Yesterday I had a brief but highly instructive discussion with the author of a book set in the mountains of Devonshire. Here, in a city of chalets crowded around a Medieval castle, the local sheriff and his deputy have to investigate a series of mysterious murders.
Now the thing that caused some perplexity is, of course, that the highest peak in Devon is about 600 meters high (not exactly a mountain, especially for us that live in the shade of the Alps), chalets are very scarce in the area, and law enforcement in Devon is handled by the Devon & Cornwall Police, not by a rather American-sounding Sheriff’s Office.
When these observations were vented, the reaction of the author was – “this is a fantasy novel, I can do what I please”.
I beg to differ.
Fantasy does not mean arbitrary.
And in any kind of fiction “Because!” shouted in the face of the reader that asks “Why? How?” is never a good thing.
The genre allows for an ample margin of freedom.
Read the list of wonders that E.R. Eddison puts in the opening of Mistress of Mistresses, and you’ll notice a cheerful disregard for matters such as historical accuracy or geographical coherence, while at the same time using the style and structure of historical and travel narrative, and memoir.
How comes Eddison’s book’s a masterpiece, and the story about the sheriff and his deputy in the mountainside city in Devonshire sounds like a load of poorly researched, arbitrary rubbish?
Basically it is a mater of internal coherence, of the effect designed by the author and achieved with the use of out of place details.
While mixing Atlantis, Antartica and Nanga Parbat with Spanish ladies, Persian carpets and Grecian sculptures, Eddison still manages – masterfully – to provide a coherent picture of a certain environment, of a certain world. Eddison’s choices are all but arbitrary, and the elements fall on the page with the clear purpose of playing on familiarity and contrast, creating a world that is other.
Nobody ever said it is an easy trick to pull.
But it can be worked out.
It requires a good ear for how words play one against the other, and a certain finesse.
The Devonshire Hillibillies, on the other hand, lack this coherence, ear or finesse – the details are piled on the page “Because!”, and the author’s reaction confirms the impression. The choice is deliberate, certainly, but arbitrary.
The author has a certain story, a certain plot, on his notebook, and he bends reality to his needs, so that he will be able to follow that plot without problems.
Need a Devon legend and a mountain setting?
Put a mountain in Devonshire. Complete with chalets.
Unfamiliar with police procedure?
Put a generic “sheriff” in the story.
It’s all right. It’s fantasy. I can do as I please.
I’ve been meeting the cavalier dismissal of fantasy as
the sort of story where, when you need a solution, you make it up and explain it by saying “it’s magic”
I think the first time somebody told me the asinine phrase quoted above was in 1993.
I find it really sad that writers are apparently conforming to this vision.
It’s amateurish, ignorant and lazy.