How Much Background?

The other day I came across a term new to me (“loreporn”), or at least new in the context in which it was used, that being the idea of excessive background information in novels as analogous to the excesses of pornography. I’ve occasionally run across “porn” used as a suffix before, negatively denoting excesses of various sorts, but I have to admit that I’d never seen it used as a derogatory term for excessive literary or fictional background.

The problem with this sort of labelling is that writers, being writers, have different styles. Some like more background, some almost none. Also, readers of different genres have differing expectations. Readers who favor fast-moving action tend to favor less historical background and find legends that take more than a sentence to explain distracting. Some fantasy readers find more lore and background intriguing and fascinating, others less so. And that’s fine.

It’s one thing to point out that a writer’s “lore” doesn’t work as supposedly designed, or that it was borrowed from feudalism or Shinto, or other cultures, and really isn’t applicable to the society described by the writer. It’s also fair to point out when there’s more background than story, or where the background has more character than the protagonist.

But to brand anything that doesn’t fit into one’s own perceptions of what is proper as “loreporn” is more often than not a cheap shot and misleading. One could thoughtlessly apply the term to much of Tolkien, but all of that lore is an enormous part of what makes The Lord of the Rings what it is.

What I find disturbing about such a term is the almost moralistic condemnation it implies to a style that a reader finds not to his or her taste. There are societal and practical reasons to derogate, or at least be skeptical of excessive depictions of sexual acts, but to equate expansive descriptions of history, myth, or legend to out and out pornography seems more than a little excessive to me. And using a single derogatory word to describe any author’s lore, legends, and myth is carelessly and cruelly excessive.

But then, we live in an age of excess.

2 thoughts on “How Much Background?”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    (trying Firefox since Safari didn’t work)
    Continued excess has diminishing returns. Verbal bombs are far more effective from someone that almost never uses them, than from someone who can’t communicate without them.

    I’m interested in background not originally intended to be published. Some, as in your example, provide lots of it, even minor characters that are unexplained except perhaps as a personification of a particular interest (Tom Bombadil). Others arguably don’t do enough.

    In your work, “Recluce Tales” answered a lot (by no means all) of background questions. I’m wondering whether/how often the conception of the answers predated vs followed the questions.

    1. The stories in Recluce Tales are a mixed bag in that regard. “Black Ordermage” was written in answer to a reader question asking if I’d write more about Cassius. “The Vice Admiral’s Trial” was written as a compromise between readers who wanted to know more about the founding of Cyad and David Hartwell, my long-time editor who begged me NOT to write a novel about that period. “The Most Successful Merchant” was my attempt to give the scarcely recognized Eileyt his due. Every story except one has a link to a novel in some fashion.

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