On maintaining a narrow depth of field.

Public transport is a reader’s best friend. If you have a long commute like I do, you have plenty of uninterrupted time to get lost in a book; what’s more, someone else is getting you to your destination while you’re enjoying yourself! The best kind of multi-tasking. So I’ve been making huge dents in my TBR list this year.

A long commute also allows uninterrupted thinking time. This is a long post for a long train of thought on books.

(I haven’t blogged for several years, and my voice is very rusty. I’m re-learning craft and polish; pardon the stilted tone and raw edges.)

The more books I read, the less tolerant I become of mediocrity, be it in books or film. It used to be simply poor authorship that gets me tetchy, but now the bar has increased to mediocre authorship. I may have been able to read Twilight (a decidedly mediocre book) 4-5 years ago, but I don’t think I could anymore. I used to adore China MiĆ©ville’s authorship; now, not so much, even though I still like his stories. I’ve now read enough to know what is good writing — and that has whet my appetite for even better writing. Nothing less will satisfy now.

Looking back, I see the lineage of peerless fantasy authors who have brought sea changes to my fantasy/SF consumption: J.R.R. Tolkien. Frank Herbert’s Dune. Ursula K. Le Guin. Jorge Luis Borges. K.J. Bishop in The Etched City. Lord Dunsany. Catherynne M. Valente. Glen Cook. And as of last year, Patricia A. McKillip, whose books I’m infatuated with and plan to own one day. (May write about her eventually.)

Now I know what those authors have in common that I love. There is a vastness in their storytelling that stirs a longing in my soul and a sense of the ineffable and mysterious in my mind. And they achieve it by maintaining a very narrow depth of field.
(There are several other similarities, but we’ll focus on this one for now.)

Take McKillip’s Riddle-Master trilogy, which will surely be my favourite book of 2012. Compared to Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Morgon’s world is very small. But his world nevertheless seems very large, and I get a sense of the mysterious and the unknown within it.

This is because McKillip doesn’t tell me everything about her world. Her world-building is detailed and comprehensive, that much I can deduce from the consistency in her writing. But she doesn’t “info dump” through the characters, and we as third-party observers have to fill in the details obliquely as we read — and sometimes the details never get filled in at all. The world doesn’t end at the borders of the novel, but spills out within its own continuity. I the reader am only a viewer looking on a small window in space and time on a world that exists beyond, and neither notices nor cares that I am looking on it.

Thus I finished Riddle-Master with the sense that I had a glimpse of Morgon’s world, but it was only a glimpse; there are mysteries and tales there that I will never uncover because this book is my only window and it focused only on the immediate story. The same happens with Middle-earth, Earthsea, the Dune universe, and the other smaller worlds. It doesn’t matter how small a world is, it can still look vast if the focus is tight upon the characters and plot.

This is the proper position of world-building in a story, to provide a backdrop on which the plot unfolds. But a “shallow depth of field” ought to also extend to the plot and characters themselves. Now I have a powerful imagination. When I read a story, I’m simultaneously watching a moving picture of the story unfold in my mind’s eye. The author’s writing focuses my mind’s eye sharply upon the necessary details — but leaves the backdrop to be filled in by my own imagination. It’s a blurry fill-in, but it will suffice.

Now, when the author insists on filling in the blurry background by writing all about it, they’re bringing it into focus along with the characters and plotlines. And it becomes like those DSLR photos you see where everything is in sharp relief: it may look gorgeous, but it’s not natural. (Not disparaging those photos — I like them, because they show me what I can’t see with my own human eyes.)

It’s very annoying when the author demands to fill in the backdrop on my behalf. In a way, it’s an insult to my imagination, like I’m incapable of imagining and constructing a background from inference, and need to be told how to populate the scene in my mind’s eye. Furthermore, it’s horribly obvious when an author does this. When all the details are in sharp focus through the writing, I start noticing the writing itself, and that takes my focus off the flow of the story and onto what the author is trying to do. When there are focal points everywhere, nothing is in focus.

Knowing what to put in and what to leave out, and how to infer and suggest, is tough business — and this is a benchmark for masterful authorship. An author who can both craft a huge canvas (world-building), and know how/when/where to focus on the canvas (the story), is an accomplished storyteller. Which is exactly who Tolkien, Le Guin, McKillip et al., are. Compared to these craftsmen who place words with surgical precision to build a flowing, effortless narrative, some authors are clunky and clumsy, and their narratives move in fits and jerks. And so I notice the writing, and that impedes my reading enjoyment. This is why I get tetchy.

Cases in point: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie, and Boneshaker by Cherie Priest. I was deeply disappointed, and the fact that I couldn’t finish reading them speaks volumes of how high my benchmark has risen.

The Blade Itself suffered from the second symptom: there was so much descriptive writing that the narrative ground to a halt. Now, I love descriptive writing — but not if it goes for the entire story. I don’t need to be told — and told twice — every expression crossing the characters’ faces and every change in feeling at every moment. Those are details I can fill in for myself. But because Abercrombie drew my attention so often to all those minutiae (and they were everywhere), the story flowed so sluggishly. I stopped reading halfway through because I was thoroughly bored by then. And this is meant to be a gritty, hard-boiled, dark fantasy thriller…

For an excellent gritty, dark fantasy thriller, Glen Cook’s Black Company series is nonpareil. Cook’s writing is spare, so spare, that I wish he’d added more details so things wouldn’t be so blurry! He is also a master at keeping a claustrophobically tight focus on the characters. The world of the Black Company is vast because I know so little about it, and most of my imagination is a blank space. But that is the point: that world is very dark and full of evil and terror, and this deliberate silence only serves to heighten that fraught foreboding as I was reading.

Boneshaker suffers a little from the same problem as The Blade Itself, but primarily from overly focused world-building. It is a steampunk adventure in an alternate history, but Priest enumerates so much of the world details that I struggled to maintain my sense of wonder. There are zombies in this story, but the zombies were described in such detail that they ceased to be frightening. I wanted to continue reading, but my sense of wonder and curiosity was constantly being undermined by all that “infodump”. Not to mention that Priest’s writing is a little clunky and I started noticing her style and thinking of how to improve it. Well, simultaneously being reader and editor really breaks one’s reading flow, but ultimately, I stopped because her world got pedestrian. I lost my wonder.

Hm, I wonder how much of this worldbuild infodump that is in fantasy/SF nowadays is a fruit of AD&D-type roleplaying. One needs that much world-building background to RP properly, but that’s because the RPers are authoring their own stories. But the end RP story doesn’t explicitly state all the world-building details. Shouldn’t that be the same for an author writing a book? Hm, food for thought.

I think “worldbuild infodump” does not help an author in the long run. Even if he dumps it later into a “Guide to the World of X”, it ultimately dilutes a reader’s appreciation and savouring of the story. There’s something to be said about mystery, fancy and possibility. A good fantasy or SF novel tantalizes the reader’s imagination, gives him just enough information to form a picture, but always holds full detail beyond that focus. This gives a richness to the reading experience, and the reader never gets tired of drinking from that heady draught of mystery and the unknown. Tolkien, of course, was the paragon of this — no one else has crafted such a massive, majestic world as he had. And we will never know it all, because he could not get it all out. Surely Middle-earth was even too great for him to comprehend fully.

I seldom re-read books; life is too short, and the world too large, to be re-reading. But I do do it, and now I understand why I keep coming back to those authors (who, incidentally, are mostly the ones listed above). Whenever I bring my mind’s eye back to the stories, I get a slightly different picture. The story is always different, often subtly, sometimes dramatically. And sometimes the picture gets clearer with each re-read. Isn’t this the joy of reading?

As much as I have been disappointed, I welcome this change. It keeps my TBR list tidy. Life is too short to read poor or mediocre books.

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