A couple years back, people linked to Lev Grossman’s list of twenty things he’d like to see in fantasy novels.
Discussion of lists like this can slow to a halt when writers pop up, issuing long comments about how in their novel, all those things are represented.
But even if the discussion isn’t stalled out by writerly self-promotion, someone else is bound to turn up and say, “Okay, fine. But I don’t read novels for descriptions of people peeing, or to slog through reports of every bit of food cut, chewed, and swallowed. And I certainly don’t turn to fantasy to find the characters picking up a newspaper to debate the economy. I read to get away from the mundane details of modern life.”
This subject has come up multiple times lately at discussions at cons and online, and I found myself repeating my thoughts, so maybe talking about it again can be fruitful. Here’s my take.
When I listen to discussions of favorite books, whether science fiction, fantasy, or historical novel, I keep hearing over and over that the memorable ones have convincing worlds. If it’s fantasy, it’s believable worldbuilding, and if history, it gets the details right.
Getting the details right in a historical novel can be more complicated than it seems. So much depends on the reader’s knowledge of the period. One person’s “true-to-the-period” rave is another’s “I couldn’t get past all the errors on page one!” rant–or a third’s “There was so much boring detail I couldn’t read past page ten;” a quick look at the reviews of Nicola Griffith’s medieval novel Hild demonstrates this range.
Totting up errors can be as boring as “But in MY book, I . . .” unless one likes oneupsmanship as a spectator sport. No writer can be an expert on any period outside of life experience, and of course fantasy is fantasy–and as for science fiction, it’s pretty well established by now that most futuristic sf reflects the time it is written more than it accurately predicts what is to come.
As for verisimilitude, even if a writer has studied their period for twenty years, artistic license is going to call for compromises. A book set in ninth century Britain written in the language of the time is going to readable to a couple hundred scholars, so the writer writes in modern prose for the same reason that films made by Los Angeles filmmakers who’ve lived and worked here all their lives are still going to depict the hero or villain driving up and parking right in front of the building they need to get to, omitting the tedium and frustration of circling around forever to find a parking garage that isn’t full, then driving around and around to the top, then pulling out handfuls of change to get twelve bucks’ worth of time (half an hour in most places), after which they toil hither and yon to find the elevator, from which, at last, they can hike to their destination.
By then, the only audience would be the crickets.
Unless story is happening during this kerfuffle, the filmmaker cuts it all out, and inserts a totally unrealistic detail as far as twenty million Angelenos are concerned. Most of the audience didn’t pay to see a faithful depiction of the exasperating tedium they have to deal with far too often; they came to be entertained by a story, and so they accept the hero parking right in front of the Justice Building and running straight inside. (Except maybe for the few who actually work at the Justice Building, who laugh their asses off.)
There are countless layers to historical or worldbuilding verisimilitude, perception of which not only depends on the observations and experience of the reader, but on the writer-reader contract, that is, what the reader is willing to accept.
Some writers seem to think that shoveling constant references to filth and rotting teeth and lice into historical novels will convey an atmosphere of verisimilitude, and no doubt for the reader who expects those things, it will.
But someone else who’s walked through villages in Holland and seen how scrupulously clean they are (and how old paintings show that little has changed in that regard), or who’s read about country life in some biology-oriented magazine and discovered that all the skeletons dug up had a full set of healthy teeth unmarred by sugar, or who knows the history of lice, will be tossed right out of the book.
There were villages where filth abounded. Cities, too. Reading memoirs of Paris around the time of the Revolution furnishes stomach-turning observations. Or the chapter in Smollett’s Humphrey Clinker that describes, in revolting detail, just how unsanitary the baths at Bath really were. And there were places where the skeletons demonstrate that teeth were usually gone by the individuals’ twenties, etc etc.
The difference is in the detail, or what some think of as the bricolage theory. Bricolage is an artistic term taken from the French for tinkering, or building by messing around with materials at hand. Arguably, the more one knows about a time, as well as about life, the more one has to tinker with.
A perfect example occurred on LiveJournal a year or two back, when someone mentioned having moved to a small, sleepy town, “A year after moving there I stopped polishing my shoes.” That is a bricolage detail—not only does the quote give a specific image of that town, but it also says something about the person who uttered it.
Back to the lice. Mentioning lice merely to gross out modern readers has been done–overdone. Anyone who’s read, say, Grimmelshausen’s Simplicius Simplicissimus will come across the proper etiquette for picking lice off your captain’s wife. That is the sort of detail that paints a clear picture not only of the characters, but of life in Germany during the long slaughter of the Thirty Years’ War. The lice are not merely present, they are a part of everyday life.
Bricolage is not just random details, but the details that make the world seem lived in. If the woman (who may or may not be a princess or witch) selling her basket of vinegar-soaked kippers on the street clacks along the slimy cobblestones in her pattens, refusing to give passers-by the wall, our doughty heroes might surmise that she isn’t a humbly born street seller. If one of the guards sews gold braid on their tunics for his fellows, he’s the one who used to be a tailor until the roundup that took away his town’s young men—which in turn gives hints about the country’s economy and governmental reach.
And if our witch’s fish turn into birds when the sun goes down, or our tailor’s gold braid is imbued with a magical spell that transforms all wearers to werewolves so that overnight the king’s army vanishes howling for the mountains, we can fall through into the pleasurable worlds of imagination.
One of my favorite creators of fantasy bricolage is Andrea K. Höst, whose new release, The Pyramids of London is set in an England that is Pyrtennia, ruled by Egyptian vampires who control the weather. The Roman Empire is beginning to fail because they are losing control of the fuel source for their automatons. Pyrtennia is divided into dragonates.
All the little details, from geographic symbolism to what children wear add up to a fascinating world that I hope will be revisited, and explored more deeply, in future volumes.
In short, I think the bricolage theory is not just about hammering the reader with lice, bodily fluids, and offal-choked gutters any more than it’s about carefully drawn maps. It’s about how people lived in and defined their world, and how they interacted with others—I don’t mean just people from other cultures, but with individuals, families, generations, fellow citizens, governors and the governed, those inside cultural norms (including the law) and outside. And it’s demonstrated in the details.