Matthew P. Schmidt
Politics and Religion and The City and the Dungeon.
Note that this post will contain significant spoilers for C&D2.
As a general rule, it is not good to respond to fan criticism. After all, their opinion is ultimately infallible–I cannot nor should attempt to convince a fan to enjoy what he did not enjoy. And some of y’all didn’t enjoy parts of C&D2. That’s ultimately your call.
But there are parts that I, in retrospect, did not enjoy, and even regret. And so rather than leave them festering, I’ll be open and talk about them.
Before I begin, let me acknowledge the meta-criticism that C&D2 is not like C&D1. A big part of this is that Book 1 was written in 2016, when I was a much younger and significantly different person. Four years later, I’ve lived a lot more life and suffered a lot more painful wounds. So it’s true that they don’t have the same feel, and perhaps they never could. But at the same time, I realize now people were hoping for a brighter, happier book in the middle of a horrible year, and C&D2 was not that book.
Which brings us to the America arc and the real-world politics referenced therein.
I had always planned those elements to various extents since the second draft–that Alex is an American to begin with is the start of it. But what I had intended was a more subtle idea than what came across: namely, that all leaders, even bad leaders are leaders. It was never about Trump, insomuch as this same principle applies to him as much as any leader, and the King is not supposed to be a Trump reference.
That was my goal, but 2020 was not the year to read this message, nor 2020 the year to write it. I’ll admit that frustrations with real-world politics sank in, and even after attempts to remove it I did not remove it enough. Perhaps all it really needed was to clean it of all present political references–would my thesis have lost anything if there were not Republicans, Democrats, and the Electoral College? It would not have, and I regret that this lowered the enjoyment of a book that should have been pure escapism in a world demanding it.
But I will also be honest and not pretend that the shock from it was not my intent. Indeed, I had hoped to stir up emotions and unsettle. I believe I succeeded–which is why I should not have done it to begin with. I do not think it is wrong to screw with the reader’s heads. But this was not the book. LitRPGs are comfort reading, in the end, even if they have some higher message. No message in such a book is worth making the reader feel unhappy.
The other thing I regret is exactly how I depicted Judaism.
My intent with depicting real world religion is the crossover between the rules of the Dungeon and the ancient precepts of real belief. What do you get when you cross what is most powerful and prudent for a delver with following the 613 mitzvot of the Torah–and all the different interpretations of those laws throughout history?
An interesting story, I dare say, but I believe my execution was off.
I tried to depict the Jews in the story as I would any culture other than my own, as heroic: virtuous, flawed, and larger than life. I also did extensive research, though on further reflection I ought to have done even more. I also put in my own knowledge of the Old Testament, knowing that even if I missed the notes of Judaism–as any Gentile inevitably must–I could at least put my own experience in.
But what I fear happened is that it just looked like it was an obsession. Perhaps it was simply that it all felt out of place. Or perhaps, I fear, I did not quite accomplish what I set out to do. Now, looking back, I see I should have tried further to imagine not what life as a Jewish delver would be like, but what my life would be like if I was a Jewish delver.
But what I really regret–more than a mere mistake–was how that theme enters into the story. The seeds of Michal’s and Alice’s confrontation were in C&D1, if you look carefully, but if I had a chance to write it again, I would write it differently–less for shock and unsettling, more for healing and compassion. I don’t regret putting the theme in the story to begin with. I had written those earlier scenes in such a way I could abort the plotline if I had to. Cowardly? I considered it. But I also considered that removing another culture from my story out of fear of depicting them badly was more cowardly still.
Antisemitism is still a dark theme, in a dark book, that people were hoping to be light and carefree. And in any case, it it is too late to rewrite it. All authors must eventually move on. Which brings the question, what next?
C&D3 will have 99% less real-world politics and the religion will be more integrated–and I will be twice as careful on that sensitive subject. It will also, to offer a tiny spoiler–be almost all delving.
As for C&D2, I can only offer apologies for how I failed, and a promise to do better next time.
P. S. If you are Jewish and you read C&D2, I’m curious to hear from you how I did. For that matter, if you’re anyone and you read C&D2, I’m curious to hear from you how I did. There’s a contact form on my “About” page.
A meditation on the controversial topic of trigger warnings.
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