In Defense of Worldbuilding

A while back over at Electric Lit, Lincoln Michel wrote a lengthy article called “Against Worldbuilding,”* in which he argues that authors and readers are so enamored by the details of literary worlds that they lose focus on the actual story being told. What he says isn’t wrong so much as it is a game of definitional Léger de main. Along the way, Michel engages in some low-key genre bashing.

Let’s get out of the way what Michel gets absolutely right – some writers get so wrapped up in the worlds they create, in the details and minutiae of them, that the story, characters, and all the other important stuff kind of disappear in a puff of imagination. This happens, no doubt (although I wonder how many writers follow the advice of one person Michel links to who thinks it’s important what shapes the tables are in a given world). The problem isn’t an overbuilt world per se, it’s the fact that, as Michel puts it, things turn out like “they were producing an encyclopedia instead of a story.”

Where Michel goes wrong is in deciding that such deep diving and navel gazing is what “worldbuilding” is. Also, that it’s something that’s limited to certain particularly pulpy genres like science fiction and fantasy.

But the fact is that every author – even writers of non-fiction – have to build worlds with their words. Hell, I have to do it when I write legal briefs, much less when I write fiction. That’s because unless you’re writing for the small subset of people who know exactly what you’re talking about you have to do some foundational work of explaining the place where your tale is taking place. As I said several years ago in a review of the first season of Mad Men:

What is more fascinating to me about Mad Men is the world these characters live in. When people talk about world building they usually are talking about sci-fi or fantasy writers, who build new universes and worlds from the ground up. But the truth is, every writer of fiction (whether on the page or screen) has to pay attention to world building. Thus, just because Mad Men is set in a real time and place from our recent past doesn’t mean the creators can shirk on the details that lend the world depth and credibility.

Another example that springs to mind is Karen Connelly’s The Lizard Cage. It’s a story about a political prisoner in Burma and what he has to do to survive. It’s not a translation – it was not originally written in Burmese. It was written in English, presumably for an audience in the English-speaking world. A world that, most likely, isn’t familiar with the horrors of a Burmese prison camp or the kind of Buddhist rituals that might help a person stay sane in such a place. There’s lots of worldbuilding going on there, there has to be if the story Connelly tells is going to have any kind of resonance. By contrast, I just started Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem and it drops you right in the middle of the Cultural Revolution without any worldbuilding at all – but it was originally written in Chinese, so I expect that audience didn’t need any of that heavy lifting.

Perhaps aware of this fact, Michel performs a little magic. He walls off “worldbuilding” in the genre ghetto and instead says what literary writers do is “worldconjuring.” That is:

Worldconjuring does not attempt to construct a scale model in the reader’s bedroom. Worldconjuring uses hints and literary magic to create the illusion of a world, with the reader working to fill in the gaps. Worldbuilding imposes, worldconjuring collaborates.

In other words, worldconjuring . . . builds worlds, it just does a better job of them. This is linguistic slipperiness not seen outside of Earthforce:

What Michel has done is taken something that is definitional and turned it into a qualitative judgment – it’s the same thing as people who say “rap isn’t really music” when what they really mean is “I don’t like rap.” Fair enough, but whether you like something or not doesn’t change what it actually is (see, also, the infamous Roger Ebert v. video games dust up or any endless circle jerk on what “prog” is). All Michel has done is give what he perceives as “good” worldbuilding a different name. It doesn’t change the fact that it’s the same damned thing.

As I said at the beginning, Michel’s real point is solid – for some writers (and readers), worldbuilding runs roughshod over everything else. That sucks. But when it doesn’t and it’s transporting and wondrous and visceral – it’s still worldbuilding. It’s just worldbuilding done write. Everybody who picks up a pen to tell a tale has to do it – here’s hoping we get it right more than we get it wrong.

* NOTE: Word really wants “worldbuilding” to be two words, but since that’s how Michel spelled it I’ll keep it that way.

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