Flight of the Vajra: To Have Ambition Was My Ambition Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012-05-17 14:00:00 No comments

B.R. Meyers again:

A Bright Shining Lie - Magazine - The Atlantic

Underlying the hype [about Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke] is the silly notion that if a work introduces plenty of characters and traipses after them for enough years and pages, it is ipso facto ambitious. The true mark of an ambitious work is its style and depth. We would recognize Anna Karenina as such a novel even if only its first few pages had survived, because they depict characters with extraordinarily rich and complex inner lives.

I scarcely need to defend the proposition that SF&F make the same mistake: a bigger book, a longer series is by definition a more ambitious one or a better one. It's easy to confuse scope or sprawl with depth.

Adam Roberts tried to cut into the heart of this problem back when he was forcing himself to read the whole of The Wheel of Time and figure out for himself the appeal of such a derivative, repetitive, one-dimensional series where a great deal goes on but not a whole hell of a lot actually happens. The conclusion he came to was that the books are not so much stories as they are environments for the reader to swath themselves in, so they can forget about all the crap going on around them for a little while: literature as anesthetic, or as Jacques Barzun put it, "art as the detergent of life".

Is it unfair to wrinkle my nose at this? Maybe, but wrinkle I do, if only because the sheer amount of such detergent is having a detrimental effect on our literary water table, so to speak. Not in the sense that people should read the classics instead of all that newfangled crap, but in the sense that bad writing of any grade, high-art or low-, begets more bad writing. When Lester Del Rey found he could repackage third-rate Tolkien and sell it over and over again, he kicked off the Big Book Fantasy boom of the Seventies and Eighties via the Shannara series. The result was not just that a whole generation of readers came into existence thinking a five-book series was automatically better than a single book, but that a whole generation of potential writers also came along primed to believe the same thing, and who cheerfully repeated the same mistakes. I've mentioned before how Dale Peck argued something of the same thing had happened with Joyce's Ulysses: in his purview, it was the book's flaws and shortcomings that were most widely imitated and had the greatest influence, and the end result has been an astonishing amount of Big Fiction that is all but unreadable. (More on this again in the future.)

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I have to be careful about who I single out for criticism here, as there are series I have enjoyed despite their flaws: the Vampire Hunter D books, the Elric novels (those in particular serving as a great deconstruction of a lot of common fantasy tropes), Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat and Deathworld books, the Mardock Scramble cycle, Yoshikawa's Musashi novels, the Foundation cycle, etc. I should not make it sound as if I am attacking the idea of a series of books. What bothers me is when the storytelling becomes distended, pumped full of air to fit the container, as it were, and everything that was good about one story becomes smeared across multiple books like someone trying to economize the use of a single pat of butter across several pieces of bread.

What I resent is not the writing of multiple books alone, but the conflation of size with scope and length with depth, which in SF&F is most symptomatic in books that come in multi-volume containers. I am not going to convince anyone that a given book could have been trimmed by hundreds of pages and lost nothing, because it's always possible to find a retroactive justification for why a book is a given length, whether courtesy of the reader or author. Readers who band together and swap notes about the details of a given work (e.g., George R.R. Martin's fans swapping Westeros trivia) create an atmosphere where it becomes that much harder to consider leaving anything out — even the things that might well be left out for the sake of telling the one story that truly matters instead of the twelve that don't. Good writing is about selectivity, "about what's in the frame and what's out" as Scorsese once said about movies, and just because an author can cater that much more completely to his fans by flooding them with goodies doesn't mean it's going to be a positive thing for either one of them.

I suspect the reason why is because of the above-described thirst for an environment rather than a story. These parallel needs — one for environment, one for narrative — serve different functions and are expressed in different degrees. MMOers and RPGers play a game not just because of the backstory, but because of the immersiveness of the game: it gives them something to get conveniently lost in for a little bit (and sometimes for not such a little bit). People don't just want a good yarn, they want something they can lie down inside too.

Is that so bad? No, not at first. But the long-term consequences on the culture of books they have access to is another story.

Tags: Adam Roberts Dale Peck Denis Johnson Eiji Yoshikawa Flight of the Vajra George R. R. Martin Harry Harrison Hideyuki Kikuchi Isaac Asimov Jacques Barzun Leo Tolstoy Lester del Rey Tow Ubukata fantasy publishing science fiction writing