MARCH 5, 2016
MY FUTURE FATHER-IN-LAW has an impressive literary pedigree. He studied anthropology and history at Yale in the ’60s. He speaks multiple languages. He has read all of Henry James and Joseph Conrad, and he is working his way through Faulkner. I love talking books with him — although our literary tastes overlap only on the few classics I have read — and he is so approachable and fun to talk to about literature that I’m embarrassed to admit I’m a little intimidated by him. I grew up reading Redwall novels and spent my college years drinking PBR and playing Super Nintendo games — how could I possibly hold up my end of a conversation with a man who reads world classics in their original languages?
Writers, especially young and emerging writers, are well acquainted with shame. You enter a graduate program or start meeting people in a literary scene only to discover your new friends are conversant in books you’ve never even heard of, and you’re ashamed. You’re ashamed of your early work. You’re ashamed of how much you write — too little and you must be a dabbler, too much and you’re a crank. There’s the shame of practicing a craft that most non-writers view as abstruse, maybe even snobbish, something that can be written off as a hobby. There’s the omnipresent shame of rejection — by publishers, by readers, by the people you love, by your own community. Sometimes you are ashamed of being too literary, other times ashamed at being not literary enough.
Matt Bell’s book-length essay Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn is a book about shame. Using a playthrough of the eponymous Dungeons & Dragons computer game as a framework, Bell explores his history with D&D, fantasy, and computer games, and the friction between his fantasy life and his literary life:
Another wound I continue to carry is the deep shame I sometimes feel about who I was and what I was interested in when I was a child, as a teenager, as an adult: how the fantasy novels and the role-playing and the video games don’t match cleanly to the image I’ve tried to cultivate as a “serious” man, as a writer of fiction, a professor, and an editor.
He also admits, “If I had not been a fantasy reader, a video game player, a D&D dungeon master, I would probably not be a writer or an editor or a professor,” and the book thrives on those tensions between shame and love, denial and gratitude.
My deep wound is video games. In the same way Bell “pretended to be someone else whenever [he] stepped outside of the house” and learned “to never talk about computer games in class or on the school bus,” I learned that my love for video games was excessive and embarrassing. I was swept away by those worlds in a way that nobody else seemed to be, and I walked around with my head full of pixels and quests and ideas. Video games made me very happy and very lonely.
Those imaginary worlds are formative, and it’s surprising more writers aren’t vocal about their early experiences with video games. Surely that will change in a decade or two — just try to find an 11-year-old who doesn’t sink hours into Minecraft or Destiny or some other detailed online world — but for now, video gaming isn’t seen as an obvious precursor to a literary life. There are exceptions: Michael W. Clune’s recent Gamelife, for example, uses computer games from the ’80s to structure a childhood memoir, and a growing corpus of independent lit — mostly experimental, mostly written by young writers — is beginning to treat video games as sites for lyrical exploration, for metaphors that go deeper than the lazy narratives of addiction and social isolation handed down by the media.
The literary world’s embrace of gaming is still very tentative, but Dungeons & Dragons seems to have become an acceptable writerly antecedent. A 2014 New York Times article called “A Game as Literary Tutorial” highlighted the D&D roots of writers like Sherman Alexie and Junot Díaz, who called D&D’s free-form collaborative narrative “a sort of storytelling apprenticeship.” Bell mentions the article in Baldur’s Gate II, but he’s still loath to take his D&D rulebooks and fantasy novels out of storage and put them on his bookshelves. “Bookshelves do more than just hold up our books,” he writes. “They speak to how we see ourselves, and more obviously how we want others to see us.”
Most writers are hyperconscious of how readers, editors, and most importantly other writers see them. Bell’s conflicted embrace of his non-literary roots isn’t uncommon. I remember an MFA party where a colleague admitted to me, in the tone of voice you might use to confess deep depravity, that her earliest attempts at writing were fan fiction. “What fandom?” I asked. She shrugged and responded, “A few different ones,” and I didn’t press. I get it. It’s probably lonely for the literary fanfic lover, just like it’s lonely for the literary gamer. When I’m hanging out with writers, I don’t want to be the guy who steers the conversation away from Bolaño and toward Nintendo. I include gaming and gamers in my short stories, and sometimes I worry what non-gaming editors must think of them.
But it’s true that a writer’s best work tends to acknowledge those early obsessions, especially the conflicted ones. Bell writes about introducing fantasy and fabulism into his literary output: “It almost immediately resulted in more lively fiction than I’d been making in the years before. I was using all of my imagination instead of just the portion I thought would be acceptable to others.”
Some of the most enjoyable passages of Baldur’s Gate II describe Bell’s attempts to bridge the gap between computer role-playing and literary work. Under a pen name, Bell and Seattle writer Matthew Simmons co-wrote a licensed Dungeons & Dragons novel called The Last Garrison. Bell relays his struggle to wed his childhood love of “these stories [where] I found I could have experiences other people did not have to know about, experiences they could not forbid or control” to a prose style that, unlike his own literary fiction, “thrive[s] on exposition.” He isn’t happy with the results. The failure of his D&D novel to become more than the sum of its outline, like the failure of his early obsessions to translate into literary acceptability, needles him.
Bell’s personal shame and literary aspirations meet head-to-head when he bumps into Gordon Lish, with whom he’s taking a workshop, in a restaurant. Bell is working on The Last Garrison and Lish is holding court with a few of Bell’s classmates:
When Lish saw me typing on my MacBook in the corner of the room, he invited me to join him and the others, to show him what I was writing. I did not accept. I couldn’t show him the document I had loaded on my laptop […] At the very least, he would have belittled me, and more than likely he would have been cruel about it again in class later that night.
Later, Bell wonders “how might the exposition-heavy, sometimes ponderous world of D&D have changed under his minimalist approach?” It’s hard to read this chapter and not wonder along with him. How many chances do we have to see a world-class literary editor take on a paperback Dungeons & Dragons fantasy? But I understand why he didn’t, and I can’t blame him for holding back. Shame is a powerful thing.
My fiancé was out of town for almost three weeks recently, and I spent my sudden and copious free time writing, dipping into Proust for the first time (recommended and beloved by my future father-in-law), and watching hours of retro game collecting videos on YouTube. These videos are a peculiar niche: guys (they are almost always guys) filming their trips to flea markets and video game stores, digging through crates of Nintendo games, interviewing their friends about rare cartridges they’ve picked up recently. They have YouTube handles like “MetalJesusRocks” and “PatTheNESPunk.” They are all uniformly terrible in front of the camera. Some of them sing their own theme music.
These videos often have hundreds of thousands of views. They are labors of love, and there’s a lo-fi charm to watching a long-haired metalhead nerd talk about rare Playstation games in his basement. I can’t tell if the warmth I feel when I watch them is the warmth of identifying with the specific strain of nerdery on display, or if it’s the warmth of self-satisfaction, of thinking, “Well at least I’m not as bad as these guys.”
I watched one video where the collector showed off his recent finds on a picnic table in a park, narrating the history of each game and how he came to collect it. I watched the background tensely, afraid that someone would walk through the frame, see what was happening, and start mocking the collector. Didn’t he know that you’re not supposed to show off this stuff out in the open like that? Didn’t he know people would make fun of him?
It seemed like a bold act to me, like showing a poet friend your collection of Super Nintendo games, like starting a D&D group in your MFA, like Matt Bell excavating his childhood embarrassment and hidden obsessions, and I loved it. If that were me, I would die of shame.