Writing Matters: Eddings and editing established reality

So I’ve started re-reading a David Eddings book for winding-down-of-the-brain purposes, and my (possibly over-trained) English Literature brain has been Noting Things. Therefore it seemed perfectly logical to record them here, for Future Reference.

I read David Eddings because it is, for me, the mental equivalent of coming home after a long day and eating beans on toast for dinner (not that I’m knocking beans on toast. I am, in fact, a big fan – particularly when there’s marmite on the toast and cheese on the beans. Perfection). Eddings is safe, predictable medievalist fantasy set in a pseudo-Europe that, and this is perhaps the most interesting point for me, doesn’t allow the reader to quibble. At all. When reading, you are Told What Happens: a lot of information is Just True. Now, forgive me some of my references, because I’ve been enjoying TVTropes‘ company a lot lately (it is one of my favourite sites: funny, interesting and thought-provoking). They have a term, ‘Word of God’, for ‘what the author says about the world that must be true because s/he knows what s/he’s talking about as the author of the world’. I find, reading, that a lot of The Tamuli (that’s the series I picked up) comes across as extremely thinly-veiled Word of God. Eddings is telling what happens – even when it seems utterly out of character, illogical or just plain silly. Interestingly, Eddings is predictable in two ways: in the good old-fashioned way of it being predictable from the tropes he uses, but also because if you’ve read one Eddings, you’ve read them all, because he repeats his own tropes in extremely unsurprising ways.

As a reader, you willingly suspend your disbelief in order to let the story pass through your mind. But willingly suspending disbelief doesn’t mean we also suspend all rational and logical faculties along with it. I want my stories to be plausible, not suddenly have unexplained deus ex machina endings or a plot so clanging it’s ringing its own death knell.

Anyway. To illustrate Eddings’ patchwork reality, I refer to one character with whom I think the reader is supposed to be sympathetic explaining a sudden, unexpected political awareness as ‘I’m not manipulating royalty… I’m manipulating a woman, and I’m an expert at that’. Now, out of context that looks pretty dubious, right? But this is Eddings. Kalten is written a nice guy, so therefore his comments cannot mean anything cruelly underhand: Eddings’ narrative rhetoric has no truck with a questioning reader. So the reader is delivered the story sealed, as fact, with no space to question it. It’s a pretty standard tactic of quest-based or medievalistic fantasy: this happened, reader, deal with it. There’s no jiggling points-of-view, no unreliable narrator, no indication that the world is a mystery to be explored: it’s mapped and known, and, in its most reduced form, it’s a travel guide to a fantasy land (hello, Diana Wynne Jones).

Now, this can be very frustrating, particularly when it seems that established characters, situations, politics and back-stories are simply warped to the author’s will: forced into a different shape in order to facilitate the telling of the story. (This is a big part of my problem with J. K. Rowling, too, but that’s a story for another day. I’ve outlined a few notes below*.) I am going to use the phrase ‘fictional ontology’ to describe all these concepts, an ‘ontology’ being a term to describe the study of what there is: a formal system of knowledge that concerns itself with what exists. Eddings’ rhetorical style delivers a narrative that is, as noted above, ‘sealed’: it’s whole and incontestable by the reader, and therefore constructs what seems a similarly incontestable ontology. The world simply is the way it is: he’s given us the details, we as readers accept them in order to move on with the story. However, he then changes certain things, such as fluxes in the behaviour of established characters, when his plot requires it: someone suddenly swings between intuitive cleverness and comedic stupidity, for example. It drives me bonkers when writers do this, and particularly when Eddings does it, because it comes across as so lazy. He is basically editing his own reality in order to make the story work, but in editing that reality he ends up undermining it. Why can he not come up with something more plausible for the world he has created – the world that includes established characters? Why can he not write the story expanding on the ontology he’s already given us, rather than sticking a temporary patch over part of it until that part’s usefulness is complete? It is frustrating, because in a system where the writer is handing over incontestable pieces of reality, some parts of that reality are terribly inconsistent. You’d think he could pay attention to the details, right? (In fact, that his style seems inconsistent shows that the rest of his narrative does seem solid; the rest of his fictional ontology is not something we argue with (but he’s allowed to).)

This consistent handing over of facts then allows him to do some things that are quite genre savvy. It means that actually he can sneak a few nice twists up on the plot and the reader because the reader is so used to accepting everything the narrative says as a sealed fact. It’s a nice trick: it makes me think that sometimes he’s aware of the reader, and not just the story. In fact, my main criticism of a lot of writers, and particularly fantasy writers, is that they seem to get so focused on the story, on managing their ideas onto the page with words, that they forget that the reader’s there, and will have probably have questions and comments along the way. A reader wants to be fooled sometimes, wants to be teased with drips of information, wants to wonder various possibilities and motives, not just held in place while an infodump of a story is poured in her metaphorical ear.

Anyway. These are some of the thoughts that were flitting through my mind as I was skimming through Domes of Fire last night and this morning. In short, I want to read stories that have plausible ontologies, no ‘Giant Space Fleas from Nowhere‘ (TVTropes again) that appear in the plot and the author instructs me that this makes sense because it’s his story and he says so. I’m willingly suspending disbelief, and I enjoy willingly suspending disbelief, but I don’t like reading stories that don’t let the reader ask why. I don’t think a writer should be allowed to edit an established reality if they’re going to do it clumsily, and I don’t think writer or reader should be the slave of a story to the extent where nothing that the characters say or do seems to make sense with everything that’s gone before.

*J. K. Rowling clearly doesn’t have a consistent fictional ontology in Harry Potter, which is part of why I find it so unsatisfying (and also a part of why she often looks very silly in question-and-answer sessions). She makes things up as she goes along in the worst possible way. Obviously, to a certain extent, all writers make things up as they go along, but J. K. doesn’t seem to direct an analytical eye at her work at all, and so all of her plot solutions just appear out of nowhere. The initial Horcruzes are pretty much the only satisfying Chekhov’s gun in the whole thing, and that’s only when you’re re-reading it: everything else just appears ‘like magic’. Things shouldn’t appear like magic: they should appear like something magical that makes sense for the world that’s been created.