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Faking It on the Blue Guitar

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008 | Posted by James Enge

I used to know a responsible person who had a brilliant method of evading responsibility. Whenever you asked him anything, he would say, “What you’re really asking is two things here.” And an exhaustive discussion of his quibble would ensue and, in the end, the matter would merit more thought (but, naturally, no action). He was a kind of genius, if being useless is a category of genius.

For all I know, he’s still alive, but his ghost is hovering over my keyboard tonight, because when I started thinking about realism I realized that, not only is it more than one thing, but you can’t talk about it without talking about reality, which is also more than one thing. My trains of thought tend to derail like this. I start by talking about the distinction between strong and weak verbs, and then I talk about something else first to give a context to that, and pretty soon I’m crawling through the back of my closet trying to sort all my shoelaces in matching piles and my kids are screaming at each other trying to figure out which tranquilizer to load in the dartgun.

Still: you can’t get around it. If you believe in external reality, something which exists independent of our thoughts about it, that’s one thing. Our thoughts about it: that’s another. One reality is an unthinkably vast range of data almost all of which we will never have occasion to assimilate into knowledge. The other is a tiny little bite-size version, most of which is wrong, but which has the advantage of fitting into our heads. We call that reality, but it’s really only an abstraction of the real world, a working model based on very incomplete information. We need that model and we need to believe (on faith more than anything else) that it has some sort of reliable correspondence to the real world. When it fails (as it often does) we fiddle with the code a little, reboot it and carry on. Because we have to.

Or we could refrain from doing that. We could settle before the rising tide and command it to recede, go to war with the Ocean because we are angry with Neptune, strike the sun if it insulted us. The trouble with that approach is that it is nuts. It displays an inelasticity of mind that is not consonant with survival. Those people didn’t last long enough to reach the fourth paragraph; if nothing else, they choked on the dangling prepositions in the third. We will miss them, but we will find a way to go on somehow.

There are at least two types of realism, too. C.S. Lewis sorts them out (in An Experiment in Criticism) as Realism of Content and Realism of Presentation.

A fiction is realistic in content when it is probable or “true to life.” … There is no disbelief to be suspended. We never doubt that this is just what might happen.

Realism of Presentation is more obviously relevant to fantasy.

We may cite as examples the dragon “sniffing along the stone” in Beowulf;…the pinnacles in Gawaine that looked as if they were “pared out of paper”; … the fairy bakers in Huon rubbing the paste off their fingers [etc.]

Lewis doesn’t say so, but it seems to me that the trick to realism of presentation is enlisting the reader’s model of reality in the service of the story’s fantasy. People who have never seen a dragon may still be struck by the vivid detail of the dragon sniffing; they’ve seen dogs or other animals doing that. People who’ve never seen fairy bakers but who have made cookies (or seen others do it) will be impressed by the detail of rubbing paste off the fingers. Maybe it never happened, but our model of reality (ever adaptable, unless we are nuts) adapts itself so that we can say, “Okay, but that’s how it would have happened.” Fantasy coopts the familiar in the service of envisioning the unfamiliar, the real in the service of the unreal.

Problems inevitably arise. For one thing, no one’s model of reality really agrees perfectly with anyone else’s, so that the detail which is exactly right for one reader will totally repel another. I’m thinking of Fritz Leiber’s use of the word “smog” to describe the combination of mist and smoke in Lankhmar. Ursula Le Guin (in “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” I think) criticized it strongly as breaking the mood. But to me it seems the perfect word. It doesn’t matter if it was coined in modern Los Angeles, not medieval London. Leiber has no (known) readers in medieval London and Lankhmar is not medieval London: all the better if the reader gets the occasional reminder of that. But Le Guin is not wrong, even if I am right: it all depends on what works for the reader.

In extreme cases, people have assimilated certain imaginary figures so strongly to their model of reality that they feel justified in critiquing new fantasy on the basis of their pre-existing impressions. “Elves don’t act like that! Unicorns don’t eat turnips! Dragons don’t have dorsal plates, they have spikes–everyone knows that!” I sort of feel that these readers aren’t playing the game right, but I’ve played it that way myself.

The familiar (either pre-experienced or pre-imagined) can be used as the dominant theme in a fantasy, lulling the reader with its comfort and lack of challenge. Or it can be a way for the storyteller to sneak something unfamiliar into the reader’s embrace. (“And then we’ll get him!”) But I don’t think fantasy can really succeed without some mix of the familiar and the strange. If everything’s all familiar, the reader will drift off into wordwooze (another great Leiber coinage). The mind won’t fully engage with the material because it doesn’t need to: it’s heard all that before. If the material is all strange, the events described will have no point of contact with the reader’s emotions. Either way, there will be a loss of impact.

So fantasists are like Wallace Stevens’ “The Man with the Blue Guitar”:

They said, “You have a blue guitar, 

You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are 

Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said then, “But play, you must, 

A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar 

Of things exactly as they are.”

Here’s hoping you enjoy both the familiar old year and the strange new one tonight at their moment of mixing.

5 Comments »

  1. Very thought-provoking! I tend to want to write fantasy in a highly-realistic-yet-slightly-reality-bending way, so this really hit home. I especially like the kind of fantasy where lines between metaphor and reality-within-the-world get blurred, such as in Gene Wolfe’s excellent Wizard Knight books. But that takes a mountain of skill to pull of as well as Wolfe does.

    Comment by David Munger - December 31, 2008 12:44 pm

  2. Great post. When reading how we play on our readers realities it made me think of how prose has changed in depth and detail.

    Long ago, people needed intricate description of how how things looked, in particular the fantastic. If we had read then that a dragon was sniffing, we might have thought of a dragon from Chinese New Year, or perhaps something resembling a dinosaur. Tremendous details were necessary because a reader’s realities did not come with the necessary programming upgrades.

    Readers have since evolved and their realities have come to include more information. Books, internet, TV, movies, video games all provide readers with information that they may not have had access to otherwise. Now, if you say a dragon is sniffing, most folks have seen a fantasy type dragon at some point and don’t need you to spell it out for them.

    The details that were so painstakingly necessary a few generations ago, will bore some readers to undeath. Of course, the true storyteller knows which details to include and which to pass over.

    Comment by NewGuyDave - December 31, 2008 4:09 pm

  3. Thanks for the comments and kind words, you guys.

    Hey Dave M: Wolfe is the master at that sort of thing where (when he does it right, as he usually does) every act seems to have two or three levels of meaning. I’m crazy about his Latro books in particular. Wizard/Knight I have yet to read, but they’re on my list.

    Hey Dave F.: I know what you mean about details, but I’m not so sure it’s a generational thing. Dunsany’s short stories paint big bizarre pictures with just a few choice details (e.g. “the lean high house of the Gnoles”; “without saying a word or even smiling“; etc.). At the same time Cabell is writing self-indulgent (but often brilliant) fantasy novels where he never uses one word if 4000 will do.

    Comment by James Enge - January 1, 2009 1:57 am

  4. Utterly fantastic blog, James! You’re right: Dunsany paints the broadest and most evocative fantasy images with a few choice words. The source of his lyrical beauty is never in his description but in his mastery of figurative languge: metaphor, simile, and often mythopoeic personification. And he wrote it effortlessly, all with a traditional quill pen within the walls of his ancestral castle there among the green swards of Ireland.
    Clark Ashton Smith–now there’s a master of superb descriptive prose. His visions of Zothiquian climes and the lost empires of his fantasy cycles are like baroque, jeweled creations, where words sparkle like diamonds. Yet also, even with his more flowery style, he was also master of the telling metaphor and the clever simile. Figurative language seems to ie at the heart of fantasy fiction, especially when those visual scenes are being painted in the reader’s mind. Sensory appeal is crucial…but so is imaginary appeal.
    Gene Wolfe’s Books of the New Sun series was what convinced me of his sheer genius. He seems to use every tick in the book of making his imaginary far-future world look real, and he invents a few new ones on the way.
    Your blog post is so spot-on in the discussion of bringing the bare essence of Fantasy to Reality for a reader. I propose that it’s all about morphing a reader’s mental reality, rather than building it stone by stone. At some point in the reader’s consciousness–and repeatedly throughout a story or novel–the fantasy world MUST resonate on wavelengths that resonate as “real” for the reader.
    Steven King has a great quote about this: “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.”
    Fantasy is a big, beautiful lie, so gorgeous you can’t look away, even when it’s a dark vision you’re seeing…there HAS to be Truth inside that Lie, or the reader will see right though it.

    Here’s to the infinite Truths of Fantasy Fiction…

    Comment by John R. Fultz - January 2, 2009 12:43 am

  5. John: Thanks, and some very good points.

    I weaselled a bit about the “realism of content”–I think there has to be some of that in fantasy as well, or the story will lack emotional weight for the reader. A post for another day, maybe.

    Comment by James Enge - January 2, 2009 3:50 pm


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