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Monday, June 15, 2009


Why do I write made-up beasties and that?

It's a question my husband put to me over the weekend: why, given that I read a lot of realistic fiction, do I write the kind of stuff I do?

A very interesting question, in short. I never particularly set out to write fantastical stuff; my writing just tends to come out that way. What's the reason?

I think the reason is twofold. Part of it has to do with reality, and part of it has to do with authority.

Authority is the simpler answer. I don't like to base my characters on real people; I feel uncomfortable setting my stories in real places. Real people and places are fascinating things, but if I try to depict them, it's like a drag on my tail. I slow down. I labour. I grind. The stuff I produce comes out slow, laboured and grinding.

This, I think, is a question of conscience. I often quote Ruskin's 'You will never love art well, until you love what she mirrors better,', and I love reality. The world is a wonderful place. Depicting it badly throws me back on all my self-doubts, my uncertainties about my own perceptions, the horrible sense that if I fail to depict things properly, I will be betraying my beloved world.

This, of course, is block demon talk. But writing imaginative fiction dodges neatly round it. I may make mistakes depicting the life of a London cabbie, but if I say that the life of a lycanthropic activity police officer is thus-and-so, I'm betraying no one. I'm making it that way by fiat. I cannot misrepresent what is imaginary. This takes off the brakes: I can run wild into saying whatever I please. Imaginative fiction frees me up to be a bad girl. Or even a bad person. Writing doesn't have to be virtuous; in fact, if you block off the dark places of your mind, you're blocking your source. Conscious comparisons between your writing and reality lift you up out of the subconscious, and from there there's nowhere vivid to go. Other writers probably don't have this problem, but for me, obligations to beautiful reality can weigh me down.

Which takes me into the second reason why I write imaginative fiction: beautiful reality.

The world is utterly extraordinary. Most of the time we're used to it, but this is one amazing place we live in. When I was a child I read an autobiography in which the writer described regaining her sight after years of blindness and being continually astonished by the vivid loveliness of everything she can see, and that made an impression. I like to stop and stare as if I'd never seen the world before.

Writing, at its finest, can depict that. But this is a trick I use in my own: one way to convey the feeling of never having seen the world before is to create a world nobody has seen before, because it's imaginary. Invented situations are entirely new to both the writer and the reader, and into that you can pour all that first-sight passion of observation that makes the real world so numinous.

I try to write my imaginary situations as if they were real. Because, in a way, they are: they're a caricature of reality, a slight exaggeration of how startling and curious the world really is.

(Many belated best wishes on your wedding, Kit!)

This is something I'm kind of afraid of in myself, actually, the whole fantasy versus mimesis debate, and the privileging of mimesis. I've been on the receiving end of that question a lot: "Why don't you just write real stuff, why don't you set this in the real world?" Do I write fantasy to avoid doing research, or is it that fantasy can accomplish things that strictly reflective writing can't? I'd like to believe it's the latter. (I also think it's a...not entirely false, per se, but somewhat artificial and relatively recent separation.)

Also, the fantastic is just fun times. (I suspect it satisfies a need in me for bombast...)
"Other writers probably don't have this problem, but for me, obligations to beautiful reality can weigh me down."

I assure you, it's not just you.

I might, however, add a third reason to your list: escapism. I'm strictly a hobby writer. Mostly I write for my own amusement, though occasionally I write because it's cheaper than therapy.

And, when I escape into my imagination, I want to be able to do things that simply aren't possible in the real world. It's fun to imagine having Vast Supernatural Powers, or exploring the magics of forgotten civilizations.

Michael Mock
Add it to your own list by all means, but I don't think I can add it to mine. I don't want to escape. I like it here.

That's sort of my point, I think. Reading can be escapist - though if that's so, I think at least in my case any book is a form of escapism because while I'm reading it I'm thinking about the book and not my life. But I don't think writing fantastical stuff is about escapism for me.

For one thing, the fantastic situations I come up with are generally not fun, or at least not for the characters. The way I work them through is in considering the problems they'd create. Addressing and resolving those problems is what creates the plot.

On the other hand, their pleasures are generally similar to realistic ones - In Great Waters features a lot of descriptions of the good side of being a deepsman, for instance, but that's mostly the pleasure of swimming, which anyone can enjoy, and in fact are heavily influenced by my own experiences of snorkeling and scuba diving - that is to say, real things.

And when I write a fantastic situation, very often it can be a kind of metaphor for a real problem. Most people interpret Bareback as a story about prejudice, which of course it is; it's also an exploration of certain emotional states relevant to my own life. The same is true of the other stories I write. They're an expression of more mundane issues, exaggerated and - to use a horrible neologism - metaphorised, to give me maximum freedom of movement in expressing them.

So for me, writing isn't escapism, it's the opposite. It's probably different for other people, because people vary. But the way I feel about reality, writing fantastical stuff isn't an escape from it. It's an elaboration that allows me to immerse myself in reality rather than get away from it.
Hmm. I think of it the way the good Professor described the act of writing as "sub-Creation".

Of course all storytellers imitate the Creator (from this point of view) in their fictional universes and characters.

To me it feels vaguely... blasphemous, maybe? ... to reach into the already existent Creation and tweak here and here, then say, "There. I fixed that for ya."

(Also why I don't write fanfiction, although I certainly don't put Joss Whedon on the same level as the Divine Source of Existence. Quite.)

[verification word: "rupetst", AKA RuPetst, a subset of cross-dressing Furries]
Kit: "Add it to your own list by all means, but I don't think I can add it to mine. I don't want to escape. I like it here."

Quite right; I was speaking entirely and only for myself.

But for me, a big part of the appeal of playing with/in fantastic worlds goes back to something we talked about in an earlier thread: the idea that if things were just a little bit different, I could pick up a sword (or have Vast Supernatural Powers, or take off in a spaceship) and kick butt. That, obviously, takes my writing off in a very different direction from yours.

Although... I do have to admit that the writings of which I'm most proud are frequently the ones where I've managed to avoid giving in to that tendency. Make of that what you will...
Word, word, word to this entry. Writing stuff that's fantastical (in varying degrees - and it applies to my "science fantasy" ideas as well) allows me to feel freer about breaking the rules. Plus, I'm in my head so much that I really don't trust my perception of the real world and my ability to depict it.

I'd also add "escapism" to that list of yours (again, only for my own personal appropriation of that list in explaining why I never write things set in "the real world"), which I suspect is tied to the fact that I'm always in my head...
I do have to add that "fun times" for me (or the reader in general or the writer, really) doesn't necessarily need to equal fun times for the characters. :-) Or the horror genre would never get off the ground.
To me it feels vaguely... blasphemous, maybe? ... to reach into the already existent Creation and tweak here and here, then say, "There. I fixed that for ya."

Hang on, did you just accuse me of blasphemy?

As I see it, I'm really not 'fixing' reality. I'm reflecting on it by presenting a distorted contrast, and trying to speak truth by means of fictions. I'm well aware that my writing is not reality: all I create is words on a page, and if anybody mistook that for reality I'd be thoroughly surprised.

Generally my writing is more truthful when it's fantastical, which is a paradox, if you like - but certainly the better stuff I've written has been fantastical, and I think we do no service to any numinous thing by producing inferior art. Tell all the truth but tell it slant, as Emily Dickinson would have it.

The idea of writing being an attempt to fix reality seems likely to lead to bad writing. We can't compete with reality. As I experience it, my writing at its best is only ever a hymn of praise to it.
"Hang on, did you just accuse me of blasphemy?"

Er, no. I didn't MEAN to, at any rate. I was trying to say the exact opposite.

By allowing a touch of the fantastic, we are essentially, as the good Professor said, "sub-creating", making our own universes, instead of trying to meddle in the one that already exists.

That is why I am always slightly suspicious, not of mimetic fiction as a genre, but of mimetic authors who claim that they are mirroring "reality" while genre authors are trying to "escape" it.

All storytellers -- all good ones, anyhow -- are in a sense escaping the totality of given reality, to shape an experimental construct that allows them to explore a particular aspect. Whether or not that construct is called "fantastical" is more a reflection of conscious we are of the constraints of reality, I think, than of any element in the story itself. (Are werewolves really that much more "fantastic" than the idea of abstract justice? Happily ever after? That any given life actually has a plot arc?)

The other kind of storyteller I would call a "bullshit artist."

[verification word: "sistood", an archaic term for a stand to prop your foot against as you button your shoon]
This is something I'm rather struggling with in the novel I'm revising--it's sort of done in two layers, a 'realistic' one and a 'fantastic' one, and sometimes the realistic one gives me a bit of a headache because I'm so determined to be as accurate as possible. On one level, it's easier, because I've set it in places I'm actually familiar with and can visit those places at any time. On another, it can result in Blind Tourist Syndrome (as Kit put it) since the locations are so obvious to me I don't spend much on describing them to the reader. Something I may need to fix on the next pass.
By allowing a touch of the fantastic, we are essentially, as the good Professor said, "sub-creating", making our own universes, instead of trying to meddle in the one that already exists.

Who's 'the good Professor'?

I still don't see how naturalistic fiction is meddling in the real world. A book may have a real world effect - you could argue that Nineteen Eighty-Four helped to reduce Western support for totalitarian socialism, or that The Da Vinci Code had an effect on tourism - but that's not affecting reality per se, it's just influencing people who then make real things happen. Reality gets no realer or unrealer.

Meanwhile, any book has a reality of its own that's self-consistent - or at least, any competently written book does, unless it's deliberately messing with your sense of reality - but it's also self-contained. Describing it as 'meddling' seems to imply that changing or imitating reality within a book is some kind of gesture at reality outside it.

I just don't see any difference in terms of hubris or interventionism when it comes to naturalistic or non-naturalistic. People write the way they can. They write the stories that occur to them. They write stuff that's not true. Reality is over here and they're over there. You can't meddle from such a long distance, and that's equally true no matter what the content of the story.
J. R. R. Tolkien.

I agree with your that all books create their own reality -- although I certainly wouldn't describe either 1984 or The Da Vinci Code as "realistic fiction".

I'm talking more about the writers I have heard who insist that their books take place in "reality" and that those who write fantastic fiction are somehow "cheating." It's more of a question of authorial self-awareness.

(And yes, I have heard these writers with me very own shell-like ears, although I'm sure we would all prefer to believe that such do not exist...)

(verification word: "troysexi". Yes. Yes, she is.)
I wouldn't call Nineteen Eighty-Four or The Da Vinci Code naturalistic either; they were just two books that occurred to me as influential in their different ways, and as I don't think there's much difference, reality-wise, between naturalistic and fantastic fiction, any example seemed equally good to me.

As to the main point, it's silly and rude to imply everyone who uses fantastical conceits is cheating. I don't think it's fair to turn around and accuse writers who say that of blasphemy, though - especially if one accuses the whole genre, because that starts including other writers who never said anything that impolite but just happen to write non-fantastical books as well. That just seems like returning insult for insult and sinking to their level.

By allowing a touch of the fantastic, we are essentially, as the good Professor said, "sub-creating", making our own universes, instead of trying to meddle in the one that already exists.

Every single work of fiction portrays a 'sub-created' universe. Every. Single. One. 'Realistic' novels portray universes that are constructed to resemble the 'real world' as closely as possible, but they remain as artificial as a novel set in the Kingdom of Inventia.
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