It’s totally true that when we write a story that takes place in NYC in 2017 and has no speculative elements, there are certain kinds of world-building that are unnecessary. We don’t have to explain what currency characters use to buy things, for instance. But the more I read and study SF alongside literary fiction, the more I realize that all fiction needs to address the question of, “What’s possible here — where can characters go and what can they do?”
In The House of Mirth, for one random example, Wharton lavishes a TON of care on describing class distinctions, etiquette, gender roles and expectations, fashion, and economics. At the time, she was writing realism about the recent past. But she was nevertheless very aware of the role the story’s “world” played in shaping its characters, their available choices, and their fates. She also didn’t write about aspects of that world that didn’t have to do with the story she was telling. Every piece of background information she gives us functions, directly or indirectly, to help us understand what’s possible for Lily Bart at some point along her journey.
Even in fiction that’s set on Earth in 2017, there are often things I need to know just literally to understand what’s going on. Last night in the workshop I teach, a writer brought in a contemporary realist story that involved the protagonist getting hired for a position overseas in a particular industry. The hiring process was glossed over in the story and it was strongly implied that the protagonist’s new employer hadn’t looked deeply into the protagonist’s resume or past. During our discussion, several of us raised the possibility that something nefarious was going on — why would you hire someone and fly them around the world without doing diligence in this way? When the writer was allowed to speak, she explained this was common practice in the industry she was writing about (she’d worked in it herself). But since this info wasn’t on the page, we didn’t have a sense of what was possible and our expectations were skewed as a result. I described this, at the time, as a world-building problem.
And there’s another level to this beyond just understanding the basic plot. When I read a story that takes place in NYC in 2017 and I have to lean hard on my own pre-existing assumptions and stereotypes — or even worse, pre-existing assumptions and stereotypes that come as received ideas from other fiction and media — to understand the pressures on a character, I consider that a world-building problem too. For instance, if a character feels assailed and distracted by the information overload of modern media technology, but also feels she can’t escape it, I need to see the media landscape she’s reacting to and understand what larger forces make it impossible for her to simply turn it off. (Don DeLillo is the great master of this — I’m thinking especially of Cosmopolis.) It’s not enough for an idea to be in the zeitgeist. It needs to be on the page.
I’ve noticed that when realistic writers make the “world” visible to us in this way, their work becomes at once more stylized and more trenchant, and the stakes for characters are more apparent. Defamiliarization makes the ordinary speak. On the other hand, when writers just do some vague “this is the way we live now” handwaving, the book feels less theirs, because they’re not taking ownership — authorship — of a major fictive element.
So I do think world-building, the way I conceptualize it, is an important part of realistic fiction too. As with the worlds of weird and speculative writers, it can be evoked with a light or heavy hand — implications and patterns woven through, or literal chunks of exposition. But “world” is absolutely an element in all fiction.