Why I Dislike Writing Fantasy
CALEB JOSEPH WARNER
“Come on,” he said, “Surrealism is just more spiritual than fantasy…you know? You feel that?”
Somewhere along the line, I have stopped writing what I want to write and it’s made me realize how substantial questions of genre are, not just for stylistic preferences, but for the fictional process itself. Different genres are different ways of thinking—and deal with different subject matter! Genre is not just an album cover.
And it’s not a coincidence that J.R.R. Tolkien had bad prose, as I hear them claim, or that Philip K. Dick doesn’t have believable characters, as I know from experience. With such as these, it doesn’t matter entirely.
I have discovered through trial-and-error that at a certain point, fantasy devolves into plotting with an emphasis on metaphysical ideas. I never wanted to believe this about fantasy and I thought that fantasy could be so much more. I thought that the metric of what constitutes fantasy was far blurrier and vague. It turns out that all you need to thrust yourself into the fictional processes required by fantasy is to make an assumption about the world that does not apply to our world.
Why is that wording important?
Because I used to think that if you made one assumption about the world, say, that everyone had to drink liquid mercury to survive instead of water, that the story remained in the genre of surrealism or something near there. A surreal story, I basically thought, was a fantasy that only made a few above-mentioned assumptions instead of enough to build a world. But it’s not the amount of assumptions, it’s their quality. Developing assumptions about the world means you are probably going to succumb to the patterns of fantasy, but presumptuous events are different. They are more like conceits.
No assumptions-beyond-reality about the world are made in a surrealist story, and LO! The unbelievable happens. The woman is a succubus, Gregor Samsa turns into a bug, the hat flies into the air. What are these? Does having a story with hats that fly into the air imply that all hats in that world can fly? I have my doubts. I think you would have to gather up all the hats in that world and perform tests on them in order to verify beyond a shadow of a doubt that all hats do or do not fly.
Having a conceit like that, an event or character that is surreal, affirms our assumptions about the way the worlds works—it does not generate a new world beyond ours. The qualification to be made is that, of course, all fiction is a generation of new worlds, but always emphasizing that muddies the waters and is beside the point. Telling us that all fiction is basically fiction does not inform us at all about how fiction at the end of the day relates to our world.
What is fiction’s relation to our world?
Our answer depends on genre. Fantasy relates to our world by intentionally developing a new world by lifting a copy of our world off its axis with one or five hundred new assumptions. Surrealism, on the other hand, does something else. It keeps us in this world, but suspends us slightly above it. It puts us in an uncomfortable situation. Surrealism presents to us a story of someone living in a world much like ours, only to discover that they have been wrong, or they are not entirely right. That is one way the surrealist can play his cards. Haruki Murakami does this in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. In that collection, people encounter what is to them totally unbelievable and it forever changes how they see their world.
There is another way. Take that growling infant story. It might work merely as a comedy—children are not tigers, never will be. It might also work as a morality tale: don’t let your child act like a tiger. However, it might work also symbolically. The child-tiger is a symbol for the wild havoc the parent’s infidelity will wreak on following generations. Almost a similar thing happens in One Hundred Years of Solitude, actually, where all that incest eventually leads to a child getting born with a tail.
By the way, so much more is going on than what I am claiming here. But I am primarily concerned with genre and what genre can and cannot do. There are things I can and cannot write about in my fantasy novel right now and it’s driving me nuts. Let’s continue.
Kafka takes the symbolic approach. In Metamorphoses, the purpose of the surrealist story is more symbolic. The conceit of him turning into a bug is not about the world. It’s about what it feels like to feel terrible. I could say more, but I am not going to. The meaning of Metamorphoses is extremely clear. Basically, he’s nothing more than a bug. It’s a metaphor taken literally and turned into a symbol for his interior world, blah blah blah, and it’s a great story and super powerful because of how vivid it is and all that crap about concrete imagery allowing you to experience a fictional dream beyond the words. It’s great.
Retroactively, I would just claim that some kinds of surrealism are not concerned at all with the interior world or with harvesting the extremely rich symbolic fields that seem fundamental to surrealism and how it works. In my opinion, if you are going to make use of the surrealist genre, you are probably concerned with the spiritual. If you have absolutely no taste for the surreal, it might mean you don’t know how to read the signs and symbols that reality is pregnant with day in and day out and you’re also probably a spiritually dead ape.
Okay, moving on.
Intellectuals cast their golden crowns upon the glassy sea before storytellers.
I have never been that interested in ideas. When it comes to fiction, ideas bore me. When it comes to conversation, ideas tend to bore me, too. I prefer experiences that sublimate reason and the intellect. Why? Is this because I’m a provocateur? No, it’s because I’m not very smart and can’t cogitate for very long without wanting to soak my head in a lather of beer. I’d rather use my brain to dream (whether sleeping or awake) than use it for sustaining long conversations dependent on logic and arguments that at the end of the day are just as tenuous and absurd as any absurdist story I could spend my time writing. The plus side is that a story well-written should please all the faculties, not just the intellect. And it does so not just by throwing you into another sensory world, not just in making you fall for the illusory lies of art, but in being the gateway that allows you to discover the sensory world you live in and constantly need a reminder to appreciate.
Without stories to guide us, at least for myself, I become dull to the way the world is. I become dulled to reality. This has very little to do with my intellect. I think it’s important to reason, of course, and have arguments and good ideas and all that jazz, but frankly essays like this are boring for everyone but me. That’s why our editor here at Reforming Imagination asked that I insert silly images and
heading 3 font.
But what am I entering into here? I am entering into nothing more than my mind. I am helping myself to cogitate and understand the art I love, but it is not the art I love. Essays like this don’t last or make an impression beyond maybe influencing other storytellers. They are only interesting for people who either know me or who are trying to become experts in fiction like I am. It is not interesting to the average person—and it shouldn’t be. This essay isn’t designed to please all the faculties, it’s instead the transcript of a rational process. That is why all my language so far has been abstract. It’s just easier and because it’s easier, it’s worth less. Arguing is easy, ideas are easy. Show me the magician who can with words bring me somewhere inside the interior of reality and I will show you a legion of cogitators.
Also, sometimes I hate to hear the ideas and arguments of favorite artists. It can be embarrassing. The liner notes of David Byrne’s new album, American Utopia, are terrible! Am I double-minded by loving his music and hating his intellect? Not entirely. They are different facets of the man and he is clearly better at one than the other, though admittedly some blank spots in his music might be the result of an under-developed morality.
Every business needs an accountant and every story needs good plotting.
This doesn’t mean that it is all inspiration and muses. Very little of fiction writing is that at all. It is craft and the ability to be very careful and precise with your words. It is difficult. It takes a long time. It takes a love of the world and a love of people and a depth of self-consciousness that can be shelved at any point in the process. It takes strength of character and courage and very little of this I have right now. That is one of the reasons why writing has been so slow going.
But it has also been slow going, because I am writing fantasy. And although all fiction ought to be concerned with the world and with entering into it more deeply, some fictions do this in a more mystical way than others. All stories need plotting in order for them to be effective, whether it is a short story, novella, or novel. If you don’t know how to balance events and scenes and the moving parts of a story structure, then you will never know how to write a story. A lot of the craft of writing has to do with the arrangement of parts to form the most effective whole. And yes, the intellect is essential here, too, as is the dreaming life. A fiction writer will spend many waking, conscious hours asking himself, “Where should this bit go? How can I prepare the reader for that scene?” Questions like this are questions of craft and questions of how the effect of entering into reality more deeply will be achieved for the reader. And achieved for the storyteller. Because like the intellectual, the storyteller must follow a process. And he follows the process, because he loves discovery. What is the storyteller discovering?
He is discovering the fundamentals of the world. Stories either work or do not work based on their aesthetic merit. Aesthetic merit is the relation of all the parts to the whole and finally the entire story’s relationship to the world. All people can sniff out a falsity, a lie, in a story. The famous author Flabbery O’Cobbor said something like that one time. It’s true. The storyteller discovers truths about the world by following the fictional process—even if it is something as basic as plot.
Archetypes and symbols in fiction are not the same thing.
I have still managed to say nothing about how the fictional process of fantasy is different than the process I prefer. The difference is rooted in what I said at the very beginning. Fantasy is concerned with how a world is built. Fantasy is wonderful for metaphysics and philosophical problems. It deals and trades, not in symbols and the interior life projected, but in archetypes and enfleshed concepts.
You might ask how that is different than the symbolic way. That is a really tricky question and I am probably not smart enough to answer it, but I’ll give it a try. So the two things I am currently counterpointing are: archetypal matrices and symbolic structures. Fantasy works tend to work in archetypal matrices and surrealism tends to work in symbolic structures—actually, so does realism a lot of the time.
Both genres if they are to be conventional, as Gardner has pointed out in The Art of Fiction, largely pass or fail passed on their ability to project a fictional dream. If you are in the business world, you’ll be familiar with the basic idea of flow. That’s what I’m talking about and anyone who has ever enjoyed reading knows about this, so why am I even bringing it up? Well, when you get into a flow with reading, when time slips away and you are no longer focusing on the words, but are instead in some kind of play projected by the words, then you have experienced the fictional dream. That means that the fiction you read largely succeeded and all conventional fiction is busy with crafting a piece that will in whole or in part produce this dream.
The fictional dream is not everything. When you are dreaming, how often do you wake up? What kinds of connections do you make when you wake up? When you wake up, are you busy with thinking about what it all meant or connected, or did you simply enjoy the sensation of discovery as you were carried along?
When we wake up from a dream, or are conscious inside a dream, we can ask ourselves what it might have meant. Archetypes are the embodiment of abstract concepts, but symbolic structures are the embodiment of what cannot be approached by any other means. If you understand this, you will understand why much bad fantasy can be easily dispatched by a clear essay or two. Why?
Fantasy, in my experience, comes down to being object lessons and concrete examples of the effect ideas and beliefs have on the world. Fantasy is wonderful at teaching. It takes the abstract concepts of good and evil, plugs it into two characters, and we see through the generated story what is preferable. Fantasy takes some concept about the structure of the world, let’s say that there are many dimensions, and shows us what that looks like. This is why the temptation of the fantasist is to become didactic and abstract in his explanations of his world. In the bad fantasist, we can see the basic impulses of fantasy unconcealed by mastery. The bad fantasist does not show us his world. He tells us about his world, the implications of the many assumptions made, without showing us through dramatic action and dialog. Because of that, he has demonstrated not his art but his primary goals. Archetype matrices are the enfleshed concepts interacting.
Symbolic structures are entirely different. We might say the symbols might represent equally abstracted ideas, like sadness. But although sadness is an abstracted idea, the symbols within a surrealist story do not deal with that abstracted idea. They deal with the very thing that the abstract word sadness is also trying to get to, but gets to less effectively. The abstract word sadness is essentially just a symbol too on which we hang those experiences that cannot be abstracted. That is what symbolic structures are after. Symbols can be far more precise than abstract words. We might hang many connections on the word sadness, but take any symbol that deals with sadness and you have reduced the symbol—especially because symbols derive their meaning from their function within a context.
By relating many symbols together within a story, we get a picture and a knowledge of the unapproachable. In many cases, we cannot talk about sadness abstractly in any satisfying way. We have to instead show it. We get no pleasure or sense of discovery from realizing that the broken toy horse is a symbol for the abstract idea sadness. Making that connection actually provides us with very little information about how the symbol is working within the story. Whereas in the fantasy story, I would say that in general when we see that the bad guy is an archetype for bad, we do get some information. Relating him to the abstract concept he points to can guide us through the rest of the story.
You might be thinking—and you should be thinking now—that my concepts of genre are pretty limited, if I am arguing that fantasy cannot work with symbols like this. But fantasy can work in symbols like this, I just don’t think it’s particularly good at it. What if the ring in the Lord of the Rings was not the archetype of sin, but instead a symbol that was rooted particularly in how Frodo felt some of the time that only made sense if you knew what he has gone through emotionally or what the state of his soul is when he looks at thunderclouds? Sounds like my cup of tea. But Lord of the Rings would not really be fantasy if Frodo wasn’t us, if Gandalf wasn’t good, if Sorrow Man wasn’t evil incarnate.
And yes, yes, while fantasy can be concerned with internal states of people and characters, while it can approach the unapproachable through symbols, it seems to do so awkwardly. Genres have their limits and a fantasy novel that focuses so much on the internal world of the characters is probably not great fantasy. It’s fantasy wanting to be something else, it’s not doing what it’s supposed to. It’s bad. It is trying to perform the heavy-lifting of symbolic structures without presenting us with a story fundamentally about the experience of encountering the symbols that make us feel what we thought could never be felt again. Woof, what a sentence.
Breaking into the shadowlands and depths is not exclusive to surrealism, but surrealism is one of the many genres concerned with capturing the mysteries of lived experience on a page through the use of symbols and the re-contextualization of objects that cues us to what that object might symbolize. We either see this along with the author, or we don’t. A lot of this comes down to the spiritual perceptiveness of the reader.
Though fantasy and surrealism both work as projected dreams, one plunges us into a world that our intellect largely cannot touch. The intellect is essential for plotting surrealist stories, should there be a plot, but it has very little business tinkering with the symbols or what they might mean. Surrealism is a sort of prayer that is trying to express those groans too deep for words St. Paul talks about. It is a means of laying up to God the mysteries that are beyond us, but revealed in the symbols of trees and clouds. How can I further express what I am trying to express here in such clumsy words?
Well you might think that I have no business talking about fantasy if I don’t like fantasy, but I have come to some conclusions at least about why I don’t like writing it.
Writing fantasy is an unhappy accident.
I began writing stories that were generated largely by feelings, feelings with different textures. Not only were these feelings informed by some lived experience that seemed incomplete to me, they were also informed by images in my mind. I wrote stories that, with those feelings in my mind, gave that symbol or image meaning and conversely allowed the image to inform what it is I felt.
These stories bordered, in terms of genre, on surrealism and eventually broke into surrealism. But that was a very natural move after writing realism that dealt so heavily with the spiritual movements underneath and within dramatic actions and dialog. These sorts of discoveries in my soul I did not think and do not think could have been captured and understood in any other way.
From surrealism, I began to have a fascination with situations. Instead of projecting my internal world and the world I feel is at work in the rhythms of all reality, I started asking how I could make certain absurd situations believable. I applied the conceits—those images that impressed themselves upon me—on my world. I asked question after question about how a world where both monsters and ghosts and mutability might exist. Much to my surprise, the world became increasingly coherent.
I deluded myself with humor and comedy, believing that I was still writing surrealist stories. The humor of the world was that the world was totally ridiculous. I produced the world counterpointing a random set of surreal conceits. Who knew!
But as the world has grown more coherent, I have been forced to take it more seriously or else it won’t work. I would describe the world as fundamentally comedic, satirical. This puts me in a class of writers I’m not comfortable being in, but so let it be. I have to work with what I have done. Now that the dust has settled and I have created a world that works on its own terms, I am staring at it and then feeling out what my story is supposed to be and I am saying, “Oh no, this is fantasy…this is really fantasy.”
No wonder it feels so unnatural to me. The comedy feels natural, the sudden shifts in tone feel natural, and the story is still strongly planted within my voice. But the voice is at work for a god I have never been tempted to worship, the god of worldbuilding. It is essential that I at least get tea with him every now and then to talk shop, but I hate that I am roped into the metaphysics of the world or the internal logic and consistency of it. Now logic matters!
And this has retroactively changed all those surreal short stories I wrote before. They have now become an essential part in this fantasy novel. Where the surrealism or the realism in them before was genuine and deeply imbedded, I have successfully turned those particular conceits into signposts for later fantasy. I have turned what was once genuine into a stylistic facade. Am I happy about this?
I don’t know, but I did it. I changed realism and surrealism into fantasy. And it feels very strange, but now I am just trying to ride the wave of plotting. I am trying to keep this the story that I want to tell. I am daily surprised by what happens and the shifts and turns in what has become essential for the world to be convincing. And my fall-back with most of it is that I am writing satire
With finger raised, he said, “Which is true!”
I dislike writing fantasy, because while my world is extremely interesting and wonderful and alive and full of (INSERT: potentiality or awesome-sauce), at the end of the day I have been forced to leave symbols to the side and pick up the bludgeon of archetype. I now find myself tempted to explain my world and its mechanics, instead of giving into the opposite temptations of surrealism to not give any explanation. I find myself less concerned with the interior worlds of the characters and more with how the characters should act given their essential functions as representatives. I am no longer allowed to have surreal things happen. If anything surreal happens in my fantasy novel, it feels out of place. I know that. I will have to explain it and it will have to fit in with the overall metaphysics of the world. Otherwise, it is a critical failure. All my other surrealities have to be sufficiently explained and plugged into the overall structure, or thrown out.
It’s an interesting process to convert the genre you’re writing in on such a fundamental level, but only a psychopath would have chosen it. I certainly did not see this coming, nor would I have chosen it if I had.
I want to be writing stories that embody the spiritual world at work in my life and in the livers of others through beautifully plotted dreams. I am far less interested in writing a scathing satirical fantasy novel about how America is doomed to be destroyed both by water and fire because of sexual promiscuity and ego confusion. If I want to write about sexual confusion and ego promiscuity, I have in the past chosen surrealism.
I am actively finding ways to not make this entire project a complete pile of dog poop, which means I am trying to maintain my own interest as much as possible. But every time I try to give myself a taste of those old interests of ushering private spiritual mysteries of out precisely chosen words that provide a sublime experience for the reader, my hopes are dashed. Because it sounds cheesy, so I then have to amuse myself by making fun of those processes that are my particular interest. At every turn, I am having to make fun of my spiritual tendencies. In different places, that is worthwhile. But in the space that used to be sacred, I feel hurt and let down. I don’t know if I have the will to be both the joker and artisté.
What’s more difficult for me is that I need themes for my stories now! This is more a function of it being my first novel in forever than it being fantasy. Writing novels is a pile of pain. I don’t even read novels.
I initially wrote a collection of short stories steadfastly in the genre of surrealism. And now that it’s gotten weird, really weird, and to the point of breaking at every point in its believability and ability to convince the reader that this world exists, I am forced to say, “It’s satire!” This is much like when people hated Tommy Wiseau’s serious drama The Room so much that he was forced to call it a dark comedy. Isn’t it the same thing? I am afraid that I am becoming my own Tommy Wiseau.
Or maybe I have fallen into a room deep underneath the Egyptian desert not yet plundered. Maybe the dark room I am stumbling around in is full of treasure and all I need is for someone to follow in after me, light a torch, and hand me an empty bag to carry home the loot.
The Extra flung pulp at the sides of the house. Where the pulp stuck to the house, there it grew into unnecessary and atrocious additions. A laundry room! A guest bedroom! A master bath! Linoleum siding replaced wood siding. A massive gable patched up the wound in the roof. Gable after gable plagued the main bulk of the home with confusion and burdens. The four windows at the front of the house, once in proportion with one another, were replaced with windows of different heights and sizes. The window to the kitchen was larger and lower down than the horizontal and high window of the first-floor bathroom. The top of the chimney disappeared and instead became a gable for the attic affixed with an octagonal window. The house shed its shutters to make room for nonfunctional shutters tacked onto the siding with nails.
Inside the house, a complete renovation was transmogrifying the Bliss Homestead into something (thankfully) no one would ever get a chance to see. Green shag carpet spread over the old hardwood floors. The walls that separated the dining room from the kitchen were knocked down to make an open floor plan. Everything was painted white—Edison light bulbs plinked down above the kitchen island. Granite countertops, hollow bedroom doors, and styrofoam insulation. The death-knell for the house, that final addition which weighed it down so much it fell back into the sea straight to the bottom where its sentience finally suffocated out of its angry renovated form, was the cumbersome burden of a four-car garage.