I Introduction and definition
In this paper I’d like to propose a category of art form, “worldmaking,” as a valid and independently interesting art practice. This will be distinct from fiction, drawing, painting, etc, though it will draw from all these. Most of its practitioners are unknown to modern art criticism, and those that are critically accepted are accepted as artists of other forms. Worldmaking is, in short, the creation of fictional worlds. It is often performed in the creation of novels, stories, comic books, and visual art, but where narrative, painting, poetry, etc. are the main goal the art form is only incidentally worldmaking, or worldmaking is a constitutive part of the art form. I’m more interested in the moments and instances where worldmaking is the goal, and the particular form is the means to worldmaking.
Fictional worlds are topics of interest to both philosophers and literary critics, but their tactics and concerns are not those of this paper. In general, for philosophers, fictional worlds present a problem of reference. Beginning with Russell, as Rorty[i] notes in Is There a Problem about Fictional Discourse, the difficulty of assigning meaning to terms with no actual referents has created a number of tactics for determining the semantic value of claims in works of fiction.
Some solutions include: a Meinongian approach that assumed fictional entities could possess “nuclear properties,” i.e. defining characteristics, but only in a text to which they belong[ii]; a speech act theory that allowed for sentences in fiction to have their standard meaning shorn of illocutionary force[iii]; David Lewis’s position that all fictional worlds are actually real, assuming they are possible[iv]; and Rorty’s position that fictional discourse is a form of ironic speech.[v]
In general, though, these philosophers are not terribly concerned with the aesthetics of fictional worlds, but the problems that they pose for meaning (though I think these problems are relevant to the aesthetics.)
In literary criticism, the question of fictional worlds is raised aesthetically, but the point of the fictional world is to support character or narrative, or to enhance the aesthetic effect of the novel (usually it’s a novel) in which it appears.[vi] What is understudied is a theory of the fictional world as the work of art.
In raising worldmaking as art form, I look at a form of conceptual art: the fictional world being the concept. In the cases where worldmaking is the art form, we’ll find that narrative and characters (and maps and paintings and etc.) are used to produce world. It is not the case, amongst these artists, that the world is a support for the art, or that it is a necessary element toward a larger artistic goal. Rather, the goal is worldmaking, and the various arts (e.g. novels, paintings, poems, etc.) are merely mediums for this goal.
Outside the philosophical interest in reference, there is another philosophical tradition that can provide grounding for worldmaking as art. A series of a philosophers who have thematized the creation of worlds, though usually from an epistemological perspective, and generally thought of not as purely fictional worlds, but as ways of coming to know the actual world. Leibniz’s idea of perspectivism, i.e. that individual perspectives differ, and can even apparently contradict, but are equally true,[vii] influenced Nietzsche, who developed from it a theory of fictions: that things like the self, world, etc, are constructed from our perceptions in a creative act.[viii]
Heidegger, following Nietzsche, saw our individual perspectives as “world pictures.”[ix] Each world picture, potentially irreconcilable with the others, is a form of creative “projection” that lays out a world.
These ideas of world making, often called “perspectivism,” though, were not yet dealing with fictional worlds understood as such, but rather the fictionality of the actual world, or at least of any description that purports to be of it.
In a very similar vein, but coming from the tradition that produced Russell, Lewis and speech act theory, Nelson Goodman takes up the Nietzschean/Heideggerean idea of perspective or world picture and explicitly calls it “worldmaking.”[x] I’ll draw part of the aesthetic theory from Goodman’s work, though I should note that Goodman, though a philosopher of art, thought of worldmaking not as the process of creating fictional worlds, but as the process of understanding the actual world.
What Goodman sought was an epistemological/metaphysical model that preserved truth where two contradictory statements appeared to be true at the same time, for example, a phenomenal description and a physical description. If contrary versions are both true of the same world, then the familiar philosophical problem arises: that everything, or nothing, is true, because anything follows from a contradiction. So Goodman alters the standard Tarski sentence for truth, writing “the familiar dictum [i.e. Tarski’s sentence] ‘ “Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white’ must be revised to something like “Snow is white” is true in a given world if and only if snow is white in that world.”[xi]
For Goodman, this meant that there is a phenomenal world and a physical world, a world of biology and one of literary criticism, and maybe a world for me and my friends, and one for you and yours.
But, without getting into the difficulties of the epistemological theory (which I think are not as serious as Goodman’s critics maintain, but that’s another topic) this is a perfectly good theory for the analysis of fictional world, and will lead us into a discussion of the fictional world as independent work of art.
So we can easily apply Tarski truth conditions in a fictional world: “Ferdinand’s father lies full fathom five beneath the water” is true in the world of The Tempest if Ferdinand’s father lies full fathom five beneath the water in the world of The Tempest.” And of course, he doesn’t: it’s false. We can easily distinguish true and false claims in a fictional work by reference to the world imagined in that work, which we access much as we access the actual world: by whatever evidence is available.
In this case, it’s the textual evidence. Ferdinand’s father Alonso is seen alive on another part of the island, thus Ariel’s “Full Fathom Five” song is false.
But, and this is the interesting point, in worlds of fiction some sentences are absolutely indeterminate as regards their truth. There is not only no textual evidence to resolve them, they may not have any such resolution. While it’s either true or false that there was a historical prince of Denmark named Hamlet who killed a man named Laertes, it is neither true nor false that during the duel in Hamlet a peasant boy named Lars was rolling marbles in the streets of Stockholm.
In other words, the fictional world is not complete. And this is where the fictional world as independent work of art begins to differ from the fictional world as element in a work of art, or as support or place for characters, action, theme, etc.
Those who engage in worldmaking as art form, seeing the world as the object of the art form, are inherently interested in the answer to virtually any question about their world, whereas for those works of art where world is an element, most potential questions are irrelevant. So the worldmakers seek to make more complete worlds, often at the expense of narrative economy in works of fiction. In following up from Goodman’s adoption of the Tarski truth conditions, worldmaking is where the artist is more concerned with creating the truth conditions for fictional texts than with the creation of the texts. This is cohesive with Davidson’s attempt to use Tarksi’s truth conditions to equate a theory of truth with a theory of meaning.[xii] Whether this works for real-world meanings and truth, it does provide a means for distinguishing between those artists who are interested in worldmaking and those interested in, say fiction: the worldmaker seeks to create the truth conditions for whatever depiction of the world is produced (often by hands other than his or her own, as these worlds are frequently collaborative.)
II The literature of worlds
The paradigm case of a well-known worldmaker is J.R.R. Tolkien, who sketched out in great detail his world long before he wrote the novels that occur in it. In developing languages, describing cultures, drawing maps, and writing histories and mythologies, he was interested in trying to create a fully realized place. The stories, then, capitalized upon this world and were a means of presenting it to the public.
In his “On Fairy Stories” he says that fairy stories are not marked by the appearance of fairies, but by being set in “Faerie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being.”[xiii] Place is the central concern, and “fairie” isn’t simply the setting of some individual tale, but a relatively complete place: “it holds the sea, the sun, the moon, the sky, and the earth and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.”[xiv] Tolkien even described the creators of this place as “sub-creators”[xv] on the model of God creating the universe.
Of course, to some extent, all novel writing involves worldmaking. Those novels set in a world very like our own would be the least centrally interested in worldmaking as I understand it here, while set in a world least like our own will have to include a stronger element of worldmaking. Series of novels set in the same world may have more of worldmaking (science fiction often does this; Nabokov does this with Pnin and Pale Fire, Faulkner obviously does this with Yoknapatawpha county.) Subsets of worldmaking would include “alternate history,” the creation of a country (for example, Ruritanian Romances like The Prisoner of Zenda, the Graustark novels of George Barr McCutcheon, and the Gormenghast novels of Mervyn Peake) and the creation of a people (Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels can be seen as an exercise in fictional anthropology, which is one element of worldmaking; notably, much of Tolkien’s work is less interested in narrative than it is in describing the language, history and technical culture of his various peoples.)
Further, many visual artists are concerned with worldmaking. Certainly Odilon Redon, the Pre-Raphaelites (especially Edward Burne-Jones), and Heironymous Bosch created multiple works in the same fictive realms. Amongst contemporary visual artists I might cite Stanislaw Szukalski, Björn Dahlem, Ernesto Caivano and Paul Noble.
Historically, many examples could be found, but I don’t think that there is a very long, proper history of worldmaking. While works like the Oedipus cycle, the Bible, the mythic cycles of Sumeria and Babylonia, the Nordic mythic cycles, etc, are in a way cases of worldmaking, they are presented as facts or as fictionalized facts, and the creators and their intended audience thought, at least on some level, that the stories in the mythic cycles took place in the same reality in which the story-teller lived.
The Nordic myths, for example, speak of the nine worlds, but our world is one of those worlds, and those other worlds interact with and exist in the same continuum as this world. The Nordic cycles are some of the finest examples of worldmaking, but there are not presented explicitly as fiction.
Similarly, even though Sophocles knows he’s fictionalizing with the Oedipus cycle, the world of Oedipus is supposed to be the same one in which Sophocles lives, only a little earlier. The creation myths of Mespotomia, the stories in the Bible, the tales of the Yellow Emperor, all take place in what is thought of as an actual, if not perfectly represented past.
For worldmaking to arrive as a self-conscious art form, we need the idea that the world is being created by and in the stories, poems or paintings, and that the world in these works is in some way distinct from the world in which we live.
III Blake as worldmaker
Worldmaking, as I wish to define it, finds a complete example in the works of William Blake. While the earlier myths and cycles and so on are the stuff on which Blake makes his world, he is nonetheless acutely aware of the made or fictional character of those worlds. He even faults the prophets of the Bible for not admitting that they were worldmaking. “Choosing forms of worship from prophetic tales. And at length they pronounced that the Gods had ordered such things. Thus men forgot that all deities reside in the human heart.”[xvi]
In this Blake begins the first theory of worldmaking and makes himself a self-conscious worldmaker.
Blake decided that the existing myths and stories that formed the spiritual and imaginative background of our mental lives were not up to the task of the present age. So he decided to create new ones, and the difference would be: where Isaiah, Ezekiel and Newton[xvii] claimed to have discovered or described the reality, Blake thought that he was describing a reality, or one way the world could be understood. Thus, he saw his work as fiction, but one which one could believe in.
Here “believe in” doesn’t mean what it means in “I believe in UFOs,” but rather what it means in “I believe in democratic governance.” It’s a vision of things that one can work with and live with, much as Plato’s philosopher, in the Republic, is said to accept that the city-in-speech, the beautiful city, is not and cannot be real, but he nonetheless acts as a citizen of that country.[xviii]
Blake’s mythic world appears largely in the epic works Visions of the Daughters of Albion; Song of Los, The Book of Urizen, The Book of Los, The Book of Ahania, Milton, Jerusalem, and The Four Zoas. These texts do not tell a single tale stretched over great length, as an epic or tragic cycle would. Rather, they tell diverse stories taking place in the same world, one created when a great giant, Albion, fell. In falling his identity has splintered into that of many gods and spirits, and also into the places where these gods and spirits will live. These further emanate and interpenetrate, forming the cast of characters for his tales.
The emphasis on places is tremendously important in worldmaking: the landscape or “where” must be given by the author. So, Blake has lands like “Beulah,” a realm of subconscious activity and the source of imagination, inhabited by the “Daughters of Beulah,” who are like the muses of classical mythology. Beulah is a land of hills and vales, it contains “caves of sleep,” a graveyard, couches for the sleeping, etc. In other words: a complete map of Beulah could be drawn, as well as its relations to Blake’s other realms, Eternity and Ulro.
Now, even more important for worldmaking than the mapping of these realms is that these realms have their own physics and logic. In Blake’s world, dreams become real. A person can become another person, or part of a person, and a person can split into several others. So, for example, in Blake’s Milton, Blake’s foot can house a Milton who is a Urizen (Blake’s law-giving God) who is a Satan who inhabits a Rintrah (the rebel who rebels against the law), all while other parts of Milton perform separate tasks in separate worlds.
In other words, Blake lays out the truth conditions for the claims in his texts. So while in our world it is prima facie false that Blake is Milton, within the rules and structures of Blake’s world, it is true that Blake is Milton.
IV Key Features of Worldmaking
In testing to see if worldmaking is a goal of an artwork or series of works, we can look for the following symptoms:
In the ideal case, there will be a series of works which use same world.
That world should differ noticeably from “our” world.
That world should have a geography and a history of its own.
Further, that world can be enhanced in its difference by having physical laws different from our own (understanding “physical laws” in the sense of the absolute laws which govern the interaction of any entities in that world, even if those entities are not physical as we would understand the term.)
Here, it’s important to notice that Blake not only wrote poetry, but illustrated his world with images of it: he painted and engraved scenes, characters and places in his world, fleshing it out visually and verbally, and indicating that it was not a just a set of literary works, but rather a place that could be approached by virtually any representational art form (and, I would argue, by non-representational art forms: one could write the music of a made world, and if Blake were musically inclined I have no doubt we would have heard the songs of Beulah. Perhaps they would have used a completely different scale system, or a different set of sounds.)
V: Borrowing from Nelson Goodman: A Theory of Worldmaking
Blake certainly understood his world as fictional. But then he understood all worlds to be fictional. He also believed that his world was a true and real world (as did Tolkien with his “subcreator” theory,) though not the true and real world. Importantly, his world, for all its truth, was nonetheless the product of creative, artistic activity.
Here, Goodman is helpful in presenting a theory of fiction that makes the created world valid even if it’s not a simple representation of the perceived world.
“Works of fiction…obviously play a prominent role in worldmaking,”[xix] writes Goodman, who goes on to claim that our understanding of the world of lived experience is informed by the fictions we read. But further, Goodman describes a theory of how worlds are made well: if they resonate in our lives, that’s a sign of a well made world. Perhaps more importantly for the art of worldmaking, though, is the criteria of internal consistency: “More venerable than either utility or credibility as definitive of truth is coherence, interpreted in various ways but always requiring consistency.”[xx] And I think that, when people speak of “realism” in works of speculative fiction, they mean something like coherence or consistency, because these make the world seem, as Goodman notes, true.
Of course, “true” is probably the wrong word. Goodman notes that the truth of a world is not the definitive mark of it’s success. Rather, made worlds are successful by their “relevance and their revelations, their force and their fit—in sum their rightness.[xxi]” So while we certainly can’t say that a made world is true, we can say that it’s right; we apply aesthetic criteria, obviously, and Goodman has sketched out some of those criteria and some of the ways and means of worldmaking.
Applying this to worldmaking as art, we now look for two specific criteria: repleteness and coherence. The latter is one of Goodman’s marks of truth or rightness, but here I’ll use it to describe an element of the aesthetic rightness of the made world. Repleteness is one of Goodman’s “symptoms” of art: I’ll need to partially redefine it for the purpose of worldmaking, and explain its role and the sense of “symptom.”
To be clear, what I’m presenting is not Nelson Goodman’s theory of worldmaking. That theory is precisely not a theory of fiction, but of fact. Instead, I’m borrowing from it to present some marks of the art of worldmaking.
First, “symptom” in Goodman’s sense, is something that hints at a judgment, but does not demand it. So if we find symptoms of worldmaking, they lead us to think that the artwork is worldmaking, though other considerations can mitigate against this.
The first symptom is coherence. Obviously, Goodman is not the only coherentist. Coherence theories of truth are those that state that truth is coherence with a body of sentences (this would be the version attributed to writers like Derrida) a set of institutional practices (Foucault) a theory (Quine and Kuhn) or some such constructed and probably linguistic entity. Goodman says that “coherence [is] interpreted in various ways but always requires consistency.”[xxii] That the fictional world has internal consistency is a desiderata of the worldmaker. Thus, Tolkien’s heavy working out of the background details of his world, Blake’s elaboration of the geography and physics of his world, and, to look ahead, the concern with “continuity” in such made-world forms as comic book universes and shared science fiction realms (Star Trek would be an example here.) For Goodman, coherence is a test, but not an absolute or infallible test, for truth.[xxiii] For the worldmaker, it’s a test of the goodness of the world, and if there is an incoherence, it needs to be explained or fixed. This is why, for example, Star Trek fans complained about historical discrepancies between different Star Trek series, and why in the worlds where comic books occur, much time is spent righting the continuity.[xxiv]
Coherence is important for the establishment of truth conditions within a fictional world and is a particular point of interest for fans of such worlds. If claim X is true, it must be true generally of the world; if it is contradicted in some particular tale, artwork, etc., set in that world, the contradiction is a point of contention and demands for its repair are made.
Coherence is then a symptom of worldmaking and of positive aesthetic judgments in worldmaking as art form. The prevalence of coherence demands and concern with coherence in such works is indicative of their status.
The next symptom, repleteness, is introduced by Goodman in Languages of Art.[xxv] Here he uses the term to describe an aspect of the aesthetic mark, whether that mark is a word, line, daub of paint, etc.: that all of it is relevant. So, for example, if we see a zig-zagging line in a sales or stock market chart, only the basic shape and direction of the line counts. But if an artist used the same line as a painting or graphic artwork, the color of the line, the weight or thickness of it, the roughness or smoothness of the brush or pen used to create it, etc. would all count towards its meaning.
In worldmaking, what is replete is the imagined world. Every aspect of it counts as part of the artwork, even those not present in some individual work, and even those that have never been represented.
Again, returning to Hamlet: there is no sense in asking what Ivan the peasant is doing in the fields near Moscow while Hamlet is dueling with Laertes. The reason that a play like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead makes sense is because these characters are explicitly thematized in Hamlet. A story set in Moscow while Hamlet is dueling would have no obvious connection to the Hamlet, and, unless some aspect of Shakespeare’s play was brought in, it would not make sense as a literary production. But a story set in another hamlet full of Hobbits, either before, during, or after the events in Tolkien’s novels, does make sense as part of the same large work of worldmaking. Made worlds thrive on this sort of elaboration: the many Star Trek series, for example, occur in the same universe; Batman and Wonder Woman inhabit the same world, even if written and drawn by different people in different magazines; two people or two areas in the online world Second Life may never interact, but they share a world. This is why Tolkien laid out hundreds of years of history, drew maps of areas where none of his novels are set, devised languages most of whose words never appear in a novel.
The imagined construct, the world, has a sense of repleteness to it. It is nearly inexhaustible, and every aspect of it counts. Since some of it never appears, what counts is partially conceptual; that one assumes that there is more to the world, or that it has a completeness to it, is part of this artwork, and the repleteness lies in this sense, much as the repleteness of a mark in a graphic work lies in the sense that every aspect of it, not merely its shape or color, counts.
Repleteness of world and coherence of world are only two criteria: virtually every other aesthetic criteria found in other art forms can be brought to bear on made worlds: in short, if a replete, coherent world is boring, lifeless, or lacking in interest, it’s not likely that it’s a successful work of art. If people become excited and interested by it, it probably has more to it than repleteness and coherence, but if it’s a world conceived as end or goal, it would likely have those two things.
VI: Worldmaking as Art form
Notably, Michel Houllebecq, in H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World Against Life[xxvi] claims that Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard will be remembered as the great literary artists of the 20th century, while Joyce, Musil and Proust would be relegated to secondary status. I think, in reading Houllebecq’s criticism, one of the reasons that he thinks this is because of the successful creation of world in these texts.
It’s clear, as Houllebecq notes, that these authors do not conform to the standards of modernist literary criticism. They are not about ambiguity and layers of meaning and prose stylings; rather, they create dense worlds with an immersive quality. One could argue, in fact, that the focus on world is to the detriment of the literary work. The novelist Mike Harrison wrote “every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalizes the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives unnecessary permission to acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfill their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.”[xxvii]
Harrison is not wrong, but he’s not interested in the art of worldmaking (what he calls “worldbuilding.”) Rather, as a novelist, he’s interested in narrative. Worldbuilding is a different art form, and can be at odds with the goals of narrative. This is probably why it has remained unappreciated in mainstream criticism and literary theorizing.
Instead, it exists in a ghetto of a ghetto: since its most salient as a feature of science fiction and fantasy writing (though it is not the case that it is only found there) it begins outside the realm of standard literary criticism.[xxviii] Further, within the ghetto of genre literature, it is only seen as as element of the larger work. Instead, sometimes, I would argue, it is the larger work, and the individual stories, novels, films, etc., are merely elements of that larger work.
Thus, certain artists who worked in worldmaking were generally considered poets or painters or what have you, when they should have been considered worldmakers, and some were considered bad artists of their type, when they may have just been concerned with something other than the obvious aesthetic criterion of their medium.
I would give as prime examples Tolkien, Lovecraft, Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast” books, and the truly awful novels of M.A.R. Barker[xxix]. What I think is interesting in this grouping is that their storytelling and prose may be weak or awkward, but the sense of completed world is very strong, and I think an aesthetic judgment passed on that criterion merits them high marks, whereas as novelists they might be placed somewhat, or substantially, lower.
Another reason that worldmaking is often overlooked is that it is often a shared activity, and the idea of the individual artist as greater than the committee of artists is strong in 20th century art theorizing. But in worldmaking, the collaborative form is the most active: there are many people now engaging in the creation of artificial countries, writing artificial anthropologies and even creating artificial languages, and placing these together on shared “world maps.”[xxx]
Comic book worlds can be shared fictional worlds: the “universe” in which Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman reside has been built up over the last sixty years by hundreds of writers and artists.
The Star Trek franchise may suffer in quality, but the richness of its world is astonishing; there’s a Star Trek encyclopedia, for example, written from within the perspective of this shared world.
Many games, especially computer and “pen and paper” role-playing games, utilize worldmaking, though rarely with great artfulness. Second Life is a currently vibrant example of a highly collaborative made world which grows and expands in its repleteness and coherence constantly.
The question then arises as to what good worldmaking looks like, and what aesthetic criteria would lift it up to excellence in art. I’ll offer a few cases.
William Blake’s early poems are doubtless charming, and a wealth of criticism extols their virtues, but at least one element that caused his work to be praised is its consistency, it’s internal coherence. Northrop Frye notes that “Consistency, then, foolish or otherwise, is one of Blake’s chief preoccupations…the poems of Blake form a canon…anything admitted to that canon, whatever its date, not only forms a unified scheme but is in accord with a permanent structure of ideas.”[xxxi] It is this canonical quality of the work, its coherence in image and idea, that attracts Frye, and with good reason. While Blake’s later poems may be wanting in poetic qualities (it’s hard to take seriously a poem with the line “And sixty-four thousand Gnomes, guard the Northern Gate”[xxxii]) they nonetheless continue this single project, and their images shape that single world.
Henry Darger’s work is compelling, at least in part, because of the richness of the world he offers. Even without knowing that Darger wrote and illustrated 15,145 pages, the feel of the world behind the work comes through. There’s consistency from illustration to illustration that clearly sets them in the same world. The repleteness of the world, and it’s internal coherence, infuse the work.
H.P. Lovecraft is often maligned for his overwritten prose and lax storytelling. Edmund Wilson described his work as “bad taste and bad art”[xxxiii], but a mark of his worldmaking skill is found in the fact that so many other writers chose to set works in his milieu. Clearly, the attraction wasn’t simply Lovecraft’s prose or stories: it was the elements of those stories that they could work with and expand upon. These writers wished to use his world, because that’s what they were drawn to.
Blake, Darger and Lovecraft are all, in their way, “outsider artists,” and my next example is even further outside, as I’ll pick an artist whose work is not (yet) appreciated, and who works almost exclusively in worldmaking.
Greg Stafford has for the last forty years been developing his world, which he calls “Glorantha[xxxiv]”, in the form of maps, stories, king’s lists, histories, anthropological studies, illustrations (by others: Stafford himself does not draw), and novels. Stafford originally designed the world as a setting for other writer’s fictions, bringing to light an important aspect of worldmaking: it was not the fictions he wished to create (though he made these too) but the place for the fictions. Glorantha was ultimately used as the basis for several novels, board games, a series of short stories, three role-playing games, and a great many illustrations and paintings, poems, stories and myths.
However, the detail of the world far surpasses the needs of these uses. Stafford has drawn maps of the entire world, written extensive anthropological studies of its various inhabitants, laid out their mythologies, produced many texts supposedly written in this world, written over two thousand years of its history, and given incredibly detailed accounts of the myths, stories and religious practices found there.
Because of this immersive quality, the extent to which the myths change over time and in response to war, the movement of peoples and their encounters with other peoples, the world has the key features we’re looking for: coherence and repleteness. Stafford expressly understands worldmaking as his art form.[xxxv]
While the artists above come from different art forms, different media, different times and have deeply different views on art, what they have in common is a direction of their art towards the creation of a rich and compelling world. That world may be characterized by its geography, its inhabitants, its history, or its physics, in any combination, but the artists’ work is directed towards the coherence and repleteness of these worlds (as well as the more elusive quality of making them interesting.) In short, the concerns are with creating the truth-conditions for claims about the world, which is what allows so many others to pick up and play with these worlds.
The concern with the nature of fictional discourse in speech-act theory is also addressed here: instead of saying that the utterances in fiction lack illocutionary force, we can say that they have precisely the same illocutionary force as they do in their normal usage, only they do so only for the fictional entities in the fictional world, as cashed out in the fictional occurrences and environment of that world. Illocutionary force is always context-bound; here the context is world, understood as the complete set of relevant objects and events surrounding the utterance.
While philosophical concerns with truth conditions and illocutionary force may seem external to aesthetics, in this particular case they are central, since a paradigmatic goal of worldmaking is precisely the concern with coherence, and the ability to produce truth-conditional claims about or in the worlds created is a mark of that coherence; the ability to produce many such claims is a mark of the repleteness of these worlds.
Clearly, other aesthetic criteria need to be brought in to judge the artistic excellence of these works, but at least for the purpose of delineating an art form, these serve as a start.
[i] Richard Rorty “Is There a Problem about Fictional Discourse” in Consequences of Pragmatism, Minneapolis, 1982
[ii] See Thomas Pavel’s Fictional Worlds, p. 48, for a discussion of Meinongian solutions.
[iii] Richard Ohman discusses this option in “Speech-Acts and the Definition of Literature” in Philosophy and Rhetoric 4 (1971). It’s also followed by Mary Pratt in Toward a Speech Act Theory of Literary Discourse., Indiana, 1977, and in a number of other works, all following a similar tact of using the lack of illocutionary force to distinguish fictive from non fictive speech.
[iv] David Lewis On The Plurality of Worlds Oxford, Blackwell, 2001
[v] Rorty, p.136
[vi] See, for example, Elena Semino Language and World Creation in Poems & Other Texts
[vii] See Monadology section 57 “simple substances create the appearance of many different universes. They are but perspectives of a single universe.” P. 156 in Monodalogy and other Philosophical Essays, trans Paul and Ann Martin Schrecker. Bobbs Merril, Indianapolis, 1965.
[viii] See Gay Science, for example section 290, where the self and the environment are said to be “shaped and interpreted” by “this or that poetry and art.”
[ix] Martin Heidegger, “Age of the World Picture” in The Question Concerning Technology, Harper and Rowe, New York, 1977
[x] In Ways of Worldmaking, Hacket, Indianapolis 1978
[xi] Ibid pp 120
[xii] In “Truth and Meaning” and “The Method of Truth in Metaphysics,” amongst other essays. In Donald Davidson, Truth and Interpretation, Clarendon, Oxford, 1984.
[xiii] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories” in The Tolkien Reader Ballantine, New York, 1966. pp38
[xv] Ibid, pp 49
[xvi] William Blake, Marriage of Heaven and Hell plate 9
[xvii] These are some of the “poets” cited by Blake in works such as Marriage of Heaven and Hell (Isaiah and Ezekiel), Milton and Jerusalem (both of which criticize Newton for his “single vision” version of science; in short, Blake thought Newton a brilliant poet who’d created a new way of seeing the world, but faulted Newton for claiming he had found the one, true, and only way of seeing the world.
[xviii] Plato is, in many ways, a worldmaker with this text, undermining my claim that Blake is the first. He’s certainly a more self-conscious worldmaker than the mythic poets and playwrights who’s stories were supposed to be, on some level, true. For Plato, the city-in-speech is expressly a fictional place. However, because he limits himself to the one city, and because the description of the city is supposed to be completely subsumed to the moral lesson (whether or not that’s true, it’s certainly the stated intention of the speakers in the text), I’d bracket him as not fully concerned with worldmaking, but rather using it as a means to an end.
[xix] Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking, pp 103
[xx] Ibid, pp 124
[xxi] Ibid, pp 19
[xxii] Ibid, pp 124
[xxiii] Ibid, pp 125
[xxiv] An extreme case of this is in DC Comics (the owners of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman) a “crisis” series occurred that attempted to realign all the continuities between the various titles so that they agreed. See Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC Comics, New York, originally published April 1985-March 1986 in 12 installments.
[xxv] Pp 230, Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art, Hackett, Indianopolis, 1976
[xxvi] Michel Houllebecq, H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World Against Life, McSweeney’s, New York, 2005
[xxvii] Mike Harrison, on his blog, at http://uzwi.wordpress.com/2007/01/27/very-afraid/. Harrison is the author of Nova Swing, winner of the Arthur C. Clarke award for Best Science Fiction Novel of 2006.
[xxviii] It’s notably thematized, though not in the way presented here, in a writings on science fiction and fantasy. The collection Styles of Creation: Aesthetic Technique in the Creation of Fictional Worlds covers the use of fictional worlds as formal and stylistic element in science fiction, fantasy and horror literature and film, for example. Ed. George Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin, University of Georgia, Athens, 1992
[xxix] Barker is an interesting case in that his work has a strong cult following, but is highly marked by his interest in world over story. To this end, his novels are impenetrably dull, with main characters who are linguists who spend dozens of pages talking about the syntactic structure of languages that, within his fantasy world, died out thousands of years earlier. It is exactly this sort of thing that turns off those interested in novels and fascinates those interested in worlds. See especially (or better, don’t!) his Man of Gold, DAW, New York, 1983, or any of the books in his “Tekumel” series. But really, don’t!
[xxx] I’d note that a number of on-line role-playing games do just this; Second Life is perhaps the most successful example.
[xxxi] Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1965, pp 14
[xxxii] William Blake, Jerusalem, plate 13
[xxxiii] Quoted in S.T. Joshi, introduction to An Epicure in the Terrible: A Centennial Anthology of Essays in Honor of H.P. Lovecraft, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, Rutherford, 1991
[xxxiv] Stafford’s anthropological/historical treatises on his created Glorantha include Mythologies of the Western, Southern and Eastern Lands of Glorantha; The Entekosiad, a summation of the myths known by women in one of his fictional land; The Glorious Reascent of Yelm, the male myths from the same land; The Fortunate Succession, a king’s list; King of Sartar, a fake history redacted, complete with contradictions, from a collection of disparate chronicles, and dozens of other works.
[xxxv] In an interview online at http://www.rpg.net/columns/interviews/interviews13.phtml Stafford describes Glorantha as an “artistic expression” and “creative outlet.”