Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Looking for that Sense of Wonder

It appears to me that wonder has gone out of style.

As I do debut announcements, I see little but dark and gritty. Many times, humor is laced between all the grit and dark, but still. The only "wonder" fantasies appear to be YA. And many of those appear dark and gritty as well. Look at Harry Potter. Plenty of wonder at first, but it got dark and gritty fairly quickly--certainly by book four.

None of the novels I've read recently have been particularly dark or gritty, however except as mentioned above, they also didn't have a memorable sense of wonder.

What sort of wonder do I mean? Wonder such as:

  • When Lancelot is given his miracle in The Once and Future King.
  • When Pakesnarrion returns to Brewersbridge in Oath of Gold, and the subsequent sessions with the Kaukgan.
  • When the Companions encounter the Forestmaster in Dragons of Autumn Twilight, and when they reach Godshome in Dragons of Spring Dawning.
  • When the hobbits reach Rivendell in Fellowship of the Ring.
  • When spring arrives in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
  • When Karigan encounters the Berry sisters in Green Rider.
I don't only see it in fantasy. Here's a few from SF:
  • The first glimpse of the inside of the spaceship in Rendezvous with Rama.
  • The scene where they establish orbit with Jupiter in 2001.
  • The entire alien world in Sentenced to Prism (which I read at the urging of a friend, and I never expected to enjoy).
One interesting thing about this list is that all three of the first fantasy novels I ever read are on it. Of my first three fantasy novels, two are universally acclaimed (Tolkein and White's) and the other is often derided (Weis & Hickman's). The first science fiction author I ever read--Arthur C. Clark--shows up on the list more than once as well. Obviously, a sense of wonder is what attracted me to this genre.

Some novels, like Tad William's Otherland series, attempts to dip the entire novel in a vat of wonder. I loved Otherland--Renie is one of my favorite characters, ever--but wonder, like chocolate, is best served in small doses.

Of all the debuts I read last year, I can only think of three that aspired to a sense of wonder. The authors may not have even done this on purpose. Interestingly, all three novels are at least partially derived from Christian themes. They are The Book of Joby, Auralia's Colors and Wind Follower. I found that interesting because only one or two novels in my above lists are particularly Christian.

I think all novels need that sense of wonder, even ones that are gritty, dark and snarky. After all, Arthur C. Clark managed it with hard science fiction.

If you are an author or aspire to be one, does your novel have an unforgettable "oh, wow!" moment? Will I be able to remember, twenty years later, the exact moment when the characters met the point of wonder? The grit and dark and snark might be diverting and popular at the moment, but will it all blend into the rest of the grit and dark and snark as I read other novels? Will I remember your novel as that one, or will I say, "Oh, yeah. I read that novel. What was it about?"

Will I purchase multiple editions of your book? Or will I eventually give it away?

To illustrate with a popular example, I enjoy reading Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum, but after a while, they all blend together. I could tell you the plot of the first novel. The plot of another novel stood out because she went after an illegal alien, not a criminal. But the rest of the 11 or 12 Plum novels I've read sort of blend together. And one I remember because I hated the entire premise.

Give me a bit of wonder, and I'll remember your novel forever.


Carole McDonnell said...

Wow, woman! I love you!!!!! -C

John Ottinger III (Grasping for the Wind) said...

I'm with you Tia. Of the many novels I have received to review of late, few of them have had this sens of "wonder". Partly its setting (paranormal is in, as is dark fantasy, and epic is out for the most part) and partly it is just that so many authors think that darkness is more appealing than light.

I recently had a student contact me about an article I wrote a long time back. She was complaining that in her MA Creative Writing class, every story was either dark, laced with profanity, or sexually perverted.There was no wonder, only enjoyment in debauchery. The world is more than its evil, it is also pretty wonderful and good. We need more authors bringing back the true hero in novels.

What has happened to the wow of fiction. Why must we delve into the evil that is mankind?

Let's celebrate heroism and lets have authors create wonder moments.

I'm behind you all the way!

Anonymous said...

I agree. You can have gritty fantasy and still evoke a sense of wonder from the story, but it's such a rare thing. That element of wonder is one of the things that drew me to the genre as well... although I've got to admit that when Karigan meets the Berry sisters, I was bored to tears. Not my favorite part of the book. Now in The High King's Tomb, when she goes to the the place where the Rider horses come from and.... Well, I don't want to ruin it for anyone who hasn't read it. But that was awesome! And I think that The High King's Tomb is a perfect example of a book that has both grit and wonder. There are some bad, gruesome things that happen in there, but there are also such moments of light. Sigh. I love the Green Rider books!

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, as a former reviewer myself, I wonder if our "sense" is always a good measure? As you noted, several of your examples were among the first things you read. Maybe *we* lose the ability to look at material with "fresh eyes" sometimes.

Publishing also sometimes loses sense of what appeals to the "new reader". Most of the big-selling SF titles these days are tie-in books. I may love sophisticated, intelligent, "different" SF, but I think to attract new readers we can't expect them all to leap right into what we ourselves weren't reading XX years ago.

As for the "true hero" -- I think you will find many, many true FEMALE heros in genre today, John. Try some Juno Book titles ;-) (Pardon the plug, but Wind Follower was from Juno.)

Tia Nevitt said...

John gave a fabulous review of Wind Follower! In fact, I flatter myself that he heard about the book here.

I agree with you, Paula. As a new reader, it was much easier to evoke that sense of wonder in me. However, it's still possible, since I was able to come up with some examples from the past year.

When I find myself becoming jaded, I like to pick up some mystery or something else that's not speculative.

Robert said...

As usual, I think it really comes down to the reader. While I agree that books like "The Book of Joby" or "Auralia's Colors" instilled a sense of wonder, series like Steven Erikson's Malazan books or GRRM's A Song of Ice & Fire, do the exact same thing even though they're considerably 'darker' or 'grittier' than the titles mentioned least that's the case for me. In other words, I think that just because something is dark, or gritty, or more realistic, doesn't mean that it can't inspire wonder at the same time. It just depends on the reader's reaction...

Carole McDonnell said...

I'll have to disagree with Robert about his concept of realism. Wonder rules in realism. The juxtaposition between the sad grim harsh realities of life and the big glorious event is often what creates that wonder. The main difference, i think, is that some books are without hope and are cynical....or they are drenched in the harsh realities of the world without really showing the numinous.

It might be that the readers who don't see wonder in one book are more attuned to a greater sense of wonder than those who are satisfied with wonder-lite.

It might be that some writers just haven't felt wonder and therefore can't write about it. It also might be that some folks don't really NEED wonder as others do.

If Wind Follower has wonder in it, as Tia says, it's because it was written when all around me was falling apart as usual. Fibromyalgia is one painful disease. I wrote the book on 23 years of sleeplessness. In addition, I was taking care of my 17 year old son who is autistic. This kind of life puts a person in a kind of existentialist mood. It makes one think: what if there were a man who followed God? what if all the sick people in a little tiny village were suddenly healed? what if a person who feels alone and sick and useless in the world suddenly realizes that God is aware of her (or him)? That's where the wonder came from in Wind Follower. So I'm glad that Tia and others have seen it. Sometimes I'm hurt that others have not seen that wonder, but I stated earlier...they don't need to see or to feel the wonder...and they would consider the wondrous hope a bit silly because it doesn't fit into their idea of reality. -C

Kimber Li said...

Real Life is dark and gritty enough. Anyone remember the War on Terror? Oh, I can handle the occasional Dark & Gritty, but I'm glad I get to pick and choose the books I review. Humanity is doomed without Hope.

SherryT said...

Tia, I share your yearning for Wonder or Awe in your speculative fiction.

Tolkien and C.S. Lewis first nabbed my attention via scenes that filled me with wonder. Like an addict looking for his next fix, I read one book after another looking for more special words that would fill me with delight and amazement. I found them in Geo. MacDonald, in P. A. McKillip's Riddlemaster of Hed trilogy, in M l'Engle's Wrinkle series and in Charles Williams' "spiritual thriller" novels.

In my opinion, experiencing something wondrous (numinous) is as close as we get here to touching God.

We all know the key elements needed to create a work of fiction--plot, strong characterization, setting, conflict and so on. When I was writing Seabird, scenes capturing shimmering glimpses of the numinous were as important as the traditional elements. I wanted, I still want other readers to experience what I have, thanks to so many authors. Childlike joyful delight at creatures & worlds as strange and intriguing as the stuff of dreams; immersion in the quiet pleasure of wonder as only reflecting on speculative fiction can do; or else overpowering awe thanks to a rare glimpse of The Other. Until you have felt something in your mind or your spirit bow to the indescribable numinous on a speculative fiction page, you haven't felt the innate power of the genre--the reason for its being.


Anonymous said...

"She was complaining that in her MA Creative Writing class, every story was either dark, laced with profanity, or sexually perverted."

That sounds like my high school literary mag, both when I was writing for it and when my younger sister was writing for it. There was enough peer pressure to write dark that I bowed to it and wrote a dark story with an unhappy ending. But I assumed this obsession with darkness and unhappy endings was a teenager thing, so I can't figure out what the folks in the MA program are doing writing like that. Unless they're still convinced that's the "cool" subject matter.

I still write dark stuff because I'm fascinated by dark characters finding redemption. I gave up unhappy endings after high school, though. I favor bittersweet, because aren't most things in life bittersweet?

Now I'm asking myself whether there's any sense of wonder in what I write...

Tia Nevitt said...

Robert, while I do think A Song of Fire and Ice is quite dark, I didn't find it overly gritty until A Feast For Crows, which I still have not finished. Plus, GRRM is willing to leaven his dark with occasional humor. And yes, I probably should have put the birth of the dragons in my list, now that I think about it. It didn't occur to me at the time.

Maybe certain things resound with one reader as wondrous, while another reader might think "ho-hum." I was completely charmed by the Berry sisters in Green Rider. Superwench? Not so much, I guess (but at least she loves the books as much as I do).

Carole, I found the wonder in most of Loic's journey, and I was quite put out when he was trapped in that village for so long!!! (But put out in a good way.)

Tia Nevitt said...

Sherry, I was trying to say that it was the wonder that attracted me to the genre, but you said it so much better than I!

Raven, re: "I still write dark stuff because I'm fascinated by dark characters finding redemption. I gave up unhappy endings after high school, though. I favor bittersweet, because aren't most things in life bittersweet?"

The "finding redemption" would be the wonder part of your book. I once said that the only soul-selling novel I'm interested in reading is one where someone sets out to rescue another who has sold their soul.

And I love bittersweet endings!

cathikin said...

I hadnn't ever thought about it that way, but maybe that's hat also attracted me to SF/F. A very good article. I have read Carole McDonnell's book, and that sense of wonder is indeed part of the beauty of it. I despair of the despair and hopelessness that is so prevalent in much of modern fiction. A ray of hope and a sense of wonder. Isn't that what fantasy ought to be?

Carole McDonnell said...

BTW, your post reminded me of C S Lewis' Surprised by Joy. In it he talks about Joy (of course) but also about his attachment to fantasy and how when he became a Christian he was surprised to see the same joy in the religion that he found in fantasy.
"A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere--'Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,' as Herbert says, 'fine nets and stratagems.' God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous." And one of the traps that Lewis believes saved him was the wonder and joy of fantasy


Tia Nevitt said...

Cathikin, that's what I thought, and the tendency toward grit without wonder makes me wonder why I should read it. Just a dash of wonder helps--like a shake or two of salt. Humor works as well. When a book is dreary from cover to cover, I have to pick up something light to read the next time.

Love that quote, Carole!

Robert said...

Carole, what you wrote:

"Wonder rules in realism. The juxtaposition between the sad grim harsh realities of life and the big glorious event is often what creates that wonder. The main difference, i think, is that some books are without hope and are cynical....or they are drenched in the harsh realities of the world without really showing the numinous." actually what I was trying to say, although you expressed it much better than I did :)

Anonymous said...

A long time ago I read an anthology put together by Marion Zimmer Bradley called Spells of Wonder and talked about a sense of wonder in her introduction and that all the stories in the collection evoked that for her.

I agree though that there is too much grit for grit's sake. It's almost like books have gone to the "super real" to attempt greater effect. Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle was a too gritty for me in that it constantly described smells of battle and people being incontinent due to fear (given that I am an ER nurse, I have smelled these things, and while the smell doesn't bother me, reading the description DOES).

Anyway... I personally find someone's worldbuilding to be a crux upon which sense of wonder rests to an extent, and descriptiveness. I think my best one for this is Jacqueline Carey's description of some of Phedre's dresses.

Tia Nevitt said...

Sara, you obviously have a perspective on such scenes that I never would have considered.

The recent Lord of the Rings movies did a good job of mixing gritty scenes with wonder. It has been too many years since I read it for me to be able to say how faithful they were to the books, but I did enjoy the movies.

And in Gladiator, they did a good job mixing the brutal scenes of the Colosseum with the dream scenes of Elysium.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, I found the second Star Wars trilogy too unrelentingly dark and almost wholly without the wonder of the first trilogy. I knew before the movies came out that it would be hard to watch the downfall of a good man. And my expectations were met. I found the final movie just intolerable and implausible, given the way they presented Anakin in the first movie.

Chris, The Book Swede said...

Seriously cool post. I'm writing an article for next week some time, that sort of mentions this. Though, in a very different vein. bout the first line's of books, amongst other bits.


Carole McDonnell said...

Hi Rob: Thanks!

I think my problem with grit is that so often it's stylized, unearned, unlived grit...a kind of pose. Usually in a well-calculated effort to be hip and "real"...and it falls flat because they define reality in such a cynical way. Because somehow the world has convinced some folks that cynicism, anger, grit is truth and honest creativity....and that sweetness, peace, joy and innocence are corny, uneducated, and uncool.

Tia Nevitt said...

Wow; thanks, Chris!

Chris, The Book Swede said...

The article has now turned into something about actual magic, rather than a sense of magic! Should be up soon.

Btw, when I said sort of mentions this, I meant the idea behind the article, not your article itself, which would obviously get more than a "sort of mention"!


Tia Nevitt said...

I'll look for it, Chris.