The Aesthetics of Fat
As someone who doesn't really click with much fantasy, McCalmont decided, in the spirit of fairness, to try and figure out what aesthetics "fat fantasy" readers were applying to these doorstop novels, to give himself a better handle on critiquing them. From recurrent features in online discussions and suchlike, he identifies three commonly professed requirements on the part of readers: accessibility; immersion; conservatism. His exploration of these values references my own post on populism and elitism, and a lot of what he says is very much in line with my own thoughts on "symbolic formulation".
To some extent, that creates another problem with the analysis. Scott Bakker, in the comments, makes the point that, other than immersion, these aren't so much the aesthetics of fat fantasy in particular as the aesthetics of any commercial genre, and while I think McCalmont's approach is a good starting point, Bakker has a good case. The way I'd put it is that in exploring "fat fantasy" McCalmont is actually honing in on "the aesthetics of fat" rather than "the aesthetics of fantasy". That said, it's a good analysis of how that aesthetics effects fantasy, how it is manifested in (this particular subset of) strange fiction, so I think it's well worth reading and a good springboard for further exploration.
So, when I say he's talking about the "fat" rather than the "fantasy", that this fits with my own ideas of "symbolic formulation", what do I mean?
Well, my own idiosyncratic theory is too gnarly to reiterate fully here, but to give a quick recap: the long and the short of it is a modification of Delany's notion of genre as defined by subjunctivity. In strange fiction, the incredible is used to challenge suspension of disbelief, to flip the subjunctivity of the text from "this could be happening (here and now)" to "this could not be happening (here and now)". The incredible -- that which challenges suspension of disbelief -- is what powers strange fiction, creating a tension, the thrill of estrangement.
Maintaining the suspension of disbelief in the face of the incredible involves a sort of displacement of the action to a fictive elsewhen in which the incredible could be happening (there and then), if only X were true. The particular nature of the incredible -- counterfactual, hypothetical or metaphysical -- can be viewed as a sort of temporal displacement in one of three dimensions: "sideways" into the parallel worlds of Alternate History; "forward" into the future worlds of Science Fiction; "up/down" into the metaphysical or supernatural worlds of Fantasy. While distinct genres can be identified by unidirectional displacement, much strange fiction actually involves displacement in more than one direction (c.f. jaunting in Bester's The Stars My Destination or all manner of divine forces in the novels of Philip K. Dick).
As a writer you can deliberately exploit that incredibility, maintaining the challenge to suspension of disbelief as an aesthetic effect, or you can attempt to resolve it in one of two ways. The first strategy is explication, where the writer uses detail to rationalise the environment to a convincing level; we see this in Alternate History's reconfiguration of history, SF's extrapolation of science, Fantasy's exposition of culture. The second strategy is excuse, where the incredible is viewed as a feature of Romantic narrative, a customary trope of plot, character, cosmology, etc., recognised as implausible but accepted as a matter of convention, as part of the game, for the sake of entertainment. Across the genres, and particularly in the most commercial and derivative works, readers simply accept the incredible as part of a Romantic tradition.
These three approaches can, of course, also be combined, but in the most commercial and derivative works of genre what we often see is Romantic tropes of plot, character, etc., processed to the point of being symbols in a formula, with little real attempt made to exploit or explicate the incredibility. By "symbolic formulation", then, I mean those types of strange fiction which take a purely excusatory approach to the strange, rather than explicatory or exploitative approaches. As an analysis of the aesthetics of symbolic formulation, McCalmont's three values seem spot-on.
Accessibility is indeed a key value; it's a word that crops up a lot in debates within genre, where symbolic formulation resides. As I was (sort of) saying in the post referenced by McCalmont, this is often phrased as a negative judgement of complexity as inaccessibility, difficulty. Bakker takes issue with this, referring to the alienating effect of fantasy's trappings on readers averse to the form. But inaccessibility is less to do with the difficulty of "getting into" an invented world (the antipathy to "funny names" he cites), I think, than it's to do with the difficulty of "getting into" a complex reading experience -- one which sets up contradictory emotional and intellectual responses and which therefore requires active engagement on the reader's part. Accessibility is more about the openness of a work to a passive or loose engagement, with works being judged impenetrable because "the story" is too difficult to discern -- which is to say, because it's not obvious how to parse the narrative into character, plot and theme.
A more accessible story, then, is one where these structural features are clearly defined -- whether that means unorthodox but simple or deeply conventionalised as in the extreme case of symbolic formulation. In practical terms many of the identifiers that Bakker offers as more relevant identifiers of fantasy ("the use of innocence (via characterization) as a foil to some apocalyptic threat, the valorization of archaic social interrelationships, the espousal of some bivalent morality, the compositional influence [of] Tolkien") are very much about accessibility in this sense. These features function as instantly recognizable benchmarks, blatant signposts of the story that's being told. It's in the boldness and clarity of the relationships they construct that the writer renders the story accessible. The boldest and most clear signposts are the ones with the most standard symbols placed in the most obvious positions -- symbolic formulation.
The complexity of detailed world-building may alienate the reader in a superficial sense, but it doesn't render the work structurally impenetrable. The barrier to accessibility in this sense is in the compositional structure -- character, plot and theme -- rather than the surface detail. The complexity of worldbuilding isn't at odds with accessibility, then, but may actually serve it. Admittedly this may be stretching the meaning of the term, but "the use of alternate, anthropomorphic worlds" and "the use of serial formats" Bakker refers to both demonstrate an important process in "fat fantasy" -- the establishment of a stable environment that can be returned to again and again.
The detailed worldbuilding, the ever-present map at the start, "Volume One" on the cover -- all of these serve to promise the reader a repeatable experience; they signal a commitment on the writer's part to establishing and maintaining the imaginative environment as an environment. A background developed to the level that it can be separated completely from the structures of character, plot and theme is a background where the reader's access is completely open. Taken to its ultimate, we end up with the open invite of a D&D roleplaying game, Star Wars toys or any fanfiction mythos, where the player is free to create their own story -- which is to say there is no story to demand interpretation, to create a sense of difficulty, impenetrability. This is the fictive environment as "sandpit", the accessibility of a carte blanche to do what you want with the toys.
This function of worldbuilding brings us to immersion. At one level -- immersion as a product of immediacy, immediacy allowing passive immersion rather than active engagement -- this is a value of symbolic formulation across commercial genres. Whether it's a film noir city of night and rain, an SF urban sprawl of hackers and corporations, a forest citadel of elves and dwarves, a mountain castle of decadent vampires, a suburban mall of materialist kids, the wild west of cowboys and indians, whatever -- the immersive experience is the same, an easy and instant vicarious gratification. Our ability to immerse ourselves in that environment is a matter of our desire to do so, to project ourselves out of glum reality and into a glamourous elsewhen. That "glamourous" quality which makes the elsewhen so appealing is, to give it its proper name, Romanticism, and this is a major factor in the excusing of the incredible. The Romantic elsewhen is sufficiently cool (to us, at least) that we simply don't care that it's no more than fancy.
If we are readers of symbolic formulation, that is. In his comments on McCalmont's first post, Bakker picks up on the immersive effect of worldbuilding, singles this out as a specific and distinct feature of "fat fantasy". If he's right to do so -- and I think he is -- this indicates some other aesthetic at play here, something more to immersion than the Romantic glamour, the excusatory fancy of symbolic formulation.
But I'll come back to that.
The last value McCalmont identifies is conservatism. In the aesthetic sense he applies to the term, this is absolutely fundamental to symbolic formulation, the generation of symbols and formula being entirely a matter of tradition. While the traditionality of tropes and themes can and often does result in a traditionality of political message, however, conservatism is, I think, too inextricably associated with right-wing politics. What we're really talking about here is conventionality. In symbolic formulation this is a basic requirement. The very acceptability of those Romantic tropes hinges on the fact that these character types and plot tokens are part of a known game, a customary / habitual mode of make-believe. Again, this doesn't actually distinguish fantasy from any other (Romantic and excusatory) commercial genre, but that's not the point here. In terms of symbolic formulation, I would argue, McCalmont is rightly pointing out three key aesthetic values.
So. Accessibility, immersion and conventionality. I think it's quite fair to place these values as a primary aesthetic for readers of formula fiction of any genre. If this is the only aesthetic then we might wonder why readers would be loyal to any one genre of symbolic formulation over another, but before we jump to assumptions about readers looking for one feature in this genre, another feature in that -- i.e. loyalty on the basis of aesthetic form -- we should probably consider two more basic possibilities. Loyalty to one particular genre may simply be a matter of familiarity, habituation, a particular set of tropes functioning as a known and therefore comfortable idiom. Alternatively, when we look at the degree of identification that follows on from immersion, when we consider the symbols in the formulae as self-symbols (as the subcultures of Otherkin and suchlike virtually demand we do) then loyalty to one genre can be understood as an articulation of self-image. The reader who seeks their symbolic formulation in the marketing category of Fantasy is still looking for the same thing as the reader who seeks their symbolic formulation in the marketing category of SF (or Western or whatever). There's no particular feature that they're seeking in the genre they're loyal to... only a costume of preference because of its connotations, whether it be cowboy hat, chainmail armour, or spacesuit.
The three values McCalmont focuses on, then, form a good basis for an aesthetics of symbolic formulation in general and one type of symbolic formulation in particular -- "fat fantasy" considered as the area where the sets of fantasy and symbolic formulation overlap. But, as was mentioned earlier, Bakker's highlighting of immersion generated by worldbuilding as properly fantasy-specific (in contrast to accessiblity and conventionality) raises an issue. All symbolic formulation could be said to aim for an immersive experience as a product of immediacy, but if we're talking here about immersion as a product of worldbuilding and therefore as a feature specific to fantasy, then we're getting into a more complex aesthetic. While this primary aesthetics may cover the requirements of many readers, there's no reason that a secondary aesthetics can't come into play for other readers, who may be reading symbolic formulation mainly for accessibility, immersion and conventionality but focusing on a particular genre because it does indeed offer additional features.
So... back to worldbuilding.
At this point, I think, we need to distinguish purely excusatory "fat fantasy" where the worldbuilding is largely irrelevant, superficial and derivative (the classic Tolkien clone) from explicatory "fat fantasy" where the worldbuilding is integral, layered and innovative (as in Tolkien himself). With the latter, I'd argue, there is an aesthetic at play in which value is placed on a pseudo-historical versimilitude akin to the pseudo-scientific versimilitude of Hard SF, and that the valuation is due to a desire for explication. This is evident in one of the reactions to M. John Harrison's "clomping foot of nerdism" dismissal of worldbuilding, a thread on the Deep Genre blog where the importance of this versimilitude was stressed in a number of comments. The anachronism of an object in the wrong type of historical context, the impracticality of a warrior society with no peasants providing food, the ignorant misrepresentation of an easily researched craft like metallurgy -- these and other such errors are deeply problematic for many readers of "fat fantasy". That they are is evidence of another aesthetic value being applied here: authenticity.
For some readers the ability to immerse themselves in an environment requires versimilitude in the work itself, not just a willingness to be charmed by Romantic fancies. We find exactly the same requirement in readers of Hard SF or Alternate History. It's a requirement for detail and rigour, for explication. In my own model of genre as defined by subjunctivity, the reader of these forms is, unlike the reader of pure symbolic formulation, unwilling to simply excuse the incredible for the sake of a ripping yarn. It must be rendered plausible -- the subjunctivity must be flipped back from "this could not be happening" to "this could be happening (elsewhen)" by detailed exposition of the nature of that elsewhen, how and why it deviates from our own, how certain simple and basic differences factor up into a complex and utterly alien but nevertheless sustainable imaginative environment. In fantasy terms this means laying out a whole secondary world with its own geography, botany, zoology, history, politics, religion, even metaphysics.
The categorisation and reference problems mentioned earlier as regards the term "fat fantasy" are highlighted here, in the risk of conflating the excusatory and the explicatory. One can pretty much guarantee that any such conflation will be deeply offensive to writers and readers who place a high value on authenticity and who therefore recognise a qualitative difference between the fiction that strives for it and the mere symbolic formulation. More importantly, this authenticity aesthetic is an important distinguisher between the explicatory genre work and mere symbolic formulation. For the sake of fairness to both writers and readers, and accuracy of critique, then, it's essential to keep the distinction in mind.
Unfortunately that conflation is common amongst those less versed in the relevant genres since the excusatory symbolic formulation, by nature, rips off the explicatory works, simulating authenticity by simply copying from the original. This leads to much of the explicatory genre work, over time, becoming harder to distingish from the excusatory symbolic formulation of these Nth generation knock-offs. Add to that the fact that it's rare to see worlds built entirely from scratch. With even innovative worldbuilders like Tolkien tending to ground their ideas in existing mythology or history, the result can be a sense of deep familiarity, even unoriginality. And finally, we're faced with the reality that while much of the explicatory genre work places a high value on authenticity, much of it nevertheless retains the core values of symbolic formulation -- accessibility, immersion and conventionality -- as a primary and predominating aesthetics.
Bakker is right to focus in on immersion and worldbuilding as more crucial in the aesthetic of "fat fantasy" readers; the valuation of explication is very much seen as a quality marker in the field, as a feature desired in fantasy in the same way scientific plausibility is desired in Hard SF, and it stands as one key distinction between what many "fat fantasy" readers would describe as "real" fantasy and what they'd dismiss as derivative hackwork. But it is also a key distinction between that "fat fantasy" and the fantasy of writers like M. John Harrison. For these writers, authenticity may well be highly valued but it is not valued for an explicatory purpose; these writers have no interest in resolving the challenge to suspension of disbelief by flipping the subjunctivity back from "this could not be happening" to "this could be happening (elsewhen)". They have no interest in rendering the strange plausible, explaining it away.
There are two reasons for this, I'd say. One is that the authenticity generated from and focused on explication is itself considered dubious. If one is constructing a secondary world with its own geography, botany, zoology, history, politics, religion, even metaphysics, this necessarily involves the application of one's own ideas of how such things work. When it comes to the socio-political sphere in which one is inventing human cultures, the most important in narrative terms, authenticity is at the mercy of assumptions. One's ideological preconceptions will inevitably colour the types of societies one creates, how they are portrayed as functioning, how individuals are portrayed as functioning within them, often leading to utter nonsense of whatever persuasion -- libertarian or liberal, reactionary or radical. The aesthetics of symbolic formulation may also factor in here, requiring societies where Romantic characters can engage in Romantic plots against Romantic backdrops, leading to even worse nonsense -- idealisation, for example, of the ethical historicities of warrior castes. The result may well be an "authenticity" that is risibly unrealistic.
The other reason is that the authenticity is considered irrelevant. A surfeit of detailed exposition on levels -- geographical, technological, etc. -- where we can rely on facts rather than assumptions may be all very interesting if you have an obsessive fascination with such matters but utterly pointless in terms of narrative. Pedantry for the sake of expressing one's own obsessive fascination is pretty much the definition of nerdism. Detail serving no purpose other than the explicatory is window-dressing. It exists only to create an illusion of completeness, as a demonstration of how exhaustively (and exhaustingly) one has thought through the elsewhen. It violates Grice's Maxims of communication in offering excessive information. The phrase "clomping foot of nerdism" is deeply apt.
Worse, in so far as an irrelevant authenticity of pseudo-factoids may serve to compensate for a dubious socio-political authenticity, what we can end up with is a profoundly inauthentic fiction, discernable from symbolic formulation only in respect of its additional quality of reading like it was written by a Nazi historian with Aspberger's Syndrome. When Harrison dismisses worldbuilding so brutally, it is this sort of fiction, I suspect, he has in his sights.
And yet Harrison is himself a fantasist and therefore engaging in, as many would define it, worldbuilding. How can he dismiss what he himself is doing? The answer, I think, lies in the distinction between worldbuilding as explication of the incredible and worldbuilding as exploitation of the incredible. In certain modes of strange fiction the subjunctivity of "this could not be happening" is maintained in order to create and exploit a tension between the incredible and the reader's suspension of disbelief, a sense of estrangement, of cognitive dissonance. In order to maintain that tension the fiction must maintain the strangeness. It must constantly breach plausibility by introducing new unrealities -- counterfactuals, hypotheticals, metaphysicals. Often the result is that these little unrealities build into one big unreality, a good example of this being Peake's Gormenghast books, which are virtually relentless in their refusal of explication or excuse. One might look at Gormenghast as an incredible feat of worldbuilding, but what it really is, at heart, is dreambuilding, this ultimate version of the Edwardian "Big House" as grotesque and baroque as the characters that inhabit it, inexplicably vast and ancient, its grandiose isolation in utter defiance of practicality. The same could be said about Harrison's Viriconium.
There are many surrealist, experimentalist, metafictional, slipstream or simply unclassifiable modes of strange fiction -- some published as SF, some as Fantasy and some as Horror -- that maintain estrangement by worldbreaking rather than dreambuilding, with many of the novels of Philip K. Dick being prime examples. There are many modes of strange fiction that build worlds only to break them, that break worlds and build dreams in their place, that break dreams and build worlds in their place... again with many of the novels of Philip K.Dick being prime examples. There are many that build and break worlds and dreams so as to eventually return the reader to reality, but in a state of estrangement. It's no accident that Harrison's Viriconium sequence ends with such a return to reality, in a young man's journey to Viriconium or London, depending on where you read it. Harrison's mode of strange fiction is not in the slightest concerned with worldbuilding as explication, as a means to construct the false authenticity of pseudo-factoids and dubious socio-political relationships.
Where authenticity is a value in these types of strange fiction it is largely on the inter-personal level, the authenticity of the mundane, the domestic. Rather than being a feature of the imaginative environment it is a feature of the characters who inhabit it and their relationships with each other, generated less in details of things and more in actions that could take place anywhere. This inter-personal authenticity bolsters suspension of disbelief and heightens contrast with the incredible, heightening the tension of subjunctivities, the tension between "this could be happening" and "this could not be happening". If SF, as Delany says, creates new types of sentence, it also often creates old types of sentence along with them in order to play the two off against each other.
To many who write or read the strange fiction sold as Fantasy, this exploitation of the strange is probably a more definitive feature of the genre than any conventional trope, though I doubt many would talk about it in those terms. And the primary aesthetics of this type of fantasy is quite different, necessarily, from that of symbolic formulation. In fact, I'd argue that they're pretty much directly opposed. If you reverse the polarities, so to speak, for accessibility, immersion and conventionality, what results is complexity, introspection and innovation (or subversion), and these are, I'd argue, precisely the values you find in what these writers and readers might well describe as "real" fantasy. Personally, I use the term "strange fiction" because, as much as my own allegiance is to the exploitative approach, I prefer to avoid that sort of advocacy, which boils down to, ultimately, an attempt to assert ownership on a marketing category label that has little real relevance to the aesthetic forms we're talking about. But at the end of the day, if we have to talk in terms of "fat fantasy", to me the "fantasy" is all about complexity and innovation (or subversion) as generators of estrangement, and introspection as a reaction to estrangement, while accessibility, immersion and conventionality are pretty much just "fat".
But is it fair to assume that only the exploitative modes of strange fiction will implement that contrary aesthetics, that an explicatory aesthetic of authenticity will necessarily be bound to the primary aesthetics of symbolic formulation, that this combination of values is therefore sufficient to describe the aesthetics of "fat fantasy"? As someone who doesn't read much high, epic or heroic fantasy myself, I'm not in the best position to defend it, but I do think that self-same principle of authenticity can lead to a direct rejection of the primary aesthetics on one, some, or all three points. I see no reason (other than the obvious commercial pressure) why high, epic or heroic fantasy could not or would not value complexity, introspection and innovation (or subversion) while happily preferring to explicate the strange rather than exploit it. Actually, I find it pretty damn likely that the best writers in that mode are implementing exactly that aesthetic.
I will say this, though: as an analysis of the aesthetics of symbolic formulation, those three values are, I think, totally fair, and sprinkling a little worldbuilding into the mix doesn't improve things as far as my personal tastes go. If what we mean by worldbuilding is simply explication, if what we mean by "fat fantasy" is fiction bound to accessibility, immersion and conventionality but with that extra element of worldbuilding, well, adding explicatory authenticity to symbolic formulation does not make it "fantasy" to a writer or reader who wants their fiction truly strange; it simply adds more fat to the fat.