Matt and I, over at his blog, had a discussion about what we really mean when we say something is "imaginative" or has "imagination". To my mind, just being able to dream up wild stuff is only half the picture; how all that wild stuff fits into a coherent whole, what its implications are, how it divides or unites others, how its past and its future diverge -- that's where the real meat is.
Matt's comment, in part: "There are, to my mind, executions that are more 'jam together extant parts' than 'mold raw material into something new.' I think that this is most definitely a lack of something we could legitimately call imagination." I agreed with this, because I see a lot of the former, in both fledgling and experienced creators, in big part because there's a sizable market for superficially entertaining work in that vein. As long as there's plenty of people who are relatively undiscriminating in their tastes (which is a death-and-taxes kind of thing), there will be no end of other people lining up to satisfy them.
Still, this got me mulling a fun exercise: What's the difference between just jamming some stuff together, and molding raw material into something truly new?
The big difference I see -- something Matt also hinted at -- is that those making something new have some overarching vision, some psychic throughline as it were, for what they want to do. The pieces weren't chosen just because they look interesting when stuck together, but because sticking them together in that fashion complemented the larger vision. The vision came first; the pieces came after.
The trailer for the new film adaptation of Dune (it looks quite nice) got me thinking about how this principle might apply to that property. The elements in it -- a feudal social structure, a future of deliberately reduced technological surfaces, space travel, the enhancement of human performance with drugs, the power of prophecy in a society primed to receive it, etc. -- could all have been part of another story with a less cohesive throughline. A far less interesting story, to be sure, because Frank Herbert's vision for how each piece of this fits into the whole, enhances the whole, is the reason Dune works as it does.
Many creators early in their career (they're not always young as such) confuse invention or creativity with -- what's a good word for this? -- "cornucopiation", maybe. Stuffing something full of a diversity of things, out of the belief that this is the same as being "creative". Too often the result isn't a unified work, but a mere kipple salad. (Props to Phil K. Dick for that word, meaning "stuff" but with the connotation of "clutter".)
There's a bad precedent for doing this in mainstream literary fiction, too -- e.g., books like Zadie Smith's White Teeth, where a panoply of characters and incidents and happenstances are, I guess, supposed to be a reflection of Our Moment In Time, but are really just reflective of the way such work both flatters its readership (see? you're reading Serious Stuff now!) and is itself an invitation to flattery from like-minded critics and fellow authors. Big books that self-consciously attempt to mirror the sentiment of an age, or the mindset of a society, or some other undertaking in that vein, almost always end up confusing breadth and accumulation with depth and insight.
A bigger story, a fatter book, is not always a better one. I say this as someone absolutely guilty of the double sin of book-fattening and post hoc justification for same. I know full well how tempting it is to want to put everything in the world -- everything in the world I've created -- into a story. But not everything belongs there; the right things belong there. Constraining one's vision isn't an act of wearing blinders, but practicing the selectivity that good art is all about.
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