Encyclopaedic Realism

Monday July 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Is a phrase I have been mulling for some time, originally because it seemed to describe aspects of a specific project I was working on at the time, and that of a friend, but more recently because it neatly describes a mode of writing, or more accurately a means of organising the materials of writing, that I think could be worthwhile.

I mean ‘encyclopaedic’ in the sense of it being comprehensive, but also as a term meaning more than this, as a term describing the structure of knowledge, the way in which it is arranged, and then eventually accessed. To borrow, selectively, three differing definitions encyclopaedic that I think are particularly useful:

1) covering all branches of knowledge or, less commonly, all aspects of one subject;

2) Origin 1530, meaning “course of construction”;

3) enkyklios (ἐγκύκλιος), meaning “circular, recurrent, required regularly, general” + paideia (παιδεία), meaning “education, rearing of a child”;

There is something in each of these that I like. In (1) the comprehensiveness; in (2) the metaphor of ‘construction’, implying the necessary building of structure. And in (3) it is really this notion of it being ‘circular’ and ‘recurrent’ more than anything else.

Because what has nurtured my interest in this notion of ‘encyclopaedic realism’, and what I think will help me begin to elucidate its principals, is that I believe it reflects the ways in which we increasingly interact with information. There is so much of it available, and we search it in circuitous ways. One find leads to another, one link takes you to the next, and whilst it is not possible to exhaust a topic or thread, it is certainly possible to exhaust your interest in it.

Wikipedia is just one (very obvious) example of this. Footnotes can be clicked and pursued, and what is more, previously invisible or unavailable sources excavated. The efforts made by all sorts of organisations and institutions to digitise and make available online their catalogues, their inventories, their databases has greatly enriched and widened the channels of data available, and in a manner that often illuminates the previously unconsidered, but sometimes rich and complex relationships that exist between them.

This is why I like the terms ‘circular’ and ‘recurrent’. It is suggestive of the idea that you can go around and around a given world; that you can walk its perimeter, broach its limits.

How does all of this relate to fiction? Well, clearly it doesn’t have to. This is just my speculation and theorising. But the way I mean it to relate to fiction is to say this: that there exists the potential to develop a fiction that allows for these same modes and methods of inquiry, and that makes possible the same speculative experiences. In short, a fiction that reflects the epistemological enticements we take for granted in our everyday interactions with knowledge as we find it.

How might this work in practice? I’m not really sure yet. But my first, and main thought is this: that it might entail a fiction whose worlds run deeper, and which are able to sustain a greater number of readings at more varied and variable levels.

This is not simply about bringing forward the index into the text itself, by way of hyperlinks (although why not – this is almost upon us now anyway with eBooks), but about crafting an alternate reality which itself (i.e. before we even encounter the problem of its artistic or aesthetic representation) is altogether more robust and rigorously coherent. And I don’t just mean in terms of simple continuity.

By way of example – perhaps it is no longer enough to say of a character that he wrote a novel a few years ago which was successful, but that his subsequent novels were less good, and that he has consequently lived off the success of that original book ever since. Because we are (arguably) in the habit of saying now: what were those other books? What were they called? Why were they less successful? What are the ways in which we understand them to be less successful? Were they badly reviewed (where, and by whom are the reviews?) and did they sell badly (can we discover how badly)?

It is in this way that I mean that fictions might be made deeper. There is an enormous hinterland to be populated, if only because we are become accustomed to exploring such hinterlands for ourselves every day in our ordinary researches into other topics. The questions I pose above would be answerable if we were to look up the novels of a real writer.

There are limits to this, and clearly it would not be possible to create an entire alternate reality. But why not try harder, given that we understand how the mechanisms of such a world, our world after all, operate?

When I was a kid, telling myself stories playing football in the garden, I was never entirely satisfied imagining that this or that team (whoever I was pretending to be at the time) would win a particular game, or competition. I would wonder, of this world I was creating, whether that team had won it the previous year or not? And if they didn’t win it the previous year, then who did, and why did had a different team won it this time around anyway? Just precisely how had the latter supplanted the former? What were the implications of this for the future of my world?

The worlds I imagined aspired to this level of depth and complexity, and in aspiring to this spawned new and often unexpected subplots. If you have read this far, I suspect that one thought you may be having is this: surely novelists possess and even require such a level of understanding of their own worlds? Don’t they know all this already, even if only a fraction (artfully selected and expertly parsed) makes it into the finished work? Isn’t that selection and parsing the art and practice of fiction?

Maybe. Not being a novelist I don’t know, although my instinct would be to answer ‘yes’. But I don’t think that contradicts what I am thinking here. Perhaps it is simply a case of realising a means of making more of that world – perhaps already held in the novelist’s head – visible and accessible.

 

 

 

 

 

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