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Roger E. Eichorn's Blog: Fantasy, Philosophy, and whatever else I feel like writing about
(Originally appeared in 2002 here.)
A reviewer might wield any number of tools in the process of reducing your writing to Swiss cheese. Some critiques follow a predefined method; others are loose and free. Some discuss only broad narrative elements (the “Macro”), while others leave the Macro to others and focus on immediate grammatical or stylistic elements (the “Micro”).
Regardless of the manner in which your work has been reviewed, however, you should first run the review through a series of questions before you change your writing—a review of the review, so to speak. It’s especially important to ask yourself these questions when you’ve received a review of an isolated chapter of a much longer—and most likely uncompleted—work. Writing is, of course, an attempt to communicate, which is why following basic rules of grammar and punctuation is always advisable; if readers can’t understand what you mean, or if they have to consciously recast your sentences in their minds in order to follow your story, then it’s time you revisited the basics. But when Joe Q. Reviewer jumps in at Chapter 41 of your latest pseudo-medieval fantasy novel, he doesn’t know what occurred in the first forty chapters, he doesn’t know your characters or your world, and he doesn’t know where your story is heading. In all likelihood, he has little sense of you as an author. So when should you heed his advice, and when should you ignore it?
Sometimes good, solid advice will seem terrible at first blush; other times advice that won’t help at all—and may even hurt your writing—will seem spot on. My advice is that no matter how reasonable (or unreasonable) a reviewer’s suggestions may seem, always ask the following questions before either implementing or dismissing his or her suggestions (and these are good general questions to ask no matter what’s been reviewed, even a completed short story about to be sent to Asimov’s):
1) How much do I know about the reviewer?
a: Is the reviewer representative of my audience?
b: Do the reviewer and I share similar tastes?
2) Have I already given thought to the points the reviewer has raised?
a: Has the reviewer considered my intentions before criticizing my execution?
b: Is the reviewer attempting to hijack my story?
c: Is the reviewer pedantic?
3) I don’t agree with a reviewer, but am I just being stubborn?
Let’s explore these question further.
(For R. Scott Bakker…)
Artistic conventions. — Three-fourths of Homer is convention; and the same holds true for all the Greek artists, who had no reason to adopt the modern rage for originality. They were completely lacking in any fear of convention; this was precisely what held them together with their public. Conventions, namely, are the aesthetic means that have been conquered for the sake of the audience’s understanding, the laboriously acquired common language with which the artist really can communicate himself. If he, like the Greek poets and musicians, sometimes wants to triumph immediately with each of his works of art—because he is used to contending publicly with one or two competitors—the first condition is that he also be understood immediately: which is, however, possible only by means of convention. What the artist invents beyond the conventions, he voluntarily attaches importance to and wagers himself upon, succeeding in the best of cases in creating a new convention. Originality is ordinarily seen with astonishment, sometimes even worshipped, but rarely understood; stubbornly diverting from convention means: wanting not to be understood. Toward what, then, does the modern rage for originality point?
– Nietzsche, The Wanderer and His Shadow, §122
“He was a modern man, and the world of our ancestors was no longer the home of his spirit and his heart but his historical object.”
– Wilhelm Dilthey
What makes fantasy fantasy?
I doubt there’s any single satisfactory answer to this question. It seems to me that ‘fantasy’ is, to use a Wittgensteinian phrase, a ‘family resemblance’ concept: it signifies a cluster of distinct (yet related) features or qualities that works of fiction can exemplify in a variety of ways. If that’s right, then we shouldn’t try to force the pegs of ‘round’ fantasy and ‘square’ fantasy and ‘triangular’ fantasy into any one definitional hole.
Now, back in 2003 and 2004, I attended the Blue Heaven writers’ workshop run by Charles Coleman Finlay. Blue Heaven is exclusively for workshopping speculative-fiction novels: over the years, it’s midwived such books as Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, Paul Melko’s The Walls of the Universe, and Catherynne Valente’s Palimpsest. One of my fellow attendees back in ’03 and ’04 was Benjamin Rosenbaum.
I forget which year it was, but I remember Ben proposing, one lazy afternoon around the dining-room table, what we might call a ‘phenomenological’ definition of fantasy: rather than thinking of fantasy in terms of features or qualities exemplified by texts, we ought to think of it in terms of the experience produced by reading. (Unfortunately, I forget what Ben proposed as the ‘experiential criteria’ of fantasy.) I objected that the phenomenological-definition approach must fail, because it would relativize the concept of fantasy so much as it render it meaningless: if fantasy were defined in terms of evoking experience E in reader R, then we would have to accept that, if R’s reading of Lord of the Rings failed to produce E, then it’s true that, in R’s case, Lord of the Rings would fail to qualify as fantasy. Call this the ‘paradigm’ worry: Lord of the Rings is the very paradigm of fantasy novels—that is, it’s practically definitional of what fantasy is; thus, we shouldn’t accept any definition of fantasy that would allow for the possibility that Lord of the Rings ends up not being a fantasy novel.