Bennett to Palmer on Fantasy vs. Realism

This is part two of an email correspondence between Robert Jackson Bennett and Philip Palmer. Part one is here.

Hi Philip,

Thanks for the kind words about Mr. Shivers! I’ve been thinking about what you’ve said, though, especially in regards to only SFF writers doing worldbuilding, and I find I don’t entirely agree.

There’s a common distinction there between novels about real things – or at the very least plausible things – that can happen in this world that we’re vaguely familiar with, and then there’s the other kind of novel, where it’s about totally impossible things that could never ever happen. These might include spaceships, or unicorns, or time travel, or even triple-breasted whores with erogenous zones several miles in diameter. I find I don’t entirely like that distinction. It feels a bit pat.

I don’t have an issue with defining the fantastical as involving elements that are mostly impossible. That’s all well and good. But if that’s so, then all novels are fantasy, as they very clearly take place in an impossible world, and they make no bones about it, right up front. The things that happen in them are not anything like normal life.

The most flagrant (and perhaps a somewhat niggling) example is dialogue: haven’t you noticed that in most novels, even the stupidest character is usually marvelously articulate? No “ehms” and “ahs” or searching for the right word, for no reason beyond that the character can’t think of it? And everyone always hears what’s been said, unless it was necessary for the story. No one ever frowns and says, “What’s that?” or “What did you say?” or “Who?” Everyone pays attention to everyone else at all times and shows immaculate hearing and articulation. This is generally constant, no matter what genre you’re writing in, though there are notable exceptions.

That’s a small example, but fiction writers of any kind constantly use tools and methods that divorce their worlds from the world of reality. They can say their stories are realistic, that their worlds are based on reality, but reality is not a story. It’s not story-shaped. It doesn’t fit easily into, I don’t know, the narrative construct or whatever. Real life doesn’t give you closure or insight or drama nearly as much as we’d like it to. So we’ve made up little fantasy worlds where it does give us that. The few stories that don’t give us that closure usually get some extreme reactions. Like the ending of No Country for Old Men. It intentionally did not provide closure or comeuppance, and avoided any suggestion of there being a balance to the world, and, well, that pissed more than a few people off.

I agree that there’s a lot more observing and fact-checking and research involved when writing about something taking place in our reality. But the second you apply a narrative to it and begin to superimpose a structure and describe things from a specific point of view, it stops being reality, and starts being its own thing, its own insular world with its own ambiance and its own rules, totally removed from our own. No one can tell me The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay or The Big Sleep or Suttree take place in a world even remotely resembling ours. No one acts or talks like that, and each one uses words and characters and perspectives to explore a place totally impossible here. I often wished I lived in some of those realities. But, sadly, they don’t exist.

Just because people have ties and suits and live in a somewhat-recognizable California or whatever doesn’t mean it’s our world. The world of the story exists only within the mind of the writer, and is then packaged into little words on the page, which is then unpackaged and reconstructed by the reader. Regardless of whether or not what the writer imagines is what the readers recreates, it’s not our world. And just because it’s less fantastic than the worlds with elves and triple-breasted whores, it doesn’t mean it’s not fantasy.

So, to me, worldbuilding takes place for any kind of fiction. That’s what fiction is, the creation of a reality or a story that’s not taking place or ever took place, and so is not our own. You can include details and research, and that can lend the story verisimilitude, but that very word is defined as “the appearance of truth.” But the story is still itself not true, no matter how much research you do into tax law, the stages of thyroid cancer, or the history of the condom.

If anything, writers seeking to establish that verisimilitude have more work to do than writers composing “fantastical” worlds; reality itself is an obstacle to them, and they have to write around it. Research is often done just as much to avoid blind spots and correct mistakes as it is to find usable material. God knows I’ve made a few errors in my brief time as a writer.

I chose the Great Depression not just because it was convenient, as everything was pretty much shit for everyone then, but because the mere mention of its name summons up a world in the reader’s head with plenty of established details. You mentioned Robert Johnson selling his soul at the crossroads; others will picture overloaded Zephyrs or red ashen fields or the photographs of Dorothea Lange. The Grapes of Wrath keeps getting mentioned in reviews, for example. These all work alongside my story. We all have a preconception of the Great Depression, a series of images and stories rattling around in our collective subconscious. It provided a big playground for me to tear up, to do flips off the monkeybars or kick holes in the slide, or spraypaint colors no one expected.

But is that preconceived image of the Great Depression realistic? Is it the “real” Great Depression? Probably not. They’re free-floating images and stories, unconnected to any specific date or place.

I didn’t set my story in the Great Depression. I set it in the idea of it, the one we all have. Almost in the dream-version of the Great Depression. The historical details, really, are just details. They’re interesting and necessary, to a certain extent, but the bones of the backdrop, and maybe even the story itself, are already waiting in your head.

I did a fair amount of research for the novel, some of it useful, some of it not. I started on a book about the history of the Works Progress Administration, which was totally unnecessary as it soon became apparent that my story took place in parts of the country that had no development at all. I found a local library’s online compendium of letters hobos had sent home to their families (now taken down), which was extraordinarily useful, but again, mostly for details – how trainmen worked, how likely it was to ride a train and get your ass kicked, etc. I knew that the stories of my characters would be totally different from something a normal hobo would experience. It’d be a story of a world that had never been created yet.

I’m fascinated by your question about which worlds we build, and why, though. So often do we cut up our own world and plant these amputated parts in new locations with new rules, and see what grows. A little genocide, some Grecian city-states, suggest the question of citizenship, add a bit about the morality of adventurous thinking… And we see what we can get. I don’t think it necessarily has to be scary; The Book of the New Sun (which has a lot of pertinence to what we’re discussing here) presents a future that features many strange and beautiful wonders, alongside a few terrors. But our own world is scary, though, and sometimes beautiful, often depending on sheer chance.

It makes me think that all worldbuilding, even though all the worlds we create are fantasy or fictional, is done in reaction to our own world. The worlds we make are versions, perversions, inversions, and subversions of this one, shadow worlds running alongside our own. In a weird way, they’re all based on reality, though the relationship is sometimes tenuous, or even tortuous. They can rebel against our world, say, by creating a world in which women have the right to extend or terminate a marriage contract every four years, but the very contours of that imagined place reflect or contrast this one. It’s all based on reality, but where it goes from there is anyone’s guess.

Well. That was a lot of typing and a lot of assertions. I’m all asserted out.