M. John Harrison on “World-Building”

A fascinating post here.

This part particularly resonates:

The writer–as opposed to the worldbuilder–must therefore rely on an audience which begins with the idea that reading is a game in itself. I don’t see this happening in worldbuilding fiction. When you read such obsessively-rationalised fiction you are not being invited to interpret, but to “see” and “share” a single world. As well as being based on a failure to understand the limitations of language as a communications tool (or indeed the limitations of a traditional idea of what communication can achieve), I think that kind of writing is patronising to the reader; and I’m surprised to find people talking about “actively reading” these texts when they seem to mean the very opposite of it. The issue is: do you receive–is it possible to receive–a fictional text as an operating manual ? Or do you understand instead that your relationship with the very idea of text is already fraught with the most gameable difficulties & undependabilities ? The latter seems to me to be the ludic point of reading: anything else rather resembles the–purely functional–act of following instructions on how to operate a vacuum cleaner.


  1. says

    I remember that paragraph quite well when I read MJH’s post last month. I remember thinking that if I were to replace “worldbuilding fiction” with “most TV shows/movies,” that it would ring just as true. Too much manipulation of the Text by the Author for what real purposes? But yet when such harsh possibilities are pointed out to those who read these “worldbuilding fictions” more than any other fiction style, there often has been such a visceral reaction to what Harrison says and towards Harrison himself. Makes me wonder what other dynamics might be at play that would cause such a rabid defensiveness.

  2. Transfiguring Roar says

    ‘Makes me wonder what other dynamics might be at play that would cause such a rabid defensiveness.’

    I’m on MJH’ side. In response, Larry, I’m thinking the people who love ‘world-building’ fiction don’t like being made conscious of their own failures as readers, namely their desire to be spoon-fed like babies. On the other hand, as a person gets older they do in fact lose some of their ability to imagine with the vividness that a child can. I’m lucky, I haven’t lost that ability.

    But there you have it, that’s what I think.

    I guess I’m also saying that imagination isn’t necessarily… necessary… for the writer to do his/her job. Writing is, after all, the manipulation of language, as MJH says.

  3. says

    While I certainly am sympathetic to what MJH and others argue, I just read a very intriguing comment in an interview of R. Scott Bakker where he addresses Harrison’s February 2007 entry. It’s Bakker’s take on the language aspect that’s most worthy of consideration, I believe:

    For Harrison, who is an avowed post-modernist, the reader should be continually confronted with the performative as opposed to the representational function of language. They should be reminded (apparently over and over and over) of the power of words to spin realities, to the point where the work becomes a multifarious, promiscuous, meaning event (albeit one that is too often generated by the most mechanical of po-mo tactics, elision). Forcing the reader to draw whole characters out of fragments, narrative arcs out of discordant events – to “fulfill their part of the bargain” – this is the true way to make the reader an active part of the process, and so a critically minded, enlightened citizen.

    I don’t know whether to laugh or yawn anymore. For better or worse, readers without literature degrees tend to hate this stuff. They like coherent characters and stories and settings. So when you start screwing with “representational expectations” (in other words, unilaterally rewriting the “bargain”) by and large all you end up doing is preaching to the choir, writing for people with literature degrees, which is to say, for people who already share your values. In other words, you simply end up catering to their expectations. You become an “upscale” version of the very commercial entertainers you continually denigrate.

    We’re hardwired for this shit, which is why you see the same pattern repeating itself over and over in every sphere of cultural production. Every sphere has a self-styled elite who both identify and flatter themselves via their values, then criticize others for not sharing those values. “Our values are the values and you guys are losers because of this and this and this…”

    What I’d give for a roundtable discussion of this issue with Bakker, Harrison, and a few others…

  4. says

    “An uttered thought is a lie.” — Tyutchev.

    I try to avoid the high-brow lit crit stuff as mental masturbation. Sometimes, as a writer (and one who does a of hopefully unique world-building), you have to think about it and make conscious choices. For one thing, my world building is usually based on rigorous physics and is not just culture or feeling of reality, but a physical reality that has a very specific environment that can only be a particular way. So, I think I fall somewhere in the middle of this discussion. The writer has to lay out how something like Ringworld works, and if it’s a little patronizing, too bad, because the reader needs to understand in order to see the story anywhere close to the writer’s perspective. The story always takes place in the reader’s head, but if it strays too far, the reader is just imagining things without the expert guide they paid for.

  5. Transfiguring Roar says

    Thanks for sharing the link, Larry. That excellent comment about post-modern writing also clears up what China Mieville meant when he wrote that he thought that post-modernism doesn’t really add anything new.

  6. says

    Personally, I think it’s unwise to dismiss so-called “high-brow lit crit”. It’s also unwise to dismiss so-called “entertainment.” (As pointless as both terms are, because they are too general.) The wise writer assimilates and uses all of this stuff. The whole point is to keep achieving mastery and to keep achieving mastery (because you can never really achieve mastery, just acquire new tools and insights toward mastery).

    One writer says “I do it this way, so that other way must be crap.” Another writer says, “I don’t like this writer, so the way he does things must be wrong.” A third writer just soaks it all up with a smile because s/he knows the first two have just f–ed themselves over a bit.

    It’s one thing for a writer *as a reader* or just as an interested bystander to object in *general* terms to a particular school of writing or a particular approach. It’s another for the writer, in pursuit of his or her craft to object to *anything* in general terms. Generalities are always false when it comes to writing. Even this one. :)


  7. says

    Bakker’s quote is interesting but it’s basically high school debating tactics: Harrison is a post-modernist; all post-modernists believe X; X is wrong; therefore Harrison is wrong. However, I don’t think Bakker really understands Harrison’s argument (to be fair, he was presented by the interviewer with only a brief quote to respond to), or at least didn’t really address it. Bakker says Forcing the reader to draw whole characters out of fragments, narrative arcs out of discordant events – to “fulfill their part of the bargain” – this is the true way to make the reader an active part of the process, and so a critically minded, enlightened citizen. But insofar as I’ve read and understood (always dicey!) Harrison’s fiction and non-fiction, Harrison’s views are that there are no “whole characters” (see this blog post) or “narrative arcs,” and that it’s the job of honest fiction to entertain while incorporating these truths — by showing us a different and unashamedly personal take on the world (which ties in to comments Jeff has made in the past on “competent” fiction, Maureen McHugh’s “plea for strangeness,” etc.), rather than a take we’re all expected to share in and inhabit.

    I actually suspect Bakker and Harrison would agree on a lot, if they could be brought together for a few beers. Not everything, certainly, but I’ve seen them both express similar thoughts about how little we understand the bases of consciousness and the self; both are quite aware and open about how their writing is purposeful and ultimately political; Bakker’s Kellhus is in many ways a perfect incarnation of the sort of world-building politician that Harrison is so afraid of; etc.

  8. says

    “For Harrison, who is an avowed post-modernist…”

    Given some of Harrison’s attacks against post-modern ideology on his blog I’d imagine he’d dispute that claim, whatever his fiction might resemble. There’s a tendency today to class any form of cultural sampling as being PoMo when collage is a Modernist technique which is now nearly a century old.

    I’d be curious to know how the “world-building = bad” argument fits with MJH’s championing of China Mieville, Justina Robson, Steph Swainston and others circa the New Weird discussion a few years back. Are they not world-builders in this definition?

  9. JeffVanderMeer says

    I was wondering that myself. Mieville is most definitely committed to world-building. I don’t mean that as a pejorative, either.

  10. says

    I get the sense that part of what MJH is “afraid” of is a kind of a Clockwork Orange situation, in which the Text (and by association, the Reader) has become a rather mechanistic entity and not something that can “breathe” and offer up any number of viable possibilities. When I read a work such as Dhalgren, I have a lot more to process and to interpret on my own than what seems to be the case when reading a work that is overly-derivative of someone like Tolkien. The times that I’ve browsed forums where Tolkien’s work was being discussed, there was much more of an emphasis on “Well, did the Balrog have wings or not?” or “In what formation did the Gondorian army march and how were their helms shaped?” type of questions as opposed to more thematic questions regarding industrialization or religious symbolism. Having any particular questions reduced to the “What” or “How” type as opposed to the “Why” seems to suck quite a bit of the “life” out of many Texts, leaving them rather sterile. It wouldn’t surprise me if that’s why MJH’s “very afraid” post is riffing off of this, while seeming to acknowledge that there are those who “worldbuild” who don’t micromanage to the point of leaving the Reader with little in the way to process or to question.

  11. Scott Bakker says

    It seems as though there’s quite a few convenient definitions of ‘post-modernism’ rising out of the soup now that it’s no longer in fashion. I tend to go with a rather broad understanding: a work is ‘post-modern’ if it self-consciously plays with representational norms for some aesthetic purpose. I think what Mike’s talking about above pretty clearly fits this definition. And that his critique of worldbuilding follows quite clearly: by striving to provide everything for readers, the integrity of representational norms are reinforced rather than challenged, and thus the worldbuilder, almost by definition, has to be an apologist.

    Is this a pretty fair interpretation of his argument? If so I would love to continue. I think the point of contention between Mike and I is pretty substantial, and ultimately very important for culture as a whole, especially in times like these.