Posted on October 2nd, 2007 in opinion
Tolkein, Jordan, and Martin, all have them. Scott Lynch doesn’t, so he put some on his website. Mervyn Peake couldn’t possibly. M. John Harrison would probably murder you for suggesting that he should. David Gemmell didn’t have any, then he bowed to pressure and included one done by a fan which (apparently) everyone thought was crap. I don’t have any printed, but you can bet your ass I’ve got a whole load of ‘em in a ring-binder somewhere.
What are we talking about? Why, that universal staple of the hefty fantasy series, of course, the MAP.
What kind do you go for? Do you have a huge one that folds away, except you can never quite fold it up right once you’ve opened it, like the one I accidentally tore in my Dad’s edition of the Fellowship of the Ring then denied all knowledge of? Or do you have one of those tiny, incomprehensible ones that seems to have been badly photocopied like handouts at school, and a significant portion of the dotted line indicating the “journey of the mismatched group of champions” has been destroyed by the gap between two pages of your printed-on-toilet-paper mass-market paperback?
Should you have one that marks every village in the imagined world in painstaking detail, thereby advertising all the sweat you expended on your system of gnomish nomenclature? Or one that has six cities involved in the story and everything else pretty much just a big white splodge with the coastlines barely even squiggled up properly that just screams, “couldn’t be arsed to think up more than twelve names, but my publisher said I had to do this!”
Talking of publishers, I was at the Gollancz Autumn Party the other night, and Editorial Director Simon Spanton was spewing venom (alright, he was being mildly irritated) on the whole subject of maps. He don’t like ‘em much. He certainly doesn’t think they’re in any way necessary. He objects to the way they’re sometimes included on a knee-jerk. He feels that books are a piece of written work and should stand on that basis without the need for often inaccurate and ugly bodges on the fly-leaf.
I agree with him, up to a point. My own feelings, often repeated and rubbed soft and thin like the material of a favourite shirt, is that maps aren’t really suitable to the type of book I write, that is one centred tightly around the characters. To use a film metaphor, I feel that epic fantasy is often told too much in wide shots, which is to say we are shown vast events from a great distance, we are shown little people in a huge landscape, we perhaps lack that feeling of closeness with, and understanding of, the characters. And there’s no wider shot than the whole world on a page, right?
I wanted my readers to feel like they were right there with the characters – right inside their heads, if possible – part of the action rather than floating dispassionately above it. I wanted to tell a story as close-up as I could, so you can smell the sweat, and feel the pain, and understand the emotions. I want a reader to be nailed to the text, chewing their fingernails to find out what happens next, not constantly flipping back to the fly-leaf to check just how far north exactly Carleon is from Uffrith, or whatever. The characters often don’t know what’s going on – they don’t have a conveniently accurate map to hand, why should the reader?
I kind of worry that the need for maps is part of a mindset that I’d like – in the gentlest possible way – to be steering readers away from, at least while they’re reading my books. A focus on world, and setting, and getting all the details straight, that maybe gets in the way of submersion in the characters and the story. I’d rather they just let it flow over them, left the details in my (hugely capable) hands, and concentrated on each event as it’s presented.
Call me foolish as well, but I do think having a map there can damage the sense of scale, awe, and wonder that a reader might have for your world. It’s like that moment in the horror film when you finally see the monster. What? That’s it? I was scared of a piece of foam rubber? The unknown can be mysterious, exciting, in a way that a few squiggles on a piece of paper often … aren’t. It’s a bit like the problem I have with literal fantasy artwork of the characters on a cover. Pictures work very powerfully compared to words. Straight away the reader’s imagination is constricted by what they’ve seen there, and I’d like to think of my readers’ imaginations running wild and free, roaming far and wide like a noble mountain goat, or something.
I also reckon that, while the hardcore fantasy fan (and that probably includes 90% of the readers of this blog, but hey, let’s go down in a blaze of glory) would often like to see a map, the more general fantasy reader isn’t that bothered, and in fact might be quite glad when there isn’t one. You see it in the front there, and you kind of feel you have to look, and get some sense of it all before you start, know what I mean? As if the author’s suddenly going to appear at some point and test you.
So I guess you could say I’m in the anti-map camp, if we have camps. But the thing is, there’s a part of me that loves maps. That understands why readers sometimes complain about their absence. That part that long ago sat happily drawing each tiny tree in the forests on a massive sheet of A2 while the first episodes of Star Trek Next Generation burbled happily away in the background. That part that still likes to take the old RPG supplements into the bathroom so I can peruse the layouts of Orthanc while on the toilet.
Had my publisher wanted a map, either in the UK, the US, or anywhere else, I’d happily have given them one. Even a rubbish one. It would have been a very long way from a deal-breaker, I can tell you that. But none of them have asked. Perhaps one day I’ll stick some up on the website, just for the hell of it. But then I hear that little voice whispering, “What if someone notices that Carleon isn’t quite as far North of Uffrith as you said it was, eh? What then? You’ll be a laughing stock…”