Water from a Deeper Well: Thoughts Toward a More Imaginative Fantastika
“I went to the river but the river was dry
I fell to my knees and I looked to the sky
I looked to the sky and the spring rain fell
I saw the water from a deeper well ” – Emmylou Harris, “Deeper Well“
I was all set to wrap up my discussion of monarchy in secondary-world fantasy (for now anyway), when I read a blog post by Jeff Vandermeer regarding assumptions the current publishing milieu puts on our imaginations. It’s a great post and I urge folks to read it, and chew on it for a bit. What I took away from it was that we need to kick the truckload of advice and self-interested shibboleths we get from all quarters to the curb and remember that we are writers and readers, not producers or consumers of widgets or data packets. Writing is not a product except in the eyes of those who cannot, to use Jeff’s phrase, “dream well.” Writing is a performance, a service, an art, an effort at communication and understanding. What is most troubling about this burgeoning ideology of the Brave New Publishing World is that it very often ignores or diminishes the writing as process and offering to the reader.
There is a great line in Jeff’s post that I want to elaborate upon:
“The problem is the virus of mediocre and received ideas coursing through the collective brains of the book world, infecting too many of its writers, commentators, reviewers.”
That metaphor of the virus characterizes the ideological influence these ideas have on how we think about and discuss the changing world of publishing fiction. What I want to argue is that this virus does not just infect publishing, but the larger field of literary production. One of the effects of this ideological infection is that it filters our vision as we dip into our imaginations (as reader or writer). Those mediocre and received ideas float and drift through the shallow water of, to apply a new metaphor, the well of our imagination. The ease of use and limitations of these ideas, coupled with the ideological influence Jeff discusses, can obfuscate how deep the well is. We need to write and read with the realization that the well has depths for us yet to plumb.
This problem of ideas arises in both familiar and strange forms. I think that the use of monarchy is a good example of the familiar form. Many writers replicate the political system & ideology of monarchism from a very small pool of popular historical examples. This happens for a variety of reasons (as the recent Mind Meld on monarchy demonstrated), which produce similar results. The question is: why are these reasons valid and why do they all seem to lead (at a certain level) to homogeneous results? Why are the purported reliances on fairy tales, simplicity, intensity of drama, and tight focus of narrative considered good conventions for fantasy tales?
The subtext beneath all these reasons is that readers and writers do not want their fantasies to be too demanding. They do not want complex situations, large constellations of character relationships, or indeed anything too new or provocative. They want their fantasies heavily leavened with conventions that allow for a simultaneous experience of strange and familiar, or with the strange framed and encompassed by the familiar. Generally what should be strange are not the foundational components of the storyworld or the basic motivations of the characters, but rather details of environment and plot devices. Using traditional tropes (perhaps tweaked, gently subverted, or rendered “grittier”) keeps the risk of reading lower and allows for a routine of engagement to guide the reader.
Even stories that appear to complicate this idea still use monarchy, and allied cultural and social formations, to mediate the stakes of the narrative to the reader. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is a good example of this. Martin uses multiple characters as focal points for the narrative and the story has a high level of “realism” and prosaic details of the world, but the effect of these elements is to intensify the melodramatic aspects of the story, creating in essence a sprawling soap opera (which Lavie Tidhar has discussed in greater detail) that is visceral and thrilling in its ongoing series of catastrophes and reversals.
What holds the saga together is a classic struggle for the throne, one of the great epic plotlines of fantastic literature. It is organized along identifiable feudal and medieval-style social structures and gender expectations which provide both easily discernible tensions for the contemporary reader and quickly graspable conflicts. Readers do not need to spend time or energy figuring out such background details and can focus on the characters’ actions and the (often dreadful) situations that arise. Monarchy’s well-worn familiarity and modular utility provides the framework for the story’s progress and in essence reduces the challenge of the story.
Exoticism seems at first to be a corrective for all this: the importation of new, exciting ideas and life-ways to inject vigor and color into a story. Drawing on unfamiliar cultures and histories and identities seemingly provides a vast catalog of difference and strangeness that can stimulate innovation and richness in a narrative. And while this potential is there, what more frequently happens is that these borrowings become appropriations or stereotypes. Hal Duncan put his finger on the problem of exoticism in an essay from last year:
“Seduced by the potency of the quirks [“the core component of strange fiction, born in breaches of narrative modality.”], the Romanticist may question if it even needs to be redeemed. Isn’t this the alterity you’re looking for? Isn’t this exoticism just a relish of the difference of the foreign, the exotica used to empower the rendering, to conjure the true wonder of the foreign figuratively?
No, I say. No, sadly it’s not.”
The idea of exoticism is an alluring one in fantastika that can create what Daniel Abraham characterized as “guilty pleasures”. But these are not thoughtful pleasures; they are “attractive,” there is “a hunger behind” exoticism, a “desire.” Exoticism is used to thrill, to excite, to satisfy something that the writer and reader feels is unfulfilled by other means. But what do we gain by using exoticism? Think about the root of the word for a moment; it comes most distantly from the Greek “exotikos ‘foreign,’ lit. ‘from the outside.'” Its more recent application, as “unusual, strange” comes ” from [the] notion of ‘alien, outlandish.'” It is literally “of another land” or “external,” but also “outlandish.” Exoticism is not just drawing inspiration from another source, it is the distortion and alienation of ideas from outside of the subject’s cultural/social/ideological situation. Bringing the exotic into a story is an act of mutating an idea to make it fit a purpose in a narrative without considering the context of it source or its use by those familiar with it.
To stay with the example of A Song of Ice and Fire, cultures and societies external to Westeros, such as the Dothraki, resonate with this process. While again there is some sense of realism in the drawing of characters, their culture and actions and practices are exaggerated, rendered exotic by contrast to the European-inspired Westerosi. They are presented not as alternatives or equals but as contrasts, as exotic others that make the Westerosi more real in comparison. Characters from Westeros go across the sea to be changed by contact with the Others so that they may learn exotic ways of killing or be tested by these journeys and forged into stronger characters through the adversity of contact with the Other. They go through outlandish (literally and figuratively) adventures to be remade in exotic proving grounds. Half-formed, desire-riddled appropriations of other cultures and identities are used to make the familiar more powerful; our sense of wonder is not in the differences, in the alternatives presented, in how they test the familiar and the familiar is strengthened by the contact.
In the end, this becomes another sort of familiar, mediocre idea to provide a vestige of thrill to a fantasy tale. It does not have to be this way. The ‘sense of wonder’ does not have to objectify or stereotype the cultures and identities of others to inspire our imaginations. Exoticization is not reverence for other people and their lives; it is a separation of what makes them different from the world that they thrive in and the importation of it into a rote narrative to enliven it, often cheaply and with little regard for the complexities and insights of the ideas or identities borrowed. We need to draw deeper not just from those other wells, but from own, understand our own depths before we go diving into others. Next week I will discuss this idea in more detail.
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