On books, reading, analysis and book reviews

While I got good marks for GCSE and A-level English literature, as far as I’m concerned, analysing stuff I’ve read spoils the book. I don’t want to pick anything apart looking at characterisation, language, style, key themes or whatever else the academics and reviewers can think of. Why not? Because to me the point of reading is escapism. Why would I want to deconstruct the world I escaped into? That just rubs in that it isn’t real.

I read a book (or watch a film) as if it is real. I don’t care that rabbits don’t talk, the Matrix doesn’t exist or that dragons weren’t actually used in the Napoleonic wars. In the alternate realities I visit through film and literature, anything can be true. Realities are just different. Reading about a dystopic future alien planet is no different from reading about another country. I’m reading about a place that’s different from here. As long as the book or film is reasonably well thought through I can absorb the facts and rules that define that other country and its history; learn its culture*, if you will.  Clearly I’m not the only one who does this – people are always discussing which Hogwarts house they would be sorted into and what their patronus would be; whether they’d rather be a hobbit or an elf; what Captain Kirk’s childhood was like; whether they’d choose Edward or Jacob. Many people write fan fiction because they know the mythology of their chosen culture so well that they can add to it within the rules of that reality. So far I’ve mostly mentioned the alternate realities of sci-fi and fantasy, but even a novel set in your home town and written about someone exactly like you is still an alternate reality that you can believe in and escape to.DSCN3700

So why would anyone want to pick apart the book that brings you the alternate reality? Bring the fragile edifice of suspended disbelief crashing down around you? A book or a film is a holiday from the inescapable everyday reality – so why trash your holiday photos and break your souvenirs? I like to hold the stories in my head, return to my favourites time and again, tell them to myself when I can’t sleep. How could I do that if I looked at the words rather than seeing the story? To me, dissecting the writing is like reading a word on the screen by looking at the individual pixels. Yes, you need the pixels to convey the meaning and some fonts and screens are clearer than others, but if you want to understand what the writer is communicating, stop looking at the trees and see the wood!

I realise that some people get pleasure from reading and writing reviews, but I have to say I cannot understand it. I see the point of analysing writers you admire in order to improve your own writing style, but it’s not for me. I have a strong distaste for almost everything I ever analysed at school aside from Chaucer and Shakespeare and I believe they are only excepted because with them there was sufficient distraction in understanding the unfamiliar language that the amount of other analysis was reduced from what it might have been.

This post was triggered by “Book club questions” in the back of a book I just finished reading. I knew I didn’t want to look at them and yet I was drawn to them and then offended by them. I cannot say quite why I had such a strong reaction but I am repulsed by them. Maybe I feel that my reaction to the book is somehow invalidated by them. Their wording irritates me, with their implications that the characters could have behaved differently and their assumption that I want to tell people which part of the book evoked an emotional reaction. Rationally I see that these questions are aimed at people who want to talk about their reactions to the book, but it feels like an invasion of my privacy to have it implied that I had an emotional reaction, let alone to ask me to discuss it. I cannot explain my reaction to these bookclub questions; all that I can conclude is that I should never join a book-club!

*Or Culture, for the Ian M. Banks readers.

On blogging about nothing

One of my favourite children’s authors, Diana Wynne Jones, wrote a book in which one of the characters (Quentin) has an arrangement in place to cure his writers’ block:

What I had to do, he said, was to promise to send him every three months two thousand words of any old thing that came into my head … I always write really idiotic things that nobody would want to publish … last year I sent Mountjoy a solemn discussion about what to do if rabbits suddenly started eating meat. This time it was about old ladies rioting in Corn Street.*

This book was first published in 1984, a time before blogging. To me, this regular imperative to write something, anything, has strong resonance with blogging. I wonder how this fictional character would be different had blogging been available to him and his author. Would it have been enough for him to have had a blog? Would a self-imposed deadline have been enough to get his keyboard clattering? The character, stuck in a world before online publishing, assumes that his random creations would not merit the expense of publishing and so wouldn’t be worth putting before an audience, but I think these days many people subscribe to blogs which discuss exactly that kind of bizarre topics. Doesn’t his material seem rather tempting, from that snippet? Wouldn’t his blog offer novelty and escapism, qualities prized in the online communities?

Of course, no matter what the benefits, there’s one thing you just can’t blog without and Diana Wynne-Jones premonitorily covered that in her author’s note:

“All power corrupts, but we need electricity”**

*D. Wynne Jones, Archer’s Goon, HarperCollins, London, 2000, p. 30-31.

**ibid., p. [8]

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

On fiction and imagination

This post began when I after I read a post by girlonthecontrary which opens by asking what music unicorns listen to. Setting aside for a moment that I felt immediately I could be an authority on unicorn music, this got me thinking about the human capacity for fiction.  

I leave you free to believe what you will (your creed is not my business), but let us for argument’s sake assume that unicorns are not real. How is it then that I feel instinctively qualified to discuss their musical tastes? Perhaps because I have been conditioned by books and films as to the reported behaviour patterns of unicorns and I believe I can infer something based on that with the addition of some knowledge of music? That’s a reasonable explanation but it misses the point somewhat. What I’m questioning is the human imagination. Even if I do not believe in unicorns I can visualise one (or many) without difficulty and I find that remarkable.  

The concept of a unicorn is quite a simple example one but a novel is infinitely more complex. In many books, particularly in the science fiction and fantasy genres, the reader is lifted into another world which may not bear much resemblance to the one he or she usually inhabits. Often the reader learns enough about a fictional world to feel that they could become a part of it; just think of the popularity of quizzes to sort people into their house at Hogwarts and the extreme devotion of convention-going Star-Trek fans. Yet it is very rare for a person to lose track of the distinction between fiction and reality. How sophisticated our brains are to be able to distinguish between this detailed, well thought-out fiction and the real world. How is it that we can watch a film, follow it with the evening  news and keep perfectly clear which parts of our viewing were true occurrences and which were fiction?  

Perhaps we are able to differentiate because we are not totally immersed in the experiences on the screen or page – if all of our senses were engaged perhaps it would be more challenging. Certainly with a dream, where all the senses may seem to be involved but the experiences are (generally) not real ones, it can be difficult sometimes to separate the dream from reality. I know I am not the only one who has woken furious with my partner or a friend and found it difficult to forgive them for something they only did in my dream. Sometimes it isn’t until I question why I am cross that I realise the thing I thought they did doesn’t quite make sense, so it probably didn’t happen and I should give them a break!  

But I am not only amazed by our ability to interact with fiction; there is also the process of creation. How is it that humans can invent so many new stories, characters and worlds? We are not all capable of writing blockbusting novels but each of us can imagine something, even if it is only the tiniest part removed from reality. 



At the moment I am imagining a blue centaur called Wilberforce, who is fond of candyfloss but allergic to the colouring in it. As I imagine him now he is a little grumpy (because of the candyfloss issue) but I have the power to imagine exciting adventures for him or a quiet day in his stable and I can cheer him up in any number of ways.  

Maybe we should try to revel in the power of our brains and all have a go at imagining something. How long is it since you last took time out of reality to imagine something? You never know, your thoughts might end up as the next big Hollywood blockbuster!