Category Archives: Bookish Thoughts

The Books You Fight With

Jane Austen’s been in the news a lot lately, due to her death happening two hundred years ago. As with most occasions Austen is mentioned, discussion turns to ranking her books. Pride and Prejudice is apparently preferred by the popular vote, while Emma is lauded by the critical vote. And I have no argument with this—I’d put one or the other of those at the top myself, except—what book do I find myself meditating on the most? Which one do I wrestle with, and spend hours studying thematically and artistically? It’s not my favourite book, but it has the power to haunt my thoughts more than all the others combined. It’s Mansfield Park.

Does this mean it’s the best one?

Some books you’d never choose as your favourite, but they’re the ones with the power to haunt your thoughts. And a book with that kind of power is perhaps more genius than we want to give it credit for. So maybe we should recognize some of the books we fight with more than we do.

This is not to say these books are perfect. Often it’s some of their very flaws that cause us to wrestle with them so deeply. I, for one, will never forgive Mansfield Park for ending with the very same scandal as Pride and Prejudice (though Jane Austen is really not to be blamed—how many exciting societal events did she really have to work with for the climaxes of her novels?) Flaws are part of the reason, but not the whole reason. For instance, I fight with the protagonist’s (Fanny’s) passivity every time I read it. But I can’t shake the feeling her passiveness means something. I can’t shake the feeling this novel displays something more fundamental about Austen’s worldview than all the others. In which case, it might be some of her most important work.

And I get this feeling when I read That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis as well.

Just like with Mansfield Park, among the people that know such a book exists, opinions are divided between those who highly dislike the novel, and those who love it. It was while discovering my brain was stuck in a loop pondering the message of this book, actually, that I realized the books we fight with might have more power over our thoughts than the ones we love.

Because we love easy-to-understand. We love comforting concepts. But the ideas we may need to grapple with are not always easy or comforting.

For example, I need to consider whether passivity and helplessness, as Fanny shows in Mansfield Park, does have value. Despite my modern context screaming at me about the value of assertiveness and standing up for yourself, I need to not despise Fanny for not being ‘modern’ in this way.

When it comes to That Hideous Strength, I need to accept it’s not going to feed me comforting ideas that I really like, as the first book in the trilogy did (Out of the Silent Planet). Sure, I may have issues with some of the plot, and the time spent with unlikable characters, and the possibly ludicrous events that happen. But what I may be avoiding thinking about by doing this is how much some of these unlikable characters resemble me. Or worse—how I’d like some of the unlikable protagonists to be squashed like a bug because they remind me of unlikable people I personally know—but the novel shows them grace. So I should maybe do so too.

I’d go into the plot more but this book is so obscure for a C.S. Lewis book that I don’t know how many of you will have heard of it. I’ll just say check it out if you like his work. My brain thinks about it more than all my other favourite parts of the Space Trilogy.

So start appreciating those books you fight with. They’re at least as powerful as your favourites.

Drop me a line below about which books these are for you!

 

 

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Let the Children Grow Up–They Do in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

‘Neglectful’ was the word tossed around by one reviewer of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Apparently the Professor was neglectful of the children he’d taken into his house during the bombings of WWII, letting them run through his house on their own and not over-scheduling every minute of their day with dance class, extra tutoring, or athletics.

Let’s leave aside the fact that a bachelor professor who appears to be entirely unused to children decides, out of the kindness of his heart, to shelter a group of four children seeking refuge from the bombing of London. Such a man might not be exactly up-to-date on the recent recommendations of the mommy blogs, nor might he think it harmful for children to just take care of themselves for some hours of the day (as children used to do in decades past). Let’s leave all that aside and look at how the children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are actually allowed to grow up in this book.

Now that our society has invented the idea of childhood (and this is not a bad thing), we have created a very specific, protected idea of what childhood should be. However, in order to grow up children have to eventually step outside of this safe, protected bubble. You might even let them blunder through your house and through a half-forgotten wardrobe that sometimes is a portal to another very dangerous and magical world.

In other words, they become independent and make their own decisions.

It’s very interesting that one well-known criticism of Narnia is that the children don’t grow up–or at least, not in the right way.

“The idea of keeping childhood alive forever and ever and regretting the passage into adulthood—whether it’s a gentle, rose-tinged regret or a passionate, full-blooded hatred, as it is in Lewis—is simply wrong,” the famously outspoken critic of Narnia, Philip Pullman said once in an interview in The New Yorker. His own series, His Dark Materials, attempts to rectify this by having his protagonist grow up and awaken to her own sexuality at the end. Now, as far as I can tell, the children don’t embark on any sexual relationships in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but I don’t think this is the only valid marker of growing up. They do grow up.

And this is why I loved this book. At the end, they actually get to live out their whole lives in Narnia–become kings and queens and put into practice everything the story taught them up to then. So often as a child I’d read fiction where the characters went back in time, or went to another world, and learned something, but they never got to use it in that world. They always had to come back. They always remained children. The reader never fully saw the consequences of the story’s ideas.

And besides the ending of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which so satisfyingly lets the children have a life in the world they helped to save, they have to ‘do’ things throughout the book.

I, who was raised in the safe, coddled confines of ‘be careful!’ ‘safety first!’ and ‘accidents are always preventable!’ was astonished to read about Peter picking up his sword when Susan is attacked by the wolf, and to read Aslan saying, “Back! Let the prince win his spurs!”–just after Aslan finished telling Peter about how he must become king one day. My heart was in my mouth–they weren’t actually going to let Peter do something, were they? Of course he would want to rescue his sister, but there must be some more experienced, more adult character around that should save her.

But no, if Peter is to be a king one day he must shoulder the responsibilities of adulthood himself.

Here we come to another controversial aspect–the children fight in the story. Now, we could point to the times, and argue that children in history had very different lives than they have today, and nobody at the time thought it at all odd. We could point out that Lewis lived through WWI, when very young teenagers died by the thousands in the trenches. We could point to the fact the story is set in WWII, when ‘fighting the enemy’–physically fighting, and not with economic sanctions or making a show of army exercises on a country’s borders–was viewed positively. But really what it comes down to is allowing the children to learn that not everything in life comes easily, or without a struggle. The villain won’t helpfully toss himself off the cliff for them. They must act.

This is not to say violence is glorified here–the children don’t especially like fighting. But they certainly have to back up their beliefs with their deeds.

Now, there may be books where children must grow up even more than the children do in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. They may have to, say, face a thousand more deaths of close friends, and watch graphically described gore pass in front of them. You could certainly imagine a ‘grittier’ children’s book than Narnia, even if you’d hesitate to actually give such a book to a child. I’m just arguing this was the first time I read a children’s book that showed me how to go beyond childhood. It showed me the good and bad in the challenge of growing up.

Millennials, a group of which I am a member, are frequently derided as a group that doesn’t know how to grow up. And I obviously can’t point to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a guide that taught me how to grow up–of the typical markers of adulthood (marriage, children, house, career), I can only possibly point to career as an objective marker of the level of adulthood I’ve achieved. Reading literature in this vein is not a cure-all for the ‘millennial problem’ (and I’ve read His Dark Materials too, lest you argue that series would’ve helped me more). However, children need a vision of adulthood to aspire to. They need to read different ways of shouldering the responsibility of living. And if we only present fiction where parents and guardians are not ‘neglectful,’ and hover over children just as much as parents and guardians actually do nowadays in real life, we’d hold back the whole process.

Give the kids some space. Let them grow up.

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You Might Relate to Mary Bennett, but You’re Not Supposed to Imitate Her

The novels and letters of Jane Austen (1906) (14596328597)Mary Bennett gets a lot of good press. In Pride and Prejudice, she’s one of heroine Elizabeth Bennett’s three younger sisters, and she’s described as the bookish one. Maybe because readers of Pride and Prejudice tend to be bookish as well, we tend to feel the story overlooks her, and write multiple blog posts and articles and sequel novels bemoaning this. This is in spite of the plentiful evidence Jane Austen herself did not like her. Despite her being bookish, Austen did not mean to point to her as a character that we should imitate.

This is astonishing, as the bookish girl is a pretty strong stereotype for female heroines by now—just think of Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Hermione in Harry Potter, and Jane Eyre. All of them readers, some a bit know-it-all, but all with a heart of gold. The character of Mary Bennett is swimming directly against the current in this matter.

And readers relate to Mary Bennett—we know what it feels like to be ‘plainer’ than those around us, to feel less intelligent even though we’re desperately trying to appear smart, to be more than just a background character in someone else’s story. Who can’t relate to wanting some distinction of your own, even if it’s not beauty? We like books about bookish characters proving themselves because we’re reassured that our bookishness will not be our undoing, and that someday those that laugh at us in real life will agree our bookishness has value. But Jane Austen does not give us that satisfaction with Mary.

Evidence of dissatisfaction with Mary’s story can easily be found. Both The Guardian and The Atlantic wrote articles last summer about the proliferation of sequels about Miss Mary Bennett (including The Independence Of Miss Mary Bennet, The Forgotten Sister: Mary Bennet’s Pride and Prejudice, The Pursuit of Mary Bennet: A Pride and Prejudice Novel, and of course, one called There’s Something About Mary, Bennett.) Many, many authors have seen potential in her character, and clearly many readers want to read about that potential.

So what are Mary Bennett’s faults, according to Jane Austen?

It’s not that she’s bookish and plain. It’s that she appears to read only in order to lecture others about what she’s read. She appears to practice music only in order to draw attention to herself with it. As a result, neither her speeches on the books she reads nor her performances on the piano avoid sounding ‘affected.’

“Mary had neither genius nor taste; and though vanity had given her application, it had given her likewise a pedantic air and conceited manner, which would have injured a higher degree of excellence than she had reached.”

And despite in other places defending the reading of books and applying oneself to improving oneself, Austen never vindicates these aspects of Mary. She really doesn’t do much with her character plot-wise, and appears to argue her way of being is just as ‘silly’ as Kitty and Lydia’s way of living. Mary does not get a character arc or much development at all. She has no romantic events come her way either.

I don’t think Jane Austen was against bookish girls. I don’t think she was subtly fighting against education for women, or against women having an opinion. I think she had a more complex idea here.

In reality, what Jane Austen is trying to show is how one trait, overemphasized and over-developed, can be ridiculous. You can’t have a personality that relies on only one characteristic—you need to develop your whole personality.

It’s kind of amazing how, despite all of Mary’s deficiencies in beauty and intelligence, her self-absorption is still derided as vanity by Austen. This is an important point! We like to think if we haven’t been given all the advantages other people have, we’re protected from vanity. We’re given a free pass to focus on ourselves, because after all, we aren’t as advantaged as everyone else. People should recognize and encourage us in what we do have.

However, this very lack of humility can prevent improvement in the areas we might have relative strength in! It’s Mary’s air of condescension and pedantry that makes her sisters dislike her speeches more—no one likes to be talked down to. Her piano-playing, while better than some, is less pleasant to listen to because of how conceited she makes it sound—she all-too-aware she is more skilled than Elizabeth. Her vanity in these things prevents her from using her gifts in a way that would actually give pleasure to other people (as Elizabeth proves you can give some pleasure to a listener even without being the best piano-player ever). And her vanity likely prevents her from even seeing the ways her gifts fall short of what she thinks they are. She doesn’t improve in the areas of attitude and mannerisms because she doesn’t think she needs to.

Does this mean she deserves to be laughed at by her sisters, or shamed by Mr. Bennett at the Netherfield ball? Of course not. I think Mr. Bennett’s treatment of her, in particular, is meant to short his shortcomings as a father and his insensitivity to what might improve his daughters’ characters. As he has with his wife, he’s basically given up on them, and endures their silliness instead. Now, if Mary actually is meant to have a character arc, perhaps one of Elizabeth’s or Jane’s attempts to rein in their younger sister’s vanities would sink in. As it is, we as readers as only left with the impression her vanity leaves on us, with the implication it is a warning—do not get so consumed in creating your own space for your own gifts that you blind yourself to how useless they are to anyone outside yourself. This is basically the opposite of every ‘find yourself’ novel released today.

So perhaps for us bookish types, we can take the message that there’s nothing wrong with being bookish, but it’s our attitude to others as a result of that can be the problem. Even if others don’t understand us, it doesn’t give us justification to feel superior to them. Even if we are actually better in one area than someone else we know, rubbing that in everyone’s faces will not help anyone else, and can even be destructive to ourselves. And I don’t mean this to lecture everyone else–I know I am prone to rely on my own intelligence and knowledge as my number one characteristics when relating to other people.

But then again, this is not meant to be the main message of the novel—Mary is merely one of dozens of Austen side-characters that demonstrate how one over-developed characteristic renders one ridiculous. It’s Darcy and Elizabeth who get character arcs, and who change throughout the novel. Austen uses their story to tell her message. Though if you look at how Austen takes down her main character’s characteristics of ‘pride’ and ‘prejudice,’ maybe Mary Bennett’s characterization does support the overall theme of the novel after all.

What about you? Do you find yourself with a lot of sympathy for Mary Bennett, or do you find her tiresome (as her sisters did)? Was Jane Austen too harsh on her?

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Out of the Silent Planet Awoke My Imagination – Let It Awake Yours Too

C.S. Lewis, by Paulina Van Vliet. All rights reserved.

C.S. Lewis, by Paulina Van Vliet. All rights reserved.

I’ve been meaning to read Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis for a long time, ever since I discovered Lewis really did write fiction besides the Chronicles of Narnia. Now that I have I can’t resist blogging about it, because it excited me so much to find out how good it was. I rarely review books here, but some books are worth it, and if you’ve been looking for a worthwhile book I’ll write down some things to consider with this one.

Out of the Silent Planet always sounded like such an intriguing title, but I probably haven’t touched it till now because it’s sci-fi. Also, you hear so much less about it than the Chronicles, so you assume it can’t be quite as highly regarded. And after a brief survey of the internet writings on it, I think opinion on this book is a little more divided. But those who love it really love it, and now I’m one of them.

Basically, in this book a professor, Elwin Ransom, gets kidnapped and taken to another planet, Malacandra. The book actually has many reasons to inspire dislike, or a more tepid reception, including its out-of-date science and scientific errors, its theological ideas sprinkled throughout, and some weaknesses in story construction. I’ll first list all the irritations and dislikes I had while reading (skipping over any scientific discussion, as I know very little about scientific beliefs at the time), and then I’ll explain what blew me away.

I shall attempt to talk about it without spoiling too much of it, and obviously will not bring in any of the rest of the trilogy, since I haven’t read them yet.

The Bad:

It was incredibly difficult to get into the story. There is nothing especially compelling about Ransom as a character—you don’t start chapter one and immediately get excited you get to follow this character for the rest of the story. I picked it up several times without making it through the first chapter. I ended it without a real strong idea of what the guy was like. You don’t get any sense of his life outside the events of the story. Is he motivated to escape Malacandra and get back to his life as a professor on earth? Does he have any human relationships he’s missing? What brought him to the point where he decided to take a walking tour? He doesn’t seem to have any internal struggles, other than the small character arc of overcoming his fear-based response to everything.

The rest of the characters are somewhat caricatures too. There’s a scientist whose sole focus is human progress, and whose speeches mainly consist of his ideas of human progress. There’s another bad guy who’s solely driven by greed. There’s a lot of ‘good’ characters who don’t change throughout the novel, because they’re good already.

Yes, there were a few points where I was reading it that I thought to myself—can this really be C.S. Lewis? This is a very poorly constructed novel! People must just read it out of loyalty to him!

On top of the rest of these flaws take the very limited and slow amount of action this novel contains. There’s certainly conflict—why was Ransom kidnapped? Can he escape? Can he find food and drink on this new planet? Etc., etc. But most issues just sort of resolve themselves without Ransom having to fight too much for them. The climax, in the worst light, could be seen as everything in the story just easily resolving themselves.

 

The Good:

The first part where I suddenly found myself being drawn into the story was during Ransom’s philosophizing on the spaceship during the journey to Malacandra. And I HATE philosophy, so it’s shocking for me to say the philosophy in this book are some of the best parts of the story. But it’s true.

These parts are written very beautifully, which is no surprise considering Lewis was a very adept writer. They confront our stereotypical ideas of space travel and ever so subtly turn them inside-out. Is space empty? Are aliens inferior to humans? Are aliens hostile to humans? What do you think?

About halfway through I would have described it as an excellent philosophical treatise with a story tacked on. But the plot kept turning, and despite the characters being somewhat motivation-less and wooden, there were several emotional moments that absolutely hit home. I was surprised to discover I really did care about what happened to them.

There’s some incredible descriptions in here as well. Lewis does what many authors forget to do (in the books I’ve read, anyway), and grounds his perspective in his character so deeply that the reader sees what the character sees. For example, when getting off the spaceship Ransom is initially unsure which colours are ground, which as water, which are trees, etc. Which is absolutely true—if you don’t have any context for figuring out a new location, you are confused at first! Just think about getting out of a different subway station and being completely unsure which street is which. Lewis also does not immediately have Ransom realize the spaceship he travels to Malacandra in is shaped like a sphere–he first describes the odd shape of the room from Ransom’s perspective, and the slow realization that the shape is due to the spaceship’s overall spherical shape. Few authors do this–they immediately have the characters perceive they’re on another planet and describe it, or on a spaceship and describe it, without exploring the process of realization that occurs in a character’s head. There’s more than one passage like this, and these ground the story in reality in a strong way.

So, after good philosophy and unique descriptions, this book also hinges on languages in a way that excites me as a person who loves words. Ransom does not have a ‘universal translator,’ but actually has to learn the alien language. Then he has to translate some ‘Earth’ ideas into this alien language, which is an ever-so-subtle device to explore some of the ideas we take for granted. It’s lovely, lovely. You’d never see this in a blockbuster movie, but it drives the action in such a different way than you’d expect.

Lastly, this book made me realize how long it’s been since I read a book that really thrilled my imagination. I didn’t think C.S. Lewis could pull it off and really bring the story together in a satisfying way, because I’ve gotten so good at predicting with the first few chapters of a novel how bad the novel is going to be. I’ve also had far too many promising novels fade away into gibberish and frustration. It’s so wonderful to discover you’re actually in the hand of an author you can trust–an author who writes well and plots well and will not disappoint you even in a story with weaknesses. My imagination was so fired up this week, and it was a shock to discover I’d forgotten what that felt like.

In Conclusion:

What is really interesting about super-good books, and the one thing I love about them, is how so many of them do not follow the advice writers are constantly being given today. I can’t imagine any publisher publishing this book nowadays. It starts off soooooooooooo slow—just a guy walking through the back lanes of England. It has such wooden characters, characters without real character arcs. It takes sooooooooo long for any sort of action to occur, and the action that does occur fails to create much suspense. Why would a publisher take it on?

But yet—you care about these wooden characters! Somehow by the middle the shocking thing that happens affects you emotionally. You even feel pity and some sympathy for the bad guys at the end. And the climax and ending is somehow satisfying, even though a reader could so easily feel cheated if these events were not well-written.

I think, despite the good behind teaching writers how to better their craft, we sometimes risk making all writing exactly the same. We could be overlooking the next C.S. Lewis by insisting on being dropped into the middle of the action. And I do not say this under any delusions that I am the next C.S. Lewis who should not be ignored, because I know there’s so much about character and plot that I need to keep on learning about until the end of the my writing days. But stories can somehow, some way, work without these things. Our confidence in our knowledge about what is ‘good’ storytelling may be far too similar to our confidence in the progress of history and the idea we’re superior to civilizations that have come before us. We’re missing the context. We unknowingly blind ourselves to what they can teach us.

However, to conclude this review–Out of the Silent Planet will likely not change anyone’s mind about C.S. Lewis. If you dislike his philosophizing and general outlook on life, you won’t find this book any different. If you dislike his neat and logical prose, you’ll find that here as well. Even if you love C.S. Lewis because of the Chronicles of Narnia, you may find this one a little ‘weirder.’ But if you love inventive settings that inspire you to think about the world in new ways, give this one a shot. It’s worth it.

 

 

Have you read Out of the Silent Planet, and if so, what did you think?

 

Related Book Reviews of Out of the Silent Planet:

While writing this post I discovered there were not a lot of people writing about the Space Trilogy, so I thought I’d link to a few good reviews I came across here.

The Silent Planet of C.S. Lewis – why this book counts as good classic sci-fi despite having angels in it.

The Cosmic Trilogy 1: Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – a deeper review of the books as a whole.

Out of the Silent Planet – a comparison with Gulliver’s Travels that I didn’t notice myself.

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Filed under Bookish Thoughts, Misc. Books, Randoms & My Life, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

A Few Classics That Are Not Hard to Read

Classics are usually heavy reading. Even if they’re short, the language is unfamiliar enough that they take a long time to get through. But every once in a while you find one that surprises you, and here are three that surprised me.

Note: I’m not including any classics described as ‘children’s literature’ in this list.

'Around the World in Eighty Days' by Neuville and Benett 22
Around the World in Eighty Days, by Jules Verne

I just really enjoyed the very punctual and methodical Phileas Fogg racing around the world with his comic French servant, Passepartout. They get into preposterous adventures of all sorts, some of which strain believability but are incredibly fun to read. It gives a wonderful picture of travel before airplanes were invented, with railroads and steamboats. Verne is known as a science fiction author, but this was a contemporary novel for him—and so for us it’s a nice view in on the past. Also, I loved the sudden revelation of Fogg’s tender side in the end.

As a side note, Jules Verne’s novels have historically received poor English translations, which led him to have a higher reputation in his native France than in the English-speaking world. This is the only sample of his work I’ve read, but I quite enjoyed him. In addition, I’ve noticed publishers give this novel nonsensical cover pages – one edition had a hot air balloon, but hot air balloons failed to appear in the story. Another recent edition has a daredevil racing in an old-fashioned car, but this does not happen in the novel either.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

This remains the only Dickens novel I’ve read cover to cover. It’s short, so Dickens’ verbosity won’t put you off. The plot is easy enough to follow. I actually read it because I knew nothing about the plot and wanted to find out what this Christmas carol business everyone always went on about at Christmastime was all about, but I’ve reread it since without boredom. I’ve heard complaints about the opening paragraphs, where Dickens goes on about different types of nails and why the doornail should not be considered the ‘deadest’ type of nail out there, but personally I found it humorous. If you find it tedious, it’s a short novel, so it’s soon over and the rest of the plot begins!

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

This was my introduction to Jane Austen, and I still believe it’s the easiest one to start with (though none of her novels are too difficult for the modern reader, aside from the formality of the language). This novel gets right into the action and humor, with Mr. Bingley arriving in town and Mrs. Bennett nagging her husband to go meet him. It does not start with family history, like Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Mansfield Park. The heroine is lively enough that it’s not a chore to follow her through the story, and the story is shorter than Emma. There’s a few lulls in action, but overall it’s a very satisfying romance and shows off Austen’s talent very well.

 

 

These are my recommendations—your mileage may vary! After all, I thought Lord of the Rings and The Iliad were surprisingly easy to get into, and I know many people who didn’t. And I just struggle with Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, while others just love them. But if you’re meaning to read a few novels that have stood the test of time, these are a few places to start!

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Do People Fall in Love Out of Gratitude?

What’s going on here? A romance novel is seriously making the hero fall for a girl simply because she adored him first?

quotables button“[T]hough Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of an heroine’s dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.”

– Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Shouldn’t there be something grander? Shouldn’t she have been the prettiest girl in the room, and he couldn’t keep his eyes off her? (But in real life, there’s always someone prettier). Shouldn’t he have somehow found her absolutely unique? (But everyone blurs together until we take the time to get to know them.) Shouldn’t she have hidden her feelings until he’d fallen good and hard for her? (But Jane Austen knew this didn’t work– “Few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement.”)

Northanger Abbey is perhaps Jane Austen’s attempt to inject a little ‘realism’ into novels–most deliberately in her attempts to spoof Gothic novels by showing how the spooky can be very ordinary (mysterious papers turn out to be a laundry list, a mean-spirited man turns out to be driven by greed rather than remorse or guilt)–but perhaps also in her handling of the romance between the central characters, Henry and Catharine. He falls in love with her because she was in love with him! He falls in love out of gratitude!

But this is realistic! Who doesn’t find their opinion of someone improving because we know they like us? I’ve experienced it myself, when people have straight-up told me they enjoy hanging out with me, I find myself wanting to hang out with them more. Because they told me they like me, it takes the pressure off. I don’t have to wonder what they think about me being myself. I know, so I can just be myself. And focus on getting to know them more and more.

It’s a way for one person to distinguish themselves from the sea of other people in the world–this person is memorable because this person admires me. Why waste time on people who don’t like you, when you know someone does?

And gratitude? It is gratifying to hear someone thinks we’re clever–or pretty–or funny – or adventurous. It feels so good it leaves us wide open to manipulating flattery. We can be manipulated into suddenly thinking so very highly of someone who flatters us, and not admit that’s the reason why we suddenly think so well of them. (I can’t help but add a side-note: It’s almost more insidious when people flatter things we’re very proud of instead– “what a nice family you have,” “what wonderful people are your friends,” “your church is really amazing…”)

But when the admiration is genuine! It’s almost a relief to hear someone sincerely believes one of our strengths is actually a strength. And there comes the gratitude–and increased liking–and increased friendship–and maybe love…

Now, is this a sure-fire recipe for making friends, or falling in love? Sadly, no.

The terrible thing about letting someone know how much you like them is finding out your feelings don’t make them like you more. This is why we so rarely tell anyone how we feel! They don’t feel good that you like them, they feel pressured and afraid you expect something from them, and so they pull back. So despite trying to strengthen your relationship by sharing your admiration, you actually end up driving the person away.

Now, maybe this is not as common as we all believe. Maybe we truly all would have a thousand more healthy relationships if we just were honest about our admiration. In fact, we probably would, because people are far less likely to reject us than our negative brains want us to believe. However, it’s reality that people do react negatively. People you make an effort for do disappear. People you fall in love with don’t fall for you. The stronger your admiration for another person is, the more painful it is when it’s clearly not mutual.

So I’m not saying go out and tell everyone how you feel all the time. The risk is very great. The pain is nasty when everything goes wrong-side-up. You can’t predict the results of your honesty.

But honest admiration can result in something wonderful, even in this non-fictional world. So in the end it’s worth it to weigh the risks and open yourself up to this possibility.

 

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When a Hurricane of Clichés Equals a Great Movie

Today, I’m going to talk about Casablanca. If you want to know more about why I care about Casablanca, check out my previous post, ‘Writing Reality – Or Escaping It‘.

quotables button“Thus Casablanca is not just one film. It is many films, an anthology… And this is the reason it works, in spite of aesthetic theories and theories of film making…Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.”

Umberto Eco (Travels in Hyperreality, and “Casablanca, or, The Clichés are Having a Ball”)

For years, filmmakers hungered to know what made Casablanca a classic. If they could just crack the formula – figure out what made people instantly love it so much – they could crank out sure-fire hits over and over. After all, on the surface, there’s not much to recommend Casablanca above your average movie. It’s a very clichéd plot – a love triangle, a sacrifice, a clear antagonist, a damsel in distress. The characters are walking stereotypes. The character arcs have all been done a thousand times before (even in 1942, when this movie was made).

If there was a key to filmmaking—or writing in general, which is what I care about most of all—wouldn’t that be nice? A magic key unlocking the secrets of what makes stories work? But there isn’t. There’s no magic key – only magic. The magic that happens when, in this case, the right combination of actors, characterization, plot and tired clichés combine.

I shouldn’t have enjoyed Casablanca. You’d think by now, seventy or so years after its release, the plot would’ve been spoiled for me. It should be like those people who watched the Lord of the Rings movies and wondered why it used every fantasy stereotype in the book, when it reality it’s merely because Lord of the Rings INVENTED those stereotypes (except in this case it’s romance stereotypes, and Casablanca didn’t invent them but merely inspired the continual recycling of these old tropes). I saw the end coming from a mile away. Also, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve picked up something everyone told me was a classic, and hated it (see Romeo and Juliet, and Wuthering Heights).

However, I did love it. Like I said, there was magic.

And I love the quote I pasted above, because it shows how conventional wisdom about stories falls short – how in this particular case not an avoidance of clichés but a hurricane of clichés is what makes the movie. Casablanca breaks an accepted, basic rule of stories. But then again, every piece of true art is flawed.

Will lightning strike again if you use a hurricane of clichés? Or is Casablanca merely lightning in a bottle? There’s no way to say, except that creating art involves risk-taking and bravery. Sometimes that means breaking new ground. And sometimes that means risking doing what everyone else tells you is overdone.

The genius comes in telling what situation calls for which.

And if your striving eventually comes up with a story that works – a story that speaks to something inside humanity, and satisfies something in our cores – well, then your work has been touched by that magic.

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In Jane Austen, Nice Guys Finish First

Girls go for the bad guys, they say, and nice guys finish last. If so, then Jane Austen has achieved an amazing feat of literature by creating nice guys you want to cheer for. Nice guys many females claim they’d like to date. Nice guys who aren’t boring, but actually readable.

I realized this while reading several people online insist Frank Churchill and Henry Crawford are far more interesting than their romantic rivals (the nice guys who actually get the girl, in other words) – George Knightley and Edmund Bertram.

This is craziness, of course. You’d have to be pretty committed to living a lifetime of misery to choose Frank Churchill or Henry Crawford over George Knightley or Edmund Bertram. Let’s see why:

George Knightley:

Okay, let’s look at George Knightley first. He’s too demanding, his detractors claim. He tells Emma what to do, and yells at her when she doesn’t do something right. He’s stuck to some kind of outdated set of morals, and wants Emma to follow them too.

In contrast, Frank Churchill – well, he’s fun. (According to the anti-Knightley people, anyway). He and Emma joke around, enjoy themselves, don’t take things too seriously. Wouldn’t a marriage between them just be great fun?

Sure… until you remember Frank and Emma’s ‘fun’ is at other people’s expense, and this is exactly what Knightley was being a ‘stick-in-the-mud’ about. Emma could’ve hitched herself to a guy who was rather callous about other people’s feelings – teasing people who maybe can’t take it at the moment, flirting to make his fiancée jealous, using his charm to get away with things. At heart he’s not a villain, but his charm doesn’t make up for all his faults.

And when it comes to Knightley – you know, it’s totally okay for a guy to call a girl out on something if she’s actually wrong about it – it’s not a symbol of patriarchy or an outdated moral code. It’s merely reasonable, and I hope whoever I’d get engaged to would do the same to me. Emma was a rather frightening person for anyone in the novel to call out on her behaviour anyway, and Mr. Knightley is the only one who does it – you could say he was of equal or superior social standing so that helped make him brave enough, but then you’d be forgetting one thing. You’d be forgetting he was in love with her – who wants to risk criticizing the person you’re crazy about? He doesn’t want to lecture her. He’d rather not open her eyes to how thoughtless and cruel she’s being to others around her (at Frank’s instigation). It’s a sign of the strength of Mr. Knightley’s moral fibre that he does anyway.

And as for fun – he and Emma have lovely debates that do not descend into bickering. Being able to disagree well, and able to debate well, is one thing I think of as fun. Maybe I’m alone here…

Anyway, he’s a ‘nice guy.’ And he gets the girl. Austen writes Emma as a girl who realizes exactly what the worth of Mr. Knightley is, and doesn’t despise him for being less charming than Frank Churchill.

Edmund Bertram:

Okay, now Edmund Bertram. I have to admit, Edmund Bertram is dreadfully boring – the worst of Jane Austen’s heroes. (Jane Austen fans – if Edmund Bertram is your favourite, stick up your hand now – I’ve never met one of you yet.) He hurts Fanny over and over – completely clueless because he doesn’t know she’s desperately in love with him, but still, he hurts her. And he dithers the whole novel over this other girl who’s just charm and a pretty face (according to Austen, at least).

And Henry Crawford – he comes closest of any of Austen’s villains to being reformed.

But really, Edmund Bertram is a nice guy. He loves Fanny as a sister, not a potential wife, and that’s not really his fault since they grew up together. He doesn’t even know how much it hurts Fanny to see him with this other girl, since he actually thinks Fanny likes this girl.

Whereas Henry Crawford just starts flirting with Fanny to see if he can get her to fall for him. Sure, he claims his feelings grow deeper as time goes on, but it says something about him when you know where it started. Would he really have ‘reformed’ for her? How often do people change themselves for the better for another, and how long does that kind of change stick? He doesn’t start as a nice guy, and after all the events of the novel, he doesn’t end as one either (leaving Fanny’s cousin Maria with her reputation in tatters, and abandoning her to her fate.)

Reformed bad boys may be exciting, but in Jane Austen the nice guys finish first. (Edmund wises up to Fanny’s charms in the end…)

I’ve ranted about Mansfield Park before, if you want to read it it’s here.

Austen’s other novels:

I don’t think I have to do too much convincing to argue Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon are far nicer guys than Willoughby, or that Henry Tilney (how I love this character’s snark!) is nicer than John Thorpe – and especially the General and Frederick Tilney.

And now we come to Mr. Darcy…

Mr. Darcy:

Aha, someone is arguing now. What about the most famous of them all – Mr. Darcy? Isn’t he emphatically a stuck-up prig in Pride and Prejudice, and doesn’t that show girls only want arrogant dudes who look down on them?

No, think of Mr. Darcy as that awkward dude at the party, who doesn’t quite know how to talk to anyone. When he does talk, he just makes people look at him strange. Completely socially awkward, especially in comparison with smooth talkers like Wickham. Haven’t you met people like that? Maybe ignored people like that?

You’d be right if you insisted Darcy is a bit too condescending and superior at first (awkwardly superior), but he does learn, and more importantly, Elizabeth doesn’t fall for him until AFTER he learns. (Contrary to how she is often portrayed by people, she DOESN’T feel any hidden, burning attraction to him at the beginning of the novel at all. No slap-slap/kiss-kiss, in other words.) He has to be a nice guy first.

Compare this to several Bronte heroes. Now, I’ve never been able to get into their books, and I really should give them another chance because I have reread books before and liked them so much more the second time. BUT I confess to a complete inability to see how Heathcliff, or even Rochester, is romantic at all. If you want to be treated horribly, sure, by all means fall in love with them. Let one lie to you, and the other be all moody and violent. Ugh, so romantic.

In Conclusion:

Authors can write their ‘nice guys’ as Mary Sues (or Gary Stus or whatever you want to call the male version) – far too easily. I’ve read many novels where the romantic hero is very, very boring. He’s supposed to be the epitome of good, and he is, to the point of dullness. The solution to this, it is said, is to add faults.

But add too many faults, and you just end up reinforcing the trope, “All Girls Want Bad Boys.”

It takes a genius like Jane Austen to make the nice-guy heroes be exactly the kind of person real-life women would fall in love with.

What do you think? Girls, who’s your favourite Austen character? Guys, are you ever offended by which Austen men get the girl in the end?

Also – I just released my sixth short ebook this weekend – it’s a romantic short story about one girl’s confidence or lack thereof towards one guy, and it’s called Lookin’ Good. Check it out and drop me a line or review telling me what you think!

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Join Mark Zuckerberg’s Book Club, Rediscover Why Books Matter

Mark Zuckerberg is starting a book club. A Facebook book club, which seems appropriate, considering he is Mark Zuckerberg.

BUT he said one very insightful thing that should give everyone hope for millenials – we aren’t necessarily shallow, visual-obsessed youngsters with short attention spans. At least, maybe not if we join Mark’s book club.

Here’s what he said:

“Books allow you to fully explore a topic and immerse yourself in a deeper way than most media today. I’m looking forward to shifting more of my media diet towards reading books.”

The thing is, he is absolutely right. How many times have I gone looking for information on the internet, only to find the absolute basics of a topic repeated over and over again, but no info beyond that? I remember, in my second English course in university, finally resorting to the library to find sources on Sherlock Holmes, A Scandal in Bohemia, and was stunned to find TONS of scholarly articles I could use. My thought at the time was – if it’s not on the internet or scholarly internet databases, it doesn’t really exist, right? But it turns out there’s still a level of detail not available on the internet.

(No, I’ll be honest – I just wanted an excuse not to leave my computer and walk to the library…)

So – go Mark Zuckerberg! If anyone can make our surface-level-knowledge-obsessed culture realize this is a shortcoming, it might be you!

Also, apparently both print and ebook versions of Mark’s first recommendation flew off the shelves – print is surprisingly still popular, one article concludes. Of course it is. Print will never die! Go ebooks (and do check out the ones I wrote ), but yeah, print is here to stay.

Tell me – are you planning to join Mark Zuckerberg’s book club. Or maybe another one? New Year’s reading resolutions, here we come!

  • (I, for one, hope to tackle more ‘classic’ novels this year. I’ll update you on how that goes in a couple months.)

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How to Catch a Man 101: Show More Affection Than You Feel

AKA Dating Advice from Dear Jane Austen

Bingley&Jane_CH_55

Bingley and Jane, by C.E. Brooks. {PD-US}

“There are very few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement,” [said Charlotte]. “In nine cases out of ten, a woman had better show more affection than she feels. Bingley likes your sister undoubtedly; but he may never do more than like her, if she does not help him on.”

– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 6

Here’s the trouble with romance!

Let me start off by saying this is not true in most books and movies out there. If you took the romance advice of most plots, you’d begin to think the way to fall in love with someone is to be as deliberately antagonistic as possible. Insult him to his face! Slap him! Try to avoid him as much as possible – if he’s really fallen in love with you during that half second that you met, he’ll keep coming back for more. Beyond any reasonable expectation, he’ll keep coming back again and again and again, no matter how much you insist you don’t want to see him. He’ll wait for you to change your mind.

Isn’t that ridiculous?

So – more evidence Jane Austen is a cut above (many) other romance writers out there! She’s dealing with reality here. She’s dealing with the reality most people aren’t masochistic enough to keep chasing someone who keeps pushing them down. Most people aren’t that good with rejection.

But I said this was the trouble with romance, didn’t I? Why is this a reality a problem?

Well, mostly because you have to show a lot of interest before you even know you’re interested, logically.

Most people aren’t going to hang around forever while the person they just felt a flash of attraction to makes up their mind, especially if that dithering looks a shade too similar to rejection. Move on. Plenty of fish in the sea. No time for this.

Not that there’s anything wrong with this – it’s just reality! Just the crazy system we have to live in. It makes us appreciate the true romances that actually work out, that’s all.

And in case you think I’m reading too much into Jane Austen, I don’t think she completely disagrees with her character, Charlotte Lucas (the character I’m quoting up at the top). After all, Elizabeth’s sister Jane does lose Bingley because she is too guarded and he can’t tell how much she likes him. Neither can any of Bingley’s friends.

Elizabeth argues to Charlotte that Jane is just taking her time to get to know Bingley (which seems to be quite sensible). Charlotte doubts whether this is a good strategy for the situation.

Here is Charlotte’s very practical (perhaps cynical?) solution:

“Jane should therefore make the most of every half hour in which she can command his attention. When she is secure of him, there will be leisure for falling in love as much as she chooses.”

Here’s where I (and perhaps Jane Austen) part ways with Charlotte’s logic. Making someone else fall for you first, before you decide to fall – that seems little self-centered. A little too self-centered.

What’s the solution then?

There isn’t one. That’s why romance is a mystery. That’s why it’s beautiful when it sprouts mutually for two people at the same time, and miserable when it only sprouts for one of them. That’s why we eternally write books and movies and plays about it. Because we can’t figure it out.

There’s my thoughts on it, anyway. Have a Merry Christmas, everyone!

(Oh, and stay tuned to this blog in the upcoming weeks! There may be some exciting changes and experiments in the new year!)

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