Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Barely-Supported Thesis

There are two major strands of new fiction coming out of modernism at the beginning of the 20th century: minimalism and maximalism.

The minimal encompasses writers as diverse as: Hemingway, Beckett, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, George Saunders,  even, I'd say, Faulkner (compared to Joyce, whom he loved, a genuine minimalist). These writers tend to be concerned with morality and (perhaps as a knock-on effect) realism in one form or another.

The maximal encompasses writers I usually like more. They tend to write purpler and more stylish  prose and have more fanciful ideas. They tend to be more concerned with style and (and this is where it goes D&D-relevant) games.

Roughly: in their fiction, the maximalists are interested in how the world works --i.e. the rules-- whereas the minimalists are concerned with shoving how it should work up against how it does. The maximalist has methods, the minimalist has messages.

Let's take a look at games in the main current of stylish and maximal literature...


Lewis Carroll: Cards, then chess pieces. There's a chess problem included in Looking Glass.

Robert Louis Stevenson: invented and played a wargame in his attic--or someone's. (Maximalist credentials maybe not totally intact, but important to Nabokov, prince of maximalists and to science fiction and fantasy authors, the best of whom are all maximalists).

H.G. Wells: wrote Little Wars. When he was good, it was because of style...

 His is the House of Pain. His is the Hand that makes. His is the Hand that wounds. His is the Hand that heals.

T.S. Eliot: A Game of Chess

Nabokov: I suppose I am especially susceptible to the magic of games. In my chess sessions with Gaston I saw the board as a square pool of limpid water with rare shells and stratagems rosily visible upon the smooth tessellated bottom, which to my confused adversary was all ooze and squid-cloud.

Julio Cortazar:  He'd turn a novel into a game. And, yeah, chess everywhere just for starters.

Borges: Honestly I don't read enough Spanish to say whether he's really a stylist or a maximalist, but his fans in the english speaking world are. And his stories are gamey as fuck: Garden of Forking Paths, Library of Babel.

Georges Perec: A Void and many other works are games in addition to being books. And more chess.

Donald Barthelme: a clear heir to the fluff if not the crunch of Perec and the Oulipians.

Thomas Pynchon: Games everywhere in Pynchon, but, being  the maximummest, so is everything else. Howeve: check out by how far the references to "chess" and "cause and effect" outnumber everything else under "C" in Gravity's Ranbow.

David Foster Wallace: Eschaton. (Incidentally: DFW was rare in being a maximalist writer who was obsessed with morality. He killed himself. )

(Also in the small category of moralizing maximalists is Anthony Burgess, who disowned his best novel. And very gamey.)

Martin Amis: Wrote a strategy guide to Space Invaders before he got famous. And games are all over The Information and London Fields is rich in gamelike thinking on Nicola's part.

China Mieville: Another (half the time) maximalist (half the time) interested in morality. And a man who knows his way around games.


Dorothy Parker and Hunter S Thompson--who both rock, but both suffer a chronic lack of commitment--are somewhere in the middle, I'd say. They liked life as a game, but had only had an intermittent interest in rules. I guess I'd put George Saunders in with this "likes fun, but not exactly playful" crowd.

Vonnegut is a minimalist who's into games. There goes my thesis.

Now here's the part where my prof tells me to go research ardent maximalists like James Joyce, William S Burroughs, Melville, and M John Harrison's relation to gaming and chase down this rumor about the Bronte sisters' wargame and actually get around to reading Tristram Shandy, which has a wargamer in it.  But I'm lazy and have a pretty painting to make and little wars to run.



  1. I can tell you casually, not to your prof's standards, that Burroughs dug the games. The Cut-up technique he used is an exquisite corpse game.

    1. Also, more literally, he did voice acting for a computer game:

  2. Bronte Sisters wargaming - As children the sisters and their brother Branwell were given wooden soldiers. Emily and Anne loved these and invented a whole fantasy island 'Gondal' around them, playing what I suppose we would now call an RPG, giving each a character, a name, a history, though who knows if it had rules (or polyhedral dice).

    The other two siblings, Charlotte and Branwell created Angria, starring the Duke of Wellington.

    Whether it went anywhere beyond a particularly vivid form of 'let's pretend', who can say, but being graphomaniacs they apparently wrote a lot of this stuff down, and the Bronte's being pretty smart kids it might have been a reasonable read.

    Emily and Anne supposedly kept Gondal going into adulthood, writing stories and poems, referring to it in letters, though now only poems survive and notes about the island that in modern RPG parlance might be 'setting books'.

    Anyway lots of guff about it on the web, and I'm sure some clever lit scholar someplace has written a book about it, and there's a crappy tea shop in Haworth called 'House of Gondal'.

    1. Some of the original Gondal documents were on display at the British Library's science fiction exhibit a year or two ago. It was pretty interesting to see them.

      They had really tiny handwriting.

  3. ITALO CALVINO - "Il castello dei destini incrociati" was developed using tarot cards. Another experiment would be likely created using comic strips but it was never completed.

  4. Iain M Banks, The Player of Games.

    The entire Culture is almost one big game, with probably just one rule, and in the novel referenced, we visit a planet where the emperor is chosen by who wins an enormous game tournament that's Chess + Civilization, and reflects the structure of the empire it's played in by it's rules.

  5. One thing that strikes me as being a common thread amongst the maximalists is an awareness and use of the (narrative) structure of their works—that is, they played with the "rules" of literature and often tried to have these rules mirror in some way the rules of the world they were writing about. This in itself is a bit of a game-like activity, although more of a solitaire, the product of which is something the player can share with a larger audience, who end up experiencing them as a kind of puzzle.

    Back to your point, there's also:

    J. G. Ballard often has his characters exploring the limits of the rules of worlds he created.

    Tom Stoppard has the coin toss "game" at the beginning of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

    And probably Umberto Ecco? Surely the protagonists in Foucault's Pendulum are performing in something not dissimilar to an alternative reality game (or at least think they are).

    Citing my own point, I'd also add Gene Wolfe (who had an obsession with storytelling, performance, and breaking the fourth wall—all parts of the RPG experience—although I am blanking on any games in the novels of his I've read).

    1. On reflection, J. G. Ballard probably better fits under my extended definition rather than within your own.

      Also, my mention of postmodern literature as a solitaire game documented by the author reminded me of this essay:

    2. Whether Ballard is a minimalist or a maximalist is an interesting question

    3. Games in Gene Wolfe - no, can't recall any either, but the theatre stuff is a repeated theme.

    4. Theater exercises and wargames meet in D&D. I suspect, though, that they usually emanate from opposite ends of the "what different kinds of people think are fun" spectrum.

    5. Isn't Gene Wolf playing a heck of a game with language in The Books of the New Sun? The antiquated words used in place unknowable futuristic technologies and as a stand in for an incomprehensible language?

  6. I was thinking of Roberto Bolano's '2666'. Where the Geology of morals explored by his characters are mostly already pretty impotent or hollow, but the movement (the cause and effect of relational interaction) exhibits a lot of minimalist tropes. It's polyphonic in the construction of the narrative's meaning(s). But ultimately, everything built within the story(ies) is up against an opposing and beckoning Reality that simply is or is not with or without the presence of 'characters'. Like.. a vapid, impotent dependency.

    In the stylistic framework presented here, I guess I would consider Bolano as an unfixed antecedent to DFW - The Minimalist who is obsessed with the Maximal. But I'd consider that a fun thought.

    I wonder what kind of games he would play.

    I heard a rumor that Sol Yurick held a hacked version of Monopoly, for years, on a bi-weekly basis.

    1. Bolano confuses me: everyone seems impressed by him but it all just reads like dishwater to me. Might be the translation.

    2. My track record for using the word 'Impotent' twice, unknowingly , in the same paragraph is flawless. That confuses me. But yeah, I imagined what the book would be like for a long time before actually purchasing it and, essentially, it hit me the way I'd hoped, which means to say that no matter the particular content of any section, I always felt a sort of anxious pessimism about everything. It's not entirely pleasant or admirable but I would certainly say successful in its barely noticeable (impotent) sense of foreboding.

      But yeah, I'm doubting Bolano played many tabletop games/board games. I'm thinking a Foosball man.

    3. Bolano also wrote a whole novel about an aficionado of Avalon Hill's Third Reich wargame.

  7. thanks for writing this. i like to hear about how creative minds partition the universe of creative works. i've also felt there was something i wanted to understand about the similarities between games and novels for at least the past 10 years but never met anyone else who had any thoughts on that matter.

  8. The question perhaps is not "why do maximalist writers include games" (many don't) but "why do minimalist writers avoid writing about games?"

    I think the problem is on the shoulders of minimalism and a Very Serious view of the world that purports to deliver raw experience. The same view that keeps meta-fictions, for example, out of minimalism.

    Also, the "minimalist" Atwood describes a computer game in Oryx and Crake. But she doesn't seem to revel in its details, and ultimately it's revealed as a vehicle for triggering the extinction of humanity.

    1. I think the funny minimalists are an interesting exception--they like fun, but not in the form of games.

      And that is a real kind of fun. Usually more social.

  9. Joyce Carol Oates certainly is into the game thing. Not only is she a HPL fan, but her " On Boxing " is a good analysis to more combat-deadly RPG's like Rolemater and D100.

    I read somewhere that Umberto Ecco regretted not selling the film rights to Stanley Kubrick when he wanted to make Foucault's Pendulum into a film. What a shame that never happen...

  10. Then there's Philip K. Dick, who was bilaterally compelled to fervors both ontological and moral at nearly every turn. The truth of the world and the way it should be were indivisible for him. No wonder he turned toward religious explanations; he needed a framework that included cosmology and morality in its vocabulary.