Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A comment about the Potterverse and fantasy

A critical note about the Harry Potter series. An unused fragment of my creative writing dissertation, which is not wholly fair, or reasoned, but represents my disquiet with this otherwise admirable series:
In the world of Harry Potter, magic has become procedural, teachable and formulaic (though we rarely, if ever, glimpse the history of those formulae). Hence, magic becomes a mechanical task, a technology, and is represented as heavily bureaucratised. The only character who defies the bureaucracy, who acts as if magic has personal, transformative power, is the antagonist Voldemort, the leader of a cabal of racists in a fascist coup. Rowling’s work is so committed to the coherency of her world and magic that she discounts or smothers magic’s transgressiveness, its dangerous potential.

Reading, libraries, fiction and imagination - Neil Gaiman

Although somewhat late, it's a pleasure to post this brilliant defence of reading, libraries, fiction and imagination by Neil Gaiman: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming.

It's a stirring celebration not only of reading and imagination, and the libraries which facilitate and represent that need, but of entertainment and popular fiction, and reading for pleasure.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The past is a dusty window

Working on A Hangman for Ghosts, I'm put in mind of the strangeness of historical fiction. All histories carry particular views; all stories strive to make you see, but how can we make that picture seem complete and compelling?

A Hangman for Ghosts opens on the outermost bounds of the Empire: the prison colony in New South Wales which eventually became the city of Sydney, Australia. Anyone interested in this history knows Robert Hughes's magisterial The Fatal Shore, but Hughes's vivid history of the convict period is a story of administrative cruelty, of transportation, exile and suffering, dispossession, forced labour, hangings and the lash. Grace Karskens, in her new history of Sydney, The Colony, tells the same story quite differently. She focuses on the material development of the colony, the landscape, the story of convicts, emancipists, administrators and settlers who strove to adjust, survive and prosper, and set the foundations of a new nation in a strange landscape.

As a writer working on an historical mystery, I need to drag a story out of this research, to form these different views into one narrative. I want to imagine early Sydney, understand its topography, its bustling, conflicted society, its gaols, barracks, pubs and gallows, its farms and roads and grand houses in their own light, as a lived experience. But the past is a dusty window: we swipe at the pane, we see shapes, motion, flashes of light, activity, human drama unfolding and flowing, but always dim and strange and a little distant.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Reading and sympathy

If there's a question as to why we should read for pleasure (or with pleasure, for that matter), rather than just for information, this little snippet might help us understand that reading can truly broaden our empathy, or what writers would have once called our sympathies:
Psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, at the New School for Social Research in New York, have proved that reading literary fiction enhances the ability to detect and understand other people's emotions, a crucial skill in navigating complex social relationships.
Now, I don't believe that we need science to save literature (or literary studies), or even to make the moral argument for us, but this is an intriguing bit of evidence. It shows that as we might expect, reading is reading: it exercises our perceptions and our sympathies, requires and enhances skill, and connects us with the world and the characters we read about.

I take issue with the distinction between literary and popular fiction, since of course, Dickens was once one of the most popular novelists of his era, but I wonder if what the study might suggest is that other genres could enhance additional sympathies than just our 'theory of mind'. Can science fiction make us more philosophical or analytical? Can fantasy make us more imaginative? And could mystery make us more observant, more cued to perception and environmental subtleties?