Discover more from Stories All the Way Down by G. M. Baker
The Rise of Worldbuilding and the Decline of Literature
Why Story Seems to be Increasingly Taking a Back Seat
The literary world used to be dominated by storytelling. Increasingly, it is dominated by worldbuilding. I have been slow to recognize this trend and its implications, but now I have begun to understand it, it explains a lot about the place of fiction in contemporary culture.
Every story is set in a story world. This is a necessity. The real world is too big, too messy, too full of distractions. To tell something as neat and compact as a story, an author needs a neat and compact world to set it in. In this sense, worldbuilding has always been part of storytelling. But recently, worldbuilding has emerged as an artform of its own, with an extensive network of both creators and consumers. Stories are still somewhat necessary to animate built worlds, but, as I have increasingly come to realize, they are secondary to the worldbuilding, and even objectively dull, ill-told stories can serve their intended purpose of putting the built world into motion.
Take, for example, Star Wars. The original movie, simply called Star Wars, was a great film. Its sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, was pretty good too. And then there was the one with the teddy bears and then the one with the Rastafarian dinosaur, and after that it is a wasteland. (Actually, the teddy bear one and the dinosaur one are part of the wasteland too.) A wasteland, that is, as far as storytelling is concerned. The series continues to have an enormous fandom and the only way I can account for that is that they are fans of the worldbuilding rather than the storytelling. It is, to be sure, fantastic worldbuilding.
Some fans will no doubt argue with me on this. But I shall argue (I warn them in advance, though they are urged to comment anyway) that they like the stories because they are fans of the worldbuilding, and the stories are simply animating the world they love.
I say this not to denigrate those stories, but rather to point out that worldbuilding has emerged as an artform in its own right, and as a separate artform that is entitled to analysis and interpretation independent of the merits of its animating stories. Correspondingly, those stories should be judged by how well they animate their worlds, not by how well they function as independent stories.
It is possible, of course, to have great stories and great worldbuilding in a single work. The preeminent example of this is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and his wider “legendarium” —a word which seems to have been invented specifically to describe his work. It seems to me that these days we hear far more about the legendarium than we do about the novel. Perhaps this is because of all the talk about the Amazon Rings of Power farrago, but I think it has more to do with the rise in interest in worldbuilding and the corresponding decline of interest in literature.
Considered purely as a work of literature, The Lord of the Rings is a mixed bag, and has a very mixed reputation. Don’t get me wrong. I am a fan. It is one of the few books that I have read multiple times, and yet, unlike the others, my appreciation for it seems to decline with each reading, which is, I believe, a reflection of my declining interest in worldbuilding. If I should ever decide to give it another read, I shall certainly skip the talking trees episode. Indeed, everything from the destruction of the ring up to the marvelous Grey Havens scene could easily be skipped.
What interests me, though, is the number of times I have seen readers comment that the book only begins when the hobbits reach Bree and meet Aragorn. I have the exact opposite reaction. After Bree I find the story hit and miss. Bree is certainly a turning point. It is at Bree that the whole tenor of the worldbuilding changes from the pseudo-English village that is the Shire, to something wild and grandiose. If it is that wild and grandiose world that you appreciate about LOTR, then that is where the book begins for you.
I think that the distinction between the world of The Shire and the world beyond Bree illustrates a key difference between the kind of story world that storytelling requires and the kind of legendarium that worldbuilding requires. Story worlds are small, as small and as neat as they can be, just big enough to create a sense of space and reality in which the story can unfold. Authors of stories are often at great pains to isolate their settings and their characters in order to allow their stories to play out neatly and without extraneous interventions. Thus, so many stories are set in isolated country houses or ships at sea. Story worlds exist in a moment of time, with as little history (the dreaded backstory) as possible. Legendariums, on the other hand, are vast, both physically and in time. No one story within it uses or exhausts the full range of the legendarium. In a legendarium, the backstory is the main story, and the front-story is just a trigger to reveal it.
The Shire, at the beginning of LOTR, is a story world. It is small. It is compact. It is colorful and eccentric, but within a closely defined range of eccentricity. It’s history, such as it is, is a matter of family remembrances going back a generation or two. The story world of the Shire is a charming English-country-village kind of story. This is my favorite part of the book, until we get to the Grey Havens. The grandiosity of Moria leaves me cold. Moria is also the place where the storytelling starts to fall apart with the too-obviously contrived death of Gandalf at the hands of a creature not mentioned before or afterwards in the entire novel. The Chekov’s gun rule of story structure says that if a balrog is going to go off in the second act, it has to be hanging on the wall in the first act. But I imagine that the fan of worldbuilding must find Moria marvelous, as they doubtless find Rivendell or Lothlórien marvelous, both settings that are lavished with far more attention in the narrative than their importance to the story would seem to justify on story grounds alone.
But this is me, the story fan with limited appreciation for. or tolerance of, worldbuilding. What I have come to realize about myself over the years is that my taste in almost everything is governed by my taste for stories. In music, I love songs that tell stories. I love them so much that I have written short stories and a novel based on story songs. This, I am sure, is why I love folk music, particularly genuine folk, which is mostly stories, rather than new folk, which is mostly whining. It is why I have a limited appetite for orchestral music or for choral music where the words get lost in the complexity of the arrangement. I used to think I just didn’t like choral music at all, until I remembered that one of my early favorites had been a recording of Vaughn Williams arrangement of English Folk Songs sung by the Purcell Singers. The difference? They keep to the original rhythm of the songs and the words are always clear.
In art, too, I prefer works that tell, or at least imply, a story. I have little patience with abstraction or any of the strange concoctions that are claimed to be modern art. Curiously, outside of Asterix, TinTin, and Calvin and Hobbes, I have no particular interest in comic books. Superheroes generally bore me, but I think that is for other reasons, and another essay.
What I am a fan of, as I have said before, is serious popular fiction, fiction that finds the truth of the human condition in stories of action, adventure, romance, and even magic and expresses them in a popular style using accessible prose.
This is precisely the kind of fiction that does not fit well into a legendarium. Such stories tend to have a finality about them. The crucible in which a character reaches the truth of human experience, apart from being small and highly personal, is also transformative. There is usually not a lot more to say about them after the story ends. They live “happily ever after” or the reverse, but the story is over, and the story world folds up neatly with it, since it existed only to contain it.
The stories that animate legendariums (legendaria?) cannot be allowed to close with such finality. They cannot collapse the world around themselves the way a story collapses its story world. Indeed, much of the appeal of a legendarium is that it invites the fan (they are not simply a reader) to enter into them and enact their own stories. One of the sure marks of a successful legendarium is that it attracts fans to conventions where they dress up as characters from the legendarium and write fan fiction extending the adventures of their heroes or even inventing entirely new characters within the world of the lengendarium. Worldbuilding is a participatory art in a way that music used to be when people would gather around the piano for a sing song. This participatory aspect is, I am sure, an important part of the appeal of worldbuilding. But it is also why lengendariums seldom offer me what I am looking for.
But legendariums do, for certain, offer media corporations what they are looking for. When a legendarium meets a corporation, a franchise is born. When a franchise is born, money flows, and not just from the boost otherwise ordinary stories get from belonging to the franchise, but because lengendariums lead to spinoff products and merchandizing, theme parks and video games. The close-ended finality of story does not offer the same long-term profit potential as an open-ended legendarium.
I should make a distinction here between serials and legendarium franchises. Both offer media corporations (and authors) a way to hold an audience and therefore wring more money out of a property. But traditional serials have much more of the traditional story about them.
The perfect illustration of the difference between a serial and a legendarium is Star Trek. The original series of Star Trek consisted mostly of independent stories. There was no consistent universe with consistent rules. There were continuing elements, such as Starfleet, the prime directive, etc, but these were not fully worked out and could easily be ignored if the plot called for something else. The kinds of challenges the crew faced were often highly abstracted and there was certainly no attempt made to explain how all these stories and the people in them fit into the same universe.
The later series, though, were much more consistent, and had much more complex worldbuilding. Q was a bit of a bungle for The Next Generation and was largely played for laughs or as a cue for Picard’s speeches, but apart from that, their challenges were largely technical and sociological in a very consistent and highly detailed universe. Worldbuilding came to dominate, and the stories got less interesting and less challenging as the sets got better.
Serials are notable for how they reset the story world for each episode. Often it is accomplished by having the continuing cast move from town to town in each episode, as in The Lone Ranger, Route 66, Sherlock Holmes, or the original Star Trek. The alternative is to bring a stranger to town each week and tell their story, which is the formula for most serials set in the same place.
Serials, then, are focused on storytelling more than worldbuilding, and consistency in the worldbuilding is a minimal consideration in writing the next story. (I can’t quote it, but I am sure that I read that the producers of Doctor Who have had to explain, in the face of many fan inquiries and protests, that they don’t have a bible for the show and simply put whatever they want into each story to make it a good story.)
This is not an absolute, but it seems to me that legendariums tend more towards very long connected story lines, rather than independent episodic stories. They tend to feature a long fight between longstanding foes with many battles. There may be many characters and many sub-plots, as in LOTR, but often they are dominated by the great struggle. Harry Potter, after all, is Harry Potter vs. Voldemort for seven volumes and thousands of pages.
Tolkien held that LOTR was one novel, not a series, and I think the same could be said of Harry Potter. The Harry Potter series is far too long to tell this one story, and from a pure story point of view, it grows tedious long before the end. (I read the first book with interest and persevered through the second two, hoping for but not finding, something different. I baulked at the fourth, which was the point where the books started to bulk up.) But again, if you are a fan of worldbuilding—and the worldbuilding in Harry Potter is marvelous—then those long books, and related properties like Fantastic Beasts, are just more time for you to spend in “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.”
Something similar to the rise of worldbuilding seems to have happened in historical fiction, where readers and writers alike seem to have become obsessed with historical detail and historical accuracy, as if they were the essential properties of an historical novel. The recent death of Hillary Mantel has led to the republishing (or at least reposting) of an essay she wrote on historical fiction in which she stresses the central role of research and the absolute necessity of getting every detail right.
Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels have won major literary prizes. I am not a fan myself, as I am not a fan of most books that win major literary prizes these days. But let us assume that those prizes were given for genuine and outstanding literary merit. Now, assume that next month an eager young PhD student publishes a thesis that proves that the events as Mantel described them, based on the best research available at the time, did not actually happen that way at all. Mantel’s books would then be historically inaccurate. Would all their literary merit then disappear? Would the Booker committee vote to cancel her awards?
To me, literary merit and historical merit are entirely separate things and if Mantel was proved wrong on the facts tomorrow, whatever literary merit her work had (to which I am blind) it would still have it. But I’m not sure that much of the historical fiction community would agree with me. I think that an increasing proportion of the historical fiction community, like much of the fantasy and sci fi community, is more interested in worldbuilding than in story. (Again, this is an observation, not a criticism. Worldbuilding is a distinct art, and you are entitled to enjoy whatever art you enjoy.)
Of course, historical fiction involves a different kind of worldbuilding because it is imitative rather than innovative. The point is not to describe and animate an imaginary world, but a real world of the past. But in every other respect, I think, the attraction is the same. It is another world to inhabit, and whether we think of it as a future possibility or as the past brought to life, the point is to inhabit the created world. This is why so many historical fiction readers like to read any book they can get their hands on about a particular time and place that they like to inhabit, and thus why the historical fiction market tends to be dominated by novels set in particular periods in particular countries, such as the Tudors or World War II.
But while the pleasure of fantasy worlds lies in their inventiveness, the pleasure of inhabiting the past worlds created by historical fiction depends on believing that the world you are entering is indeed the past world as it existed in every detail.
Something similar is going on, I believe, in the world of pseudo-Jane Austen books and the people who love them. I have not read any of these, I confess, but I don’t suppose that any of these works approach the literary accomplishments of Austen herself. I don’t think anyone claims that they do, and writers of Austen’s caliber don’t write pastiche of other people’s work. But while Austen herself was not a worldbuilder, but simply created story worlds for each novel from the society she lived in, the current Jane Austen industry can hardly be accounted for in any other way than as an exercise in worldbuilding. It has all the same characteristics: a broad universe in which many related stories are set, but for which imaginatively inhabiting the Austen universe is a pleasure greater than the pleasure of any one story.
The world of worldbuilding is huge. There are online forums where people discuss their worlds or solicit help in refining the details and shoring up the internal and external logic of their creations. In many cases, places that call themselves fantasy or science fiction writer’s forums turn out to be as much or more about worldbuilding as about story telling.
Why do I say that the rise of worldbuilding has led to a decline in literature? First, because there has been a decline in literature, and we need a way to account for it. Second because it has pulled the attention of creators away from storytelling towards worldbuilding, and in so doing it has developed in the reading public a taste for built worlds and for participatory worldbuilding, both of which rob storytelling of some of the oxygen it needs. Because of the economic power of a franchise, it has pulled the attention and money of publishers and studios away from individual works towards franchises and grandiose multi-decade cinematic universes.
I’m already over 3000 words in this essay, so I am going to leave my speculations about the appeal of worldbuilding, and further discussion of why I believe it has led to a corresponding decline in literature, for another post. But if you have speculations, or counterarguments, on this topic I would love to hear about them in the comments. Indeed, it would help me greatly in shaping my own thoughts for that follow-up essay.
But I do want to conclude by trying to put both legendariums and serials into the context of my larger theme of serious popular fiction. As I said before, the tight confines of a story world and the way a serious story collapses its world around it in its conclusion, make both lengendariums and serials an unlikely place to find serious popular literature.
But this is not to suggest that serious popular literature cannot have multiple related stories. An example of this would be C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. It is notable that despite their enduring popularity, there is not the same kind of fandom for Narnia that there is for Middle Earth or Star Wars, and the Narnia film series fizzled out. If we look at the books themselves, we see that each creates a separate story world. Only three of the books, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and The Last Battle actually take place in Narnia. The Magician’s Nephew takes place before Narnia is created. The Silver Chair takes place to the North, The Horse and His Boy to the South, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader at sea. Even the books set in Narnia all take place in radically different versions of Narnia. There is no consistent legendarium, as Tolkien famously complained of. Nor is it a serial. The cast changes in each book, along with the location, and the themes. The seven stories are much more different than alike. There is little continuity between the stories, and they could mostly be read in any order. They are far more weakly related to each other than the volumes of The Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter books. They are neither a lengendarium nor a serial. They are simply a collection of related serious popular novels.
My own Cuthbert’s People books are similarly a collection of serious popular novels. (That, at least, is my intent.) They are a little more related than the Narnia books, in that an event in the first novel creates ripples that carry through the next two. But that event is the catalyst for quite independent stories, each of which seeks to get to the truth of human experience in a different way.
Works of serious fiction are transformative of their characters in one way or another. One cannot go through an experience that gets to the truth of human experience and not be transformed by it. Characters who are not transformed by their experiences can have the same adventure over and over, but those who are transformed cannot. Lizzy and D’Arcy cannot overcome their pride and prejudice again and fall in love again. They are transformed by having done so the first time.
It is possible to have more than one transformative event in a life, but it cannot be the same transformation. It has to be something new. And there is a limit to how many different transformative events one can reasonably impose on a character. Each transformation narrows the range of possibilities of the next. Two are possible, three maybe, conceivably four, at a stretch, but certainly not 6 or 8 or 10. Transformations are exhausting, and they also fix certain aspects of your character in place, so there is less scope to work with each time.
I have three volumes of Cuthbert’s People written. The Wistful and the Good and St. Agnes and the Selkie concern Elswyth and The Needle of Avocation concerns her sister, Hilda. Each has a completely different setting. God willing, I will write one more, or maybe two: a third for Elswyth and a second for Hilda. And that will be that. Or it will be that for those two characters at least. At that point there could not credibly be another great revelatory experience for either of them. They will have learned too much and settled themselves too firmly into a pattern of life to credibly force another transformative event on either of them.
To be sure, there is such a thing in literature as the serial reset. In this formula, the protagonist faces the same fundamental challenge to their character in each episode, and is transformed by it, at least long enough to wrap up this week’s plot. But there is a reset between books. The next book begins not where the first ended, but where it began. The character goes through the same challenge and the same transformation again. Ultimately these transformations are weaker, and they tend to take the form of a moral rather than an experience. They consist of acquiescence to an idea rather than a fundamental rewiring of character. It cannot be otherwise. The reset would not work if the transformation were more than skin deep. You can write great entertaining serial stories this way, but it is difficult to create serious popular fiction with the serial reset.
Such skin-deep transformations, consisting of mere acquiescence to a moral principle, from which we rapidly slide back into old sins, are, of course, very much a part of life, and a significant tragic theme in serious literature. But it is difficult to be serious about the tragic aspects of it in a multi-volume series where the backsliding exists not to express the tragedy of the failure to truly transform, but simply to reset the character for the next book, particularly because the backsliding takes place undocumented between books. Such books tend to be fanciful rather than serious.
As I noted before, in distinguishing between fanciful and serious literature, I am making a distinction of kind, not value. The same is true with the distinction I am making here between worldbuilding and storytelling. It is a distinction of kind rather than value. I am claiming that worldbuilding is not merely an element of storytelling, but an art in its own right. In storytelling, worldbuilding is incidental too, and supports, story. In worldbuilding, story is incidental to, and supports, worldbuilding. My personal taste for storytelling over worldbuilding, and for a greater proportion of serious over fanciful literature (by my own definition of serious) is in no way a criticism of other people’s preferences.
Let me know what you think. Does this distinction make sense to you? Are you a fan of worldbuilding, or does worldbuilding beyond the needs of the current story leave you cold? Are you a worldbuilder yourself? If so, help me with my follow-up essay by telling me what you enjoy about worldbuilding and about reading or watching built worlds. Thanks!