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What makes a deep piece of fiction deep?
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PostPosted: Sun Mar 01, 2009 7:34 pm    Post subject: What makes a deep piece of fiction deep? Reply with quote

How to differentiate between shallow and profound works: I don't know. Intuitively, I'd class Miyazaki's Nausicaš graphic novels as particularly deep examples of (comic) fiction; (probably less controversially) I'd similarly regard (though I've never read him besides a failed go at The Idiot) Dostoyevsky, for instance.

The philosophical content of these works points to a more solid criterion of depth. Yet again intuitively, I'm not sure it's enough. Sophie's World is an explicitly philosophical novel, but there's something about it that doesn't resonate so well with my sense of depth: the philosophical dimensions of the text are maybe too plain to the reader, not incorporated more subtly into the text's flow. But how should this matter?

Now this suggests a more straightforwardly quasi-geometric understanding of the subject. A work of fiction is deep if it has enough layers of meaning (how many is enough, I'll set aside for now).

This strikes me as a plausible definition. But, there are liable to be others.
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PostPosted: Sun Mar 01, 2009 8:15 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I'd say something is literary once it becomes reflective. A lot of the great works are deeply personal and emotional, and they show ourselves just as they show the author. There's also layers: you have the surface plot, then characters who are often nuanced and putting forth some kind of mood that both enhances the plot and shows the author's feelings, and sometimes you even have characters who represent broad things such as God or one's relation to the divine (or lack thereof).

A story can be simple on the surface: men living underground after a nuclear strike must go up to get water; on top of this you can add some powerful brooding about man's relation to the world, his sudden loss of it, his mental state when faced with nothingness, his morality in a world gone from morality; his choices in a literal vacuum of nothing but wind and darkness and volcanic earth. But I already wrote that one, so don't bother. Wink

Some things are created for adventure or dumb fun...you pass a book cover that shows a man and woman in spandex, holding laser guns, or a dinosaur attacking a metal fortress (I've seen such a cover). All in all, I think God is in the details.
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PostPosted: Sun Mar 01, 2009 9:26 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Explicit philosophical content is usually death for fiction...because it almost always comes at us directly from the writer, not through the char's or setting or plot. A violation of the agreement of fiction.
Implicit philosophy, on the other hand, is part of depth. Even then, simply being there isn't enough. The char's have to grow, interact, learn, struggle with it. And the engagement with the ideas must, for real depth, be explored from directions it hasn't been before and/or reveal, or show more clearly, some insight/aspect of the idea while maintaining the internal integrity of the work. Even that might not be enough, though...for me, what I consider to be "deep" works have some resolutions, but not many solutions. They also tend, while resolving some things, generate or point towards more issues than they resolve...or the resolved problems set up sympathetic vibrations with other un-resolved or unexplored problems. This story is done, but there are other stories, this question is answered, but there are other questions, and other answers.
This isn't definitive, though...there are books that can be/are considered deep, and important to read without being great stories. Great stories that don't touch philosophical issues [or do so in very specific time/place sensitive circumstances] exist...but they don't usually stand the test of time/history. [some exceptions to this, too]
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PostPosted: Sun Mar 01, 2009 9:41 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

What an interesting question.

I think it's largely going to be personal--what makes us feel intelligent when we read it and "get it." Or what intimidates us because we know just enough to realize we don't "get it." But surely what is "deep" should be more universal.

There are intelligently written works of fiction. Asimov comes to mind. There are also works that are wonders of craft and word facility. There are also those works which are deeply emotional, producing a sense of depth merely because they have the power to reach through the page and touch us.

But I personally lean toward more philosophical works because philosophy by its nature deals with the most universal, penetrating, illuminating, and reflective aspects of our existence. I suppose in this way I'm arguing for a universal basis for my own personal preference. Smile

How it's implemented is important. For a good dose of philosophy, we could just read the primary texts themselves, instead of stories which make use of their concepts. So if a story is going to go to the trouble of adapting philosophical concepts to its narrative, I believe it must do the subject matter justice by utilizing it in a necessary and sophisticated manner. In other words, the fictional world itself should *need* these philosophical considerations in order to tell the story the writer wishes to tell. It should almost--as with Donaldson--arise after the fact, rather than drive the work as an act of polemics. The story should exhibit the philosophical depth rather than merely recite it. If the characters are going to talk about philosophy, or debate it, it should happen because it's necessary to their predicament as characters in this world, not because the writer wishes to engage in a Socratic dialog. The discussions TC and LA have about the reality of the Land are a perfect example of this. That discussion matters not because the author wanted to discuss those issues (though he probably did), but because his characters needed to discuss them.

Another example, which doesn't really apply in terms of depth, but illustrates my point about narrative necessity, comes from Tolkien. He once said that he wrote Lord of the Rings because he wanted to create a tale in which the characters could plausibly say things such as, "A star shines on the hour of our meeting." (As Frodo said to Elves in Fellowship.) Tolkien thought such utterances were so beautiful, that he felt a world should exist in which such beauty was a matter of course, a natural development of its culture. The kind of people who said such things to each other would necessarily have an entire culture, language, history, and unique world, in order for such utterances to be possible or plausible.

An act of polemics isn't a satisfying story. That's why philosophical dialogs--while fun to read--don't make good narratives. They are too contrived. They are not led by the internal necessities of the characters in their world, but by the author's intentions. While it is impossible for authors to not have intentions, the act of producing "literature," IMO, is to unite those intentions with the necessities of the fictional world, so that author intention is indistinguishable from what his characters need.

The real trick is developing a world where characters need this depth, where the structure of the world itself is such that they cannot go about their adventures without confronting it.
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PostPosted: Sun Mar 01, 2009 9:59 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hah, Malik, I think we're more in agreement on this topic than anything else on the Watch....except maybe Homebrew Cool Cool Laughing Laughing
You put in one thing I skipped entirely, because I usually fill my craving for that from poetry: sometimes it's just the language itself. I intuitively leap right now to a conclusion: I suspect that it is very difficult, maybe impossible to use/create language like this without at least brushing against philosophical issues.
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the difference between evidence and sources: whether they come from the horse's mouth or a horse's ass.
"Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation."
the hyperbole is a beauty...for we are then allowed to say a little more than the truth...and language is more efficient when it goes beyond reality than when it stops short of it.
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 02, 2009 7:51 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

This one is easy for me. A story is deep when it tells us something about, for lack of a better term, being human. Something that you might not have noticed, or have noticed but not understood, without that story being told.
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 02, 2009 7:59 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Interesting that Asimov gets mentioned. Whereas I enjoyed reading some of his books I would still say he is the best example for an author who tries so hard to dive deep, but gets the angle wrong and ends up in shallow water. If we are talking deep (science) fiction I'd say Stanislav Lem is the man.
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 02, 2009 8:06 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Philip K. Dick for me, or Ursula K. Le Guin, where you have the fiction not so much a thought experiment but a metaphor or comment on where we are now and how we think; death, God, gender, understanding of others/self, on and on...
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 02, 2009 8:41 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

If we talk fiction in general (and not just science fiction) my top deep writers are Umberto Eco and Flann O'Brien (though in a funny way). O'Briens At-Swim-Two-Birds, The Dalkey Archive and The Third Police Man are unequalled.
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 02, 2009 8:48 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

See, my problem with -deep- writers (so deep it's in bold and it echoes down a well) is they often sacrifice everything else for being convoluted. I read Thomas Pyncon's The Crying of Lot 49, for example, loved the writing style but half the time I was trying to figure what the hell was going on, and if it takes a class or discussion to make emotional, human connect, I think the work has failed in some sense. I believe you can be equally deep as Pynchon, even deeper, but maintain a mainstream digestibility and a memorability akin to listening to a favorite song (or the Beatles, for me). That's the balance that's ideal.

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 02, 2009 8:49 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I've read Eco's Foucalt's Pendulum, was lost for the first half, but by the end I was like, Wow.

I have to agree with everything posted so far...Malik's description sums most of it up for me...part of what makes SRD's work so great is how he weaves these philisophical issues into the tapestry of his story, where the characters care about it and grow through it, and it's always consistent, mind altering, heart provoking, soul searching reflection...
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 02, 2009 9:33 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Lord Foul wrote:
See, my problem with -deep- writers (so deep it's in bold and it echoes down a well) is they often sacrifice everything else for being convoluted. I read Thomas Pyncon's The Crying of Lot 49, for example, loved the writing style but half the time I was trying to figure what the hell was going on, and if it takes a class or discussion to make emotional, human connect, I think the work has failed in some sense. I believe you can be equally deep as Pynchon, even deeper, but maintain a mainstream digestibility and a memorability akin to listening to a favorite song (or the Beatles, for me). That's the balance that's ideal.

Yes. Deep doesn't, shouldn't imply that it is well written, nor that it is enjoyable.

Then there's the class of pseudo-deep stories, in which characters yearn and ponder and strive for pages on end, going through the motions of a deep story -- but they don't tell us anything about ourselves. I put the Elric saga in this class, and Malazan.
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 02, 2009 9:59 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I hope my stories aren't like that... *checks* No, I don't think they are. I give a plausible reason why every character is the way he is, though I believe a little dash of mystery never hurt. Sometimes things can't be answered, but if you know why person A is destitute or why he is hell-bent or dark and Byronic then you have something there. Coming in medias res on characters who have already changed and not showing the change can be powerful. A little drip-drop of explanation as they brood (such as flash-backs or reminiscing) goes a long way too.

I also think a person can disagree adamantly with a character's philosophy, but if it moves them (such as making you cry or horrified or have an epiphany), then that there is "speaking" to ourselves.

My latest book is structurally similar to Eriskon (so I've heard), but I've never read him. But the book does present a mythology and world that is alien and presented as the inhabitants understand, but I also plan on delivering answers in the course of that one book, so there'll be a nice symmetry with the dislocation later on. I also have a prologue set in the book's ancient past that has deep repercussions on the book's present, another Erikson trope.


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PostPosted: Mon Mar 02, 2009 10:01 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Many good points, here.

Vader, I wasn't trying to say that Asmiov is deep. Quite the contrary; I was trying to say that his stories and concepts are intelligently written, but he lacks a certain depth. I should have been more explicit.

Lord Foul, I'll agree with you about Pynchon. That's an example of what I was trying to say in talking about "well written" work. I think he's an amazing author, but I'm not sure how deep. Maybe I just don't get it. (Granted, I've only read one or two of his works, 15+ years ago.)
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 02, 2009 10:26 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Lord Foul wrote:
I hope my stories aren't like that... *checks* No, I don't think they are. I give a plausible reason why every character is the way he is, though I believe a little dash of mystery never hurt. Sometimes things can't be answered, but if you know why person A is destitute or why he is hell-bent or dark and Byronic then you have something there. Coming in medias res on characters who have already changed and not showing the change can be powerful. A little drip-drop of explanation as they brood (such as flash-backs or reminiscing) goes a long way too.

That sounds like you are equating depth with characterization. I don't - all the characterization in the world doesn't make a story deep if it doesn't communicate something to you.

Lord Foul wrote:
My latest book is structurally similar to Eriskon (so I've heard), but I've never read him. But the book does present a mythology and world that is alien and presented as the inhabitants understand, but I also plan on delivering answers in the course of that one book, so there'll be a nice symmetry with the dislocation later on. I also have a prologue set in the book's ancient past that has deep repercussions on the book's present, another Erikson trope.

Now it sounds like you equate depth with background. Same comment.

In fact, that's my general gripe with Malazan. Lots of detailed characterization. But nothing spoken to you. And after eight books, I'm actually at the point where I get sick of meeting new characters. Trying to empathize with about three hundred characters is back-breaking for the reader. And none of them - none - pay off the work of following them. None of them even change, never mind change in a way that invites thought.

Ditto background. Unfathomable background is fun ... up to a point. After eight books, it's frustrating.

After a while, you just cruise through Malazan like watching bad TV. Stuff entertains you, but it's not worth hanging onto it. So it goes in one mind's eye and out the other, if you take my meaning.
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 02, 2009 10:31 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Malik23 wrote:
Vader, I wasn't trying to say that Asmiov is deep. Quite the contrary; I was trying to say that his stories and concepts are intelligently written, but he lacks a certain depth. I should have been more explicit.


Peace, bro. I got your point the frist time and I wasn't attacking you. It's me who should have been more explicit.
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 02, 2009 10:36 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Interesting, Wayfriend. I had that impression with the first book, and fully intended to pick the series back up one day. But now your comments make me hesitant. Why do you think Donaldson recommends these books if he has such high standards for his own writing? Are they friends, or something?

[Edit: I should probably give some positive examples, rather than just writers I don't think are deep. Donaldson and Bakker are the two who come immediately to mind. And hopefully, one day, my own. Smile ]
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 03, 2009 1:26 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Whoever first mentioned and liked Eco, I agree...I even read his historical fiction, which isn't to my usual taste.
I had a serious love/hate with Pynchon when I read "Gravity's Rainbow" and can't figure out why...I'm about to read it again, to figure it out (one of my former prof's loved to say he couldn't be sure he liked a book till he re-read it, wasn't sure he understood it till he had to teach it.)
WF, on characterization...I think I agree with you if I'm understanding correctly...in my mind characterization isn't truly characterization if it doesn't reach you in some way, it's a profile, or a list of characteristics, or bell rings/salivate responses.
If it doesn't reach you (positively, or negatively) I think it's because the characteristics have no life/meaning for the character, so how could they for the reader?
And Malazan is similar for me...I recognize technical proficiency in it, and interesting 'takes' on things, and a fair amount of imagination, but not really meaty, juicy.
LF, if you've got structural similarities with Erikson, no problem. It's the other kinds you might hope not to have. And some of my favorite characters are those I would hate if I met them on the street.

One thing I've noticed that often happens in what I think of as 'deep fiction' is that the char's involved in conflict don't simply act and react along the lines of the conflict, they reflect and reshape the nature of the conflict itself [more like stealth warfare and espionage and hidden leverages than trench-war, as a bad-ish analogy]. And the reader often has hints and wonderings and senses the change [though hopefully not the results] well before the char's.
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 03, 2009 2:45 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

wayfriend wrote:
Lord Foul wrote:
I hope my stories aren't like that... *checks* No, I don't think they are. I give a plausible reason why every character is the way he is, though I believe a little dash of mystery never hurt. Sometimes things can't be answered, but if you know why person A is destitute or why he is hell-bent or dark and Byronic then you have something there. Coming in medias res on characters who have already changed and not showing the change can be powerful. A little drip-drop of explanation as they brood (such as flash-backs or reminiscing) goes a long way too.

That sounds like you are equating depth with characterization. I don't - all the characterization in the world doesn't make a story deep if it doesn't communicate something to you.

Lord Foul wrote:
My latest book is structurally similar to Eriskon (so I've heard), but I've never read him. But the book does present a mythology and world that is alien and presented as the inhabitants understand, but I also plan on delivering answers in the course of that one book, so there'll be a nice symmetry with the dislocation later on. I also have a prologue set in the book's ancient past that has deep repercussions on the book's present, another Erikson trope.

Now it sounds like you equate depth with background. Same comment.


I equate depth with all factors of a story, but characterization and background are important, and they can communicate to you and move you, and I think mine have, SRD's have, a lot of great writers have. TC's characterization, the Land's history, Kevin Landwaster, on and on, etc. These are all important and need each other to subsist and breathe the story to life. I don't see how you can't equate any part of a story with depth if you've got a "deep" story.

My stories are personal, reflective, and should speak to or find ways to relate to the reader in not just singular but broader concepts like one's relation to God (or general faith or feelings about life), need for answers, hope, fear of life (or death), devastation, morality (or lack thereof), nostalgia, energy versus entropy, suicide, starvation, recovery, balance, lack of balance, love, determination, power, intention and the real result, having no control when something larger happens, on and on and on, denial of society, need of society, etc. This is all requisite to me. There's nothing wrong with works that aren't profound, but if you can naturally graft in some deeper communication to the reader, more power to you.

No, as I said in my first post a deep story is one that reflects you; one where God moves in the narrative. I don't look at the characters separate or the background separate or any part separate; they are one organic part conjoined to one center that moves you. They can't be taken apart, unless you wish to lessen the whole. You can study them separately I suppose, and do essays on aspects and find long coils of meaning around it like an onion, but together they are one cohesive form.

And I hope I don't sound like a conceited ass by constantly commenting on my stories. It's just the only example I can think of. I feel like John Lennon using the Beatles as an example when he was talking about God not being as popular in England. I foresee press conferences and controversy...
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 03, 2009 1:40 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Lord Foul wrote:
I equate depth with all factors of a story, but characterization and background are important, and they can communicate to you and move you, and I think mine have, SRD's have, a lot of great writers have. TC's characterization, the Land's history, Kevin Landwaster, on and on, etc. These are all important and need each other to subsist and breathe the story to life. I don't see how you can't equate any part of a story with depth if you've got a "deep" story.

I guess I would say characterization and background can be necessary, or just helpful, to write something deep. But they aren't the depth themselves.

There are deep short stories. The depth is accomplished with necessarilly limited background and characterization and just about everything else.

It's all about what the auther gets you thinking about. Some authors can take you straight there. Other authers need a while to get there. Other authors want to take a long while to get there.
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