So there’s been a lot of chatter in blogland about Mike Harrison’s post on worldbuilding (http://uzwi.wordpress.com/2007/01/27/very-afraid/) and the response made by some bloke called Pat (http://fantasyhotlist.blogspot.com/2007/02/be-afraid-be-very-afraid.html).
It’ll probably help if you read them for this to make any sense, but on the other hand, I don’t think anyone reads this so…
First, Mr. Harrison. He states that “Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.” I think that what he’s talking about is an author’s insertion of detail about the story’s setting that is present purely for the sake of showing that an author has exhaustively built a world, not for the purpose of moving the story forward.I don’t see what is so controversial here. He’s arguing for good storytelling. Every part of a story should be there for a reason, that relates to the story, to the sequence of events described and the effect of those events upon the character(s). Wallowing in overblown descriptions of the rain cycle on this planet (unless it specifically relates to the two aforementioned subjects) is bad writing. Mike Harrison is arguing against extraneous fluff that should have been edited from a story anyway.
Wow – radical thinking.
And that’s the real tragedy here, that some people are taking this as radical thinking. Fantasy has become so trapped in it’s own formulae that the quality of writing is unimportant – it’s whether or not a story strictly conforms to these dictums that is important.
The more formulaic a book is, the better it is? That doesn’t sound right.
This brings us to this bloke called, Pat.
Pat disagrees with Mike Harrison’s post. Pat seems to think Mike Harrison’s post has something to do with the importance of prose over any other aspect of writing. This would only seem possible if you read “…the triumph of writing over worldbuilding” as “the triumph of prose over worldbuilding.” Maybe that’s what he’s done. But all this misunderstanding leads to this paragraph…
“If Harrison can only fall back on his prose to compete against writers who can create deep and believable characters, a vivid setting and a gripping and multilayered plot, doing it all with nice prose to boot, then he can never hope to produce works that will surpass those of his peers. Which, sadly, appears to be the case here. Hence Mr. Harrison's post.”
Just so we’re clear here, the peers Pat is referring include Stephen R. Donaldson, David Eddings, Raymond E. Feist, Terry Brooks, Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman, Robert Jordan, and Terry Goodkind.
I should probably refrain from the use of adjectives at this point…
Anyway, back to the quote. This quote comes from another strand of Pat’s argument, which is “a vast majority of speculative fiction's readership is drawn to the genre for escapism”
As, I posted earlier, all novels are escapist. I want to expand this statement to include all forms of entertainment. Movies are escapist. So is music. Anything we use to take us out of the moment in which we are existing is escapist.
However, as I also stated, these forms of entertainment can achieve more than pure escapism. Again, I want to take this further. Entertainment should do more than simply entertain. Entertainment/escapism is the minimum level of success a story can achieve. If that’s all it achieves it is, in the end, disposable. I certainly consume disposable forms of entertainment, but I am equally certain that I don’t want to produce them, and I sure as shit don’t want to laud them over more powerful works.
I wouldn’t laud the books of Robert Jordan over those by Mike Harrison, for example.
Pat boosts his argument by calling Mike Harrison a number of names: elitist, literati, and mid-list. He also boosts it by pointing at sales figures.
Mike Harrison is elitist. He is. I don’t disagree with that point. I disagree with it being used as an insult. What’s wrong with being elitist, for desiring something a little more than the quotidian? What’s wrong with encouraging author’s to stretch themselves, to reach for something a little more significant? The man’s offering sound advice on how to do that to. That, to me, seems laudable.
There should be more elitists.
The other three points--literati, mid-list, and sales figures—seem to all be related. This is because Pat is judging Mike Harrison’s worth based on his sales figures. Mid-list and sales figures, seem to me, to be the same thing. And in terms of sales figures I’m sure Mike Harrison is mid-list. But in terms of quality of writing, and the quality of ideas, then I think the listing goes a little different. And that’s because, yes, he is trying to write literature of quality. And what’s wrong with that? Literature is, hmmm… writing of quality, again? Writing which does not rely purely on plot, but which goes beyond this one aspect of writing, which Pat seems to hang so much upon.
It also seems a little odd for someone who’s literary achievements are limited to a blog to call Mike Harrison mid-list…
It’s not that Mike Harrison is my favourite author, although I admire him. This defense of him is not inspired by sycophantism, but rather by the desire that people realize that his post offer sound advice. That it is a call for better fiction, less self-indulgent fiction. That it’s important, and petty pot-shots at his writing, are not a reasonable response to valuable advice.