Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Great Clomping Foot of Nerdism

On M. John Harrison's blog:

"Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding."

(Speaking of dust-ups . . . )


Kelly McCullough said...

Well, that was remarkably silly--Yet another in what I call the one true way school of writing posts. It assumes that all writers and readers should be like the poster, which is both short sighted and demonstrably wrong.

I know there are readers out there who read primarily for the worldbuilding, because I've talked to them, and for that matter, good worldbuilding is one of the reasons I read. Beyond that, worldbuilding is what distinguishes F&SF from other genres. Remove the worldbuilding, and you kill the field.

If you're doing it right, worldbuilding is writing because your world is a vibrant living character in the book.

Silly. Very, very silly.

Bill Henry said...

Yeah, I knew this would push your buttons, Kelly. (That's definitely not why I posted the link, though. Really, I just loved the phrase "the great clomping foot of nerdism," without any deeper thoughts about what's being said here.)

Thinking about it now -- I guess I'd say that a willfully provocative statement like this, coming from a provocative writer like Harrison, has to be taken with a grain of salt; after all, he's the author who has created Virconium, and other worlds.

With that in mind, I'll ask: reading past the inflammatory language here, does anyone have any thoughts about what Harrison might really be getting at?

Stephanie Zvan said...

I think that until Harrison can define just what it is he thinks is useless, instead of simply starting a bunch of sentences with the same word, there isn't any point in having the conversation. Unless your characters never leave the confines of their own heads (and really, even then, but I'm trying to give him something for the sake of argument), your descriptions of what they do builds a world. It may be a world that shows your lack of planning and consistency, but it's still a world.

Bill Henry said...

Stephanie wrote: "your descriptions of what they do build a world."

I absolutely agree, Steph. That's a great way of modeling what, at a fundamental level, all prose fiction does: it builds a living world, one word at a time -- word by word by word -- for the reader to inhabit.

But Harrison is talking very particularly about worldbuilding, a specific creative practice that we genre writers all know well. To invoke what's for me a primal example, worldbuilding is our technical term for what happens between the covers of, for instance, Gary Gygax's Gazetteer to the World of Greyhawk fantasy campaign: in Harrison's words, "the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn't there." (I have the Greyhawk boxed expanded 7th edition from 1983 right here on my bookshelf, by the way. The great clomping foot doesn't tread lightly around these parts.)

The Gazetteer. It's awesome. It's compendious! I look at it all the time to remind myself of what's special about this job of ours. I still dream of papering my office walls with the enormous maps. But you couldn't sell it to ASFM or publish it as a novel.

When Harrison says that "every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding," isn't he saying something that as fiction writers we all basically agree with?

If we know what he means by worldbuilding, then what does he mean by writing?

I think it's as simple as this: he means telling a story.

And storytelling is what writers (of our kind, at least) do, right?

Of course we do worldbuilding, too, but always ultimately in the service of storytelling, not vice versa.

Kelly McCullough said...

Hey Bill,

Been meaning to get back to this. Yeah, I didn't figure you were tryinng to get me wound up. And, funnily enough I'm not really. This was just too obviously a silly thing to say for me to do much more than shrug and say "that's silly."

For me at least, this looks like a case of climbing out on the end of a limb with a saw and saying "if you don't agree with me, I'm going to saw right through this limb and then you'll be sorry."

Bill Henry said...

Yah. My basic reaction upon first reading Harrison's post was a wry "Heh."

Hyperbole, repetition -- these things surely have their rhetorical uses. They are literary devices. We writers recognize them, and perhaps appreciate them, when we see them.

In the literal-minded, knee-jerk culture of the Internet, however, the writer whips out the full toolkit at considerable risk...

Clomp, clomp, clomp. Back to work I go. Gotta sharpen up the old tree saw.


Stephanie Zvan said...

I'll have to trust you that Harrison's audience would understand that he was limiting his use of "worldbuilding" to creating an almanac. I'm not that audience, and I expect that we genre writers will more carefully use a word that has come to mean what happens behind the scenes as much as what happens on the page.

My problem with his lack of specificity is that it's unhelpful. Is he railing against unnecessary scenes that only show off the clever detail in the corner? How much has he invested in pentalogies? Has he seen one too many maps that tell the reader nothing more than where the mountains are? Is he tired of people who don't know anything about horses writing improbable traveling sequences so we can meet the next "alien" culture? Is he ready to puke if he reads another book where the writer's imagination gave out about the time the aliens became identifiably Japanese or Swedish? Those would be helpful, specific things for a writer to know.

The way the post is written is like me saying, "Never post a sweeping absolute about writing in your blog." I'd come off as less of a jerk if I said, "I've read too many grand pronouncements lately in blogs, after most of which the author spent the whole comments section saying, 'I didn't mean to imply that.'" It would be accurate, and perhaps helpful, feedback if I said, "This blogger is obviously upset about something, but he's telling me how worked up he is instead of showing me what isn't working for him so I can follow along."

Bill Henry said...

A couple more things, and then I'm so done with this. Think of all the real writing I could have been doing -- no, wait, think of all the real writing you could have been doing!

Just to point out: I've never read Harrison's blog before, so in fairness I can't be considered "his audience." I haven't read any of his novels, either. I came upon his post, which was from back in January, by way of a more recent post on the blog of the comic book writer Warren Ellis.

The things I had to say about the post were a simple act of textual interpretation. He says "worldbuilding" like five times in a row so that you know exactly what he's talking about. And he is specific: "Worldbuilding is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn't there." And so on.

I've been scratching my head a bit at the (what seemed to me overly) strong reactions to the post, here and in other forums. I think that some of the comments, here at least, operate from the presumption that Harrison is giving writerly advice on his blog: "Yet another in what I call the 'one true way' school of writing posts" (Kelly), "Those would be helpful, specific things for a writer to know" (Stephanie), and so on.

My friends, I really don't think Harrison is in the advice-giving business. I don't think he's trying to be helpful at all. Nor is he one bit interested in coming off as . . . less of a jerk. Quite the opposite, I expect.

(To be clear: No disrespect intended to Mr. Harrison. Far from it. I am entertained.)

There. I'm done.

See you Saturday, I hope.