person" - although unlike you I don't see 'epic fantasy' as a term of abuse.

[continued in next post]

vacuouswastrel said...

What IS being said? Some key points:

- "setting" and "world-building" may differ in connotation and/or register, but there is no clear-cut denotational distinction underlying this usage

- all stories are fictional stories; their events do not happen, their characters are not people in the way that you or I are, their settings cannot be walked through, their cultures do not grow outside the page, and the intricacies of their plots are dictated by the fiat of the author, not by the free will of the protagonists, nor by happenstance or by the will of God.

- consequently, the inhabitants of novels are merely simulacra and mimicries of things we have learnt of in the world. All things present in the imagination take their substance from the things of the world, albeit re-ordered and reconstituted into forms that need not replicate those seen in reality. All novels are simulations, and all contents of novels are reconstitutions of the real. There is thus no literary novel that is pure of invention - not even a report of a real occurence is the same as the occurence itself; and likewise, there is no fantasy that is pure of the real and the grounded; the only distinctions are quantitative. An unambiguous worldbuilder like Borges, a borderline writer like Garcia Marquez, and a 'realist' writer like Roy are all doing the same thing.

- this being so, "world-building" should not be scorned and used as the basis for insult and deprecation, by comparison to the behaviour of a favoured literary cadre. Borges, Tolkien and Wolfe are just as respectable in their project (however good or bad their execution) as Garcia Marquez, Roy, or Rushdie.

- similarly, paying great attention to setting (eg Borges, Tolkien) is no more "nerdish" than paying great attention to character, plot, or style (although an excessive attention to any, at the cost of the others, will likely make a work less accessible to a general audience; conversely, such works are likely to be praised by certain afficionados of that element; this is a matter of taste).


See? None of those walls that make your head hurt actually exist!

Liviu: you call it "hair-splitting", I call it "paying attention to what was actually said and meant". I think it helps resolve arguments and avoid unnecessary detours into frustration that the one DF is going through here.


Oh, and yes, I do sometimes feel like I'm beating my head against a wall. It tends to happen when a person repeats the same thing over and over again, and expressly tells you that they refuse to listen to any contradiction, and then ignores you. If you put up those sorts of walls, don't be surprised when you bump into them!

Anyway, I'll wander off now, before you delete this post.

[Oh, and apologies for the double post - wouldn't quite fit in one, and I thought that if I criticised you for not understanding, I ought at least to tell you plainly what you ought to understand]

Larry said...

I don't mind dissenting opinions, but the tone of many of your comments here and in the past tends to be grating. It is rather odd to write at least 2-3 times more words as a rebuttal to a post that was about being frustrated, with a comment above clarifying that the frustration centered around my sense that I was failing to communicate my perspective correctly.

As I said in that post, I'm pretty much through arguing the points with anyone right now, but suffice to say that I still disagree with your assertions.

Anonymous said...

"I don't see myself as a mere "epic fantasy person" - although unlike you I don't see 'epic fantasy' as a term of abuse."

Yeah, agreed. That "epic fantasy people" bit struck me as a little odd, especially since I contributed to the thread in question in a manner that Larry disagreed with. A lot of my favorite fictional works are epic fantasy. Others are not. I certainly don't draw lines in a manner where I'd say something like "oh, those darn literary people make me so mad." That stuff seems like pointless flag waving to me.

- Zach H.

Larry said...


People sometimes say stuff in frustration that runs counter to their normal takes on things. I did that and I shouldn't have, especially since you and I had a civil discussion about it. I don't edit my thoughts here (if I say something stupid, I leave the stupidity up to show that I won't try to cover up my stupid moments), but I would like to apologize if offense was taken.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate that, Larry, although, an apology probably isn't necessary given that I'd say I was more puzzled than offended. You've written positively about certain epic works here and elsewhere, so obviously I know you're the type of thoughtful reviewer who isn't going to automatically dismiss something because of "package assumptions."

I also found the "sandbox" allusion a little humorous, as the Westeros forum can be a pretty divided/volatile place even when the conversation remains focused on epic fantasy. The Erikson threads there tend to better resemble a lunch table slam session than a cozy bout of sandbox play, for example.

- Zach H.

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