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Thursday, December 28, 2006


Open Mike fantasy

Defined in the Lexicon thus:

A technique in fantasy either loved or hated by readers, depending on their tastes and the skill of the author, which is prone to crop up in sequels to stories with a single fantastical creature (though it sometimes happens spontaneously). In the first story, we had, let's say, a witch. In the sequel, we meet witches, vampires, elves, ghosts, goblins and every other kind of creature you can think of, much in the way that at a club's all-comers night, you may run into punks, goths, hippies and any number of other subculture types without having your sense of reality jarred. Essentially, magic as lifestyle rather than as magic.

I don't care for it on the whole, and I've been wondering why. Here are some reasons:

1. If everything is possible, nothing is interesting. (Which is what HG Wells said about science fiction.) Fantastical work deals with the wondrous, the extraordinary, the exceptional. When extraordinary creatures are all hanging out in the same club, they're being rendered ordinary. That can be comical, but it doesn't make for exciting writing. Frankly, you can do more with the exceptional than with the mundane. Open miking is a way of shutting down a sense of wonder, which is an odd position for a fantastical book to be occupying, and a slightly sad one.

2. Open mike fantasy treats every magic or strange story written previously as if they're all written about the same world. That's reductive. It squishes down every bizarre tale into fragments of the whole, rather than leaving them to be complete and large in themselves. I don't want fantastical things to be entries in a universal codex. I want every book to stand on its own merits, to be what it is: the work of a talented, imaginative individual. Anything else shrinks down the vast cosmos of invention into the space of a single paperback.

The logic of open-miking is that you can put all these things together because they're all imaginary. Doesn't that grey out the imagination? Turn it into a single place? Imagination is a property of people, and people are multitudious, inconsistent, divinely incompatible. Treating something as easily portable because it's imaginary does not show a fundamental respect for the imagination. It's a short step from open mike to saying things are 'just' imaginary, and once you're on that slope, oh dear.

Books can sit together on the same shelf. But that's just the physical books. The contents are not that easily packed in.

3. To do a fantastical idea justice, you have to take it seriously. You don't have to take it solemnly - you can take it hilariously - but you do have to think about its implications. The more things you throw into the mix, the less time and space you have to work them out. Put together vampires and werewolves, say, and you can, with concentration and skill, get some kind of harmony going, some kind of world system that works. Throw in elves, pixies and people who can spin straw into chequebooks, and it spreads thinner and thinner, until the system splinters and there's no reason for anything being there except, well, there's lots of other things there too. And everything present in a work of art should be necessary.

4. It's an excuse for being lazy about giving fantastical ideas a sense of plausibility. In open-mike fantasy, you can include anything and everything that you've spotted in other books. It's an open world! All comers welcome! No entry fee! But if you're going to bring something unreal into a story, there's an entry fee to pay: it's called 'being necessary to the story', with a surcharge of 'being believable'. You don't have to come up with a pseudo-scientific explanation for everything, but you should have a reason for everything you include. Stories are like athletes: they can't afford to carry extra poundage. Either something is there for a reason, in which case it's a muscle, or it's there because, hey, I've already had one cake, why not have seventeen? In which case it's fat at best, and at worst, an extra spine sticking out of the left ankle of a sprinter.

5. It's kind of weird to imply that all the books you personally have read are simply precursors to yours. Among other things, you're inviting odious comparisons. Harold Bloom* talks about the 'anxiety of influence', the difficulty of measuring up to writers you admire. Open mike fantasy circumvents that: hey, I won't worry about being as good as Bram Stoker, I'll just decide that he understood half of the truth about vampires and I know the rest! Or, I'll just borrow his character and say that his story was false and my version is the accurate one! It's a cute trick, but frankly, worrying about whether you measure up to writers you admire is good for you. It makes you work hard. Open mike fantasy is a short cut round the anxiety of influence, and in writing, short cuts seldom lead to the City.

6. It easily degenerates into endless self-reference, to being more about other books than about life. I'm with Ruskin on this one - 'You will never love art well until you love what she mirrors better.' That's one of the most important, and most frequently forgotten, tenets of artistic creation. You have to be interested in the world, not just in other books, otherwise why is your story worth telling? People could just go and read the books you're referring to. You need to bring to bear your observations about life and living, about how people actually are, real people. If all you're doing is observing what imaginary people are like, you're noodling away without really getting anywhere. Self-referential art, fantastical or not, easily becomes a downward spiral of intellectual incest. The world is bigger than any ideas we can have about it, and we need to keep going back to it to infuse fresh blood into new creations. Otherwise you're standing looking at a bookshelf with your back to the window and talking about the view.

Obviously all of this depends on how well it's executed. Terry Pratchett writes open mike fantasy and I love his books. But then, there's only one Terry Pratchett; the fact that PG Wodehouse did what he did sublimely doesn't mean that everyone else should be writing comedies about silly asses getting into trivial scrapes. Pratchett, among other things, thinks about what he's doing. He doesn't just blithely fling stuff into the mix: if something's there, it serves a purpose. He refers it back to the real world, rather than deciding that because it's imaginary, he can skip the hard work: he takes imagination seriously. He's also an outstanding comic stylist, which means he can get away with pretty much anything he wants. And let's not forget, the man has written I-don't-know-how-many books. It's taken an entire opus to do the open mike world properly. Most of us aren't that prolific. Possibly Terry Pratchett stands as proof that, like every other notional category of book, it's the skill in execution rather than the genre that counts. In which case, it's more accurate to say that open mike fantasy is a technique larded with pitfalls, and I've only encountered one writer who doesn't fall into any of them. Yes, that sounds more likely. But the pitfalls really do put me off. It's so easy to make open mike bland.

I'm well aware that plenty of people reading this probably like open mike fantasy. To them I say, well, have fun, knock yourselves out. Not everyone likes the same stuff, and I'd hate to think I was depriving you of a pleasure.

*Quoting his phrase isn't a blanket endorsement of all his works, by the way. I haven't read enough of them to know how far I agree with any of his theories. I spent a lot of my IQ points at university trying to work out how to read as little criticism as possible and still pass the exams, and I'm not even sorry about it. It meant I could spend my finite reading time studying actual books. It's just a useful expression, and I think I'm using it reasonably accurately, though I'm drawing different conclusions.


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