Category Archives: Bookish Thoughts

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 He’s stuck to some kind of outdated set of morals, and wants Emma to follow them too.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okay for a guy to call a girl out on something if she’s actually wrong about it – it’s not a symbol of patriarchy or an outdated moral code.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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Filed under Ebooks, Jane Austen, True Romance

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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Filed under GENERAL Bookish Thoughts, Quotables

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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Filed under Jane Austen, Quotables, True Romance

Tell Me About Your Favourite Bookstore

Last Friday The Guardian published a wonderful list of bookstores worldwide – including one from Canada, woohoo! Any book-lover knows there is no shortage of lovable bookstores out there, so which is your favourite? I’d have to say, from The Guardian‘s list, I want to visit the bookstore-in-a-van that sells Portuguese books translated into English. Leakey’s, in Scotland, looks worth visiting too.

Shakespeare & Company, in Paris, is not included in this list – I have a feeling it might’ve been too cliche to include such a famous landmark. But in case you’ve forgotten, here’s my picture of the place from when I visited it last April!

WIN_20140424_205457

What’s my favourite library? I blogged about it once before. Share yours below!

UPDATE: Shakespeare and Company is such a fun bookstore that I wrote it into my new novella! Check it out: Paris in Clichés

Paris in Cliches Harma-Mae Smit

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Filed under GENERAL Bookish Thoughts, Randoms & My Life

Do Spoilers Spoil Stories?

Spoilers, by Paulina Van VlietSpoilers ruin everything. They rip out ask the suspense and enjoyment, they wreck– Wait, you’re saying people actually like a work MORE if it’s been spoiled for them? Are you serious?

This is what Derek Thompson argues in “In Defense of Spoilers.” Apparently, anticipation of a twist can take away our enjoyment of the parts of the movie or book that don’t lead up to the twist. Or maybe we just like predictability. Anyway, research by psychologists has shown people rate stories higher when all the plot twists have been spoiled for them ahead of time.

Okay, okay, there’s truth in this.

For example, I’ll use Emma, by Jane Austen. I’ve already written it was much better the second time I read it, and that was mainly because I knew what was going to happen. The first time I didn’t know, so I didn’t think anything was happening. Anyone who’s read it knows it’s a lot of descriptions of conversations in a quiet English town. But it’s also been described as ‘a mystery without a murder’–there’s so many clues in all the ‘nothing’ that goes on, and it all adds up to something. But the first time you read it, you don’t realized there’s a mystery at all. And I, at first, was a bit bored and confused.

And shouldn’t this research make sense? Don’t we tell the same stories over and over again? How many times has the Cinderella plot been used? (Including by me, here). And I’ve already admitted I’ll watch almost any version of retelling of Pride and Prejudice, over and over again.

So we love the same old stories, the seven basic plots, the Save the Cat story outline… We might as well stop with the attempts at original stories, right? Might as well quit worrying about spoilers. We’d enjoy everything so much more that way.

No, but wait! There’s something else…

When we worry about spoilers, we worry about losing that sense of surprise and satisfaction when we see the pieces suddenly fit together. Not every work is good at this, but every once in a while we come across a book that manages to turn itself inside-out in the last pages. The turn of events blows your mind.

This elusive feeling is something we chase in every movie and novel we read (or, at least, I do). You can enjoy a movie or a book without it. You can love a book that doesn’t give you this feeling. But this feeling is unique enough and wonderful enough it’s worth looking for.

Spoilers, of course, steal the opportunity for this feeling away.

Back to Emma–your first initial read where you think nothing is going on is so important to the work! Because it’s that first read where you’re in Emma’s point of view, it’s that first read where you trust her and believe whatever she thinks she sees. There’s no sensations to compare your second read to if you haven’t had the first. You can hunt for clues the whole time on your first read instead, but you ARE missing out on something if you know what you’re looking for.

And that’s the whole point of avoiding spoilers, isn’t it? There’s an experience you’ll miss if someone spoils it for you. You’ll lose something you’ll never get back, and you’ll never know if there’s any amount of enjoyment that will make up for losing that initial experience. You’ll never know what that would’ve felt like.

Plot twists shouldn’t be the end-goal for every book or movie. Clearly, people can enjoy stories that are predictable. But I’d argue we should still try to prevent spoilers as a service to our fellow humans, because some experiences can’t be recreated once spoiled. People can at least try for that mind-turning experience. And if spoilers improve the experience – well, that’s what a second reading is for.

What’s your thoughts on spoilers?

 

Illustration by Paulina Van Vliet. All rights reserved.

 

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Filed under Bookish Thoughts, Prince Charming Extras

Why Own Unread Books?

Unread Books

Unread Books, by Paulina Van Vliet. All rights reserved.

I used to never buy a book I hadn’t read. That was what libraries were for – I didn’t want to buy something that might be garbage. Only after I knew the quality of the book would I buy a copy for myself. However, I have started seeing the error of my ways.

Two recent blog posts brought this to my attention. The first – ‘The Virtue of Unread Books’ – argues that unread books are not merely pages on a shelf, but collectively they express an idea. When you stockpile books you’ve already read, Scott James argues, you’re basically making a monument to your accomplishment. Especially if you never re-read them. Look at what a well-rounded reader I am, you might be saying.

In contrast, he argues, a shelf of unread books hints at more than past triumphs – it symbolizes possibility. A well-selected library opens the mind to what could be read and learned. And so, hopefully, you might actually go on to read and learn.

The second post, ‘Busting a Book-Buying Myth,’ is directed at why you should buy books you may not read, rather than about owning them, but it comes down to the same thing in the end. Here, Ian Carmichael argues that even if you buy books you never finish, but you did get something useful out of them, it might be worth it. If it’s a useful book, at a reasonable price, why not buy it, even if it’s on an impulse? Also, if your owning of the book allows the book to give pleasure or information to someone who is not you – someone who borrows it, or happens to read it at your house – then it is worthwhile to own it as well. I really enjoyed this post, because it gave me a different perspective on my book-buying habits.

Now, for my opinion:

Absolutely, a library should be more than a monument to what you have read in your life. It could be what you should read, or books you know would give pleasure to others (visitors to your home, or people you lend your books to).

However, just because I own a book and intend to read it, doesn’t mean I will. In fact, it makes it a bit more likely I won’t. I’ll procrastinate because I know I’ll always have it, right there on my bookshelf for when I have ‘more time.’ But books I don’t own, well, those I better read quick.

This, however, is not an excuse for me not to buy and own books I should read – their collective spines on my shelf may someday shame me into picking them up. After all, I do get immeasurable joy from sitting in front of shelves of excellent books, even if I haven’t read them yet, because I know there are so many treasures for me yet to discover. This joy alone gives well-selected libraries a reason to exist.

Secondly, I think that using your library as a source of information – well, that works better for some things than others. It works great for classics. If I want to know what Herodotus said about the Persian wars, I can flip through it and look it up. Or if I forget a certain quotation from Jane Austen – same deal. But when it comes down to information more often classified as ‘facts’ or ‘non fiction,’ I’d consult the internet before my library. First, it’s faster. It’s more likely the internet has addressed that topic, rather than the off-chance I bought a book on the topic once. I can get multiple points of view on that ‘fact’ and try to determine if it should be called a fact. And, lastly but not least important, it is far easier to find info that includes the most recent updates online than in the encyclopedia you bought a decade ago.

Of course, for real, in-depth research the internet often falls short of a book, but in the case you need an excellent, well-researched and written source on something, the library is the place to look. After all, if you owned a library of your own on the most recent, up to date info on every topic you cared about, you might just be constructing a monument to your own interests after all.

So, readers, what do you think? Have you read every book that sits on your shelves, or must you admit there are a couple you haven’t cracked open? Is it worth owning them anyway?

 

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Do You Hear Voices In Your Head? (While Reading)

Do you hear voices in your head? When you’re reading, I mean. Of course I mean when you’re reading. I’m not trying to suggest anyone is crazy…

I mean, do you hear voices of narrators and characters speaking out loud in your head when you’re reading?

I’d never thought about this before. I’m struggling to remember what I actually hear when I read, but I think I enter the fictional world so completely that it’s hard for me to pin down individual sensations when I snap out of it. However, many people do hear voices. And accents.

This phenomenon was brought by to me by a lovely lady I was having lunch with this week. She insisted she heard books by Welsh authors read out in her head in a Welsh accent, and British authors in a British one. Until this point, I’d never considered this. I guess I always imagined everyone experienced books in exactly the same way as me.

But that would be a terribly ridiculous assumption, wouldn’t it? No one experiences the same book in exactly the same way. That’s part of the fun!

(I do find author’s accent sort of affect the overall tone of a work while I’m reading – C.S. Lewis, being British, has a different atmosphere in his books than others, but I feel that might be more due to word choices. Like when he described a hypothetical man as a lunatic – “on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg.” Why a poached egg, precisely?)

Just to prove this is not in the head of only one person in this world, I will point you to an article in The Guardian where readers describe all sorts of audible and visual experiences while reading, including – you guessed it, people who are not sure they hear anything at all. Very interesting read! There are all kinds of people in the world, after all.

Okay, now I am off to power-read three chapter of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which the informal book club I belong to has decided to read next.

Leave your experiences with disembodied voices in the comments! Do you hear voices when you read?

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Independent Bookstores Have NOT Disappeared–They’re Doing Fine, Actually

National Bookstore, by Ramon FVelasquez. Licensed under Creative Commons.

National Bookstore, by Ramon FVelasquez. Licensed under Creative Commons.

So it was bad news for a while for independent bookstores–you know, those tiny neighbourhood shops crowded with books and run by a dedicated owner or two. Chain bookstores were swallowing up their business left and right. Thousands closed as big-box retailers like Barnes & Noble and Borders took over (or Chapters and Indigo bookstores, if you’re from Canada, like me). But, in case you haven’t noticed, it’s these very chains that are now in danger from online retailers like Amazon. While your local independent bookstore (the ones that survived, at least) has managed to hang onto loyal customers and stay afloat.

In fact, Slate magazine recently reported sales at independent bookstores have grown 8 percent a year over the past three years.* Indie bookstores have done particularly well in categories that Amazon has not managed to take over with ebooks, such as hardcover nonfiction. Also, they’re under less pressure to have a high turnover of merchandise, so they have can a bigger selection of old, well-loved classics.

As for me, I publish ebooks on Amazon (and other platforms), but I would never want Amazon to rule the whole book market. I am a reader as well as a writer. I applaud indie bookstores’ tenacity at staying in the game, and catering to specific customers’ needs. Is there anything more comforting than browse rows of dusty classics, after all? And perhaps picking up a book to read you never knew you wanted to read?

In addition, it just makes sense these bookstores would thrive on hardcover books, nonfiction especially. As I’ve argued before, ebooks will never completely replace print. There will always be some works you want to have a hard copy of, and likely a good quality hardcover copy of, as the work has value to you. And illustrated books such as children’s books and cookbooks do not translate as nicely to an ebook format, at least at the moment.

Lastly, I also have this ingrained impression that big-box bookstores are evil–my youth was filled with frantic media stories about how chain bookstores would take over the world. (The movie You’ve Got Mail can’t have helped–the plot concerns a small bookstore owner put out of business by a dastardly big-box store owner… whom she falls in love with, of course). So my inner instinct is to cheer when I hear they’re in trouble. Size is great–until it makes you so inflexible that more nimble competitors can take you down before you realize it! However, to gloat over the currently downtrodden seems a little mean.

What do you think? Do you think indie bookstores are doing better than ever? Where do you shop?

As a final note in support of certain printed books, here is a humorous take by IKEA on the superiority of their print catalogue to the electronic version:

* The stats from the Slate article refer to American bookstores–I’m not sure what the comparable stats for Canada, or elsewhere in the world, would be. Let’s hope they’re comparable.

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J.K. Rowling is Not Dead – But Why Does She Want You To Know What Harry Potter’s Up To?

Hogwarts Coat of Arms, by Jmh2o. CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1

Hogwarts Coat of Arms, by Jmh2o. CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1

J.K. Rowling, as the infamous Rita Skeeter, wrote a follow-up to Harry Potter. Harry has a new scar. He and Ginny might be having problems. Ron’s hair is thinning, while Hermione’s hair is – still not behaving. And so on.

Heresy, you might cry. The Harry Potter series is finished. Who does this J.K. Rowling person think she is, going back and adding stuff? This is just as bad as the time she declared Ron and Hermione should’ve never gotten married, and that Harry was Hermione’s One True Pairing after all. She went and wrote a whole sappy epilogue, naming each and every one of their children, and why did she do that if it was all a mistake?

Does an author have a right to do this – this is the question.

The Stakes:

This is a legitimate argument. This is legitimate because it’s a question that faces all authors and readers – is the printed word the final word? Or can the author go back later and say she or he did it wrong, and really it all should’ve turned out completely differently? Or, most shockingly of all, should we bow to the readers, and agree that whatever the readers feel happened is what really happened, even if it’s completely delusional?

This is essential because on one hand we’ve got English teachers refusing to explain literature, and asking us what we think happened, because it’s our feelings and our mistaken understanding of whatever it was Shakespeare was really getting at that really matters… and then on the other hand we have fans endlessly hounding authors for every little detail of their fictional world. What is truth? Who gets to decide? (And doesn’t this line up with some other of our culture’s debates over truth or the lack of it?)

The Harry Potter series illuminates this dilemma perfectly, in a way perhaps no other series ever has.

My Too-Simple Solution

Take the Ron/Hermione/Harry debate. If you want to get Harry Potter fan riled up, do bring this up. I met a couple random strangers on a sunny evening in Paris, and this was a topic we debated, because we all knew about Harry Potter. And most people will take sides, as to whether the books support either pairing. But that’s not the fundamental question. The fundamental question is – can an author go back and change something she wrote down as actually having happened? In this case, say Ron and Hermione’s relationship was a mistake?

Here’s what my position was that sunny evening in Paris. Basically – what the author wrote should be it. The printed word is what the reader experiences, so a couple verbal sentences tossed off in an interview shouldn’t be able to contradict anything. Now, if the author wants to go and write another sequel, and explain how things didn’t quite turn out as well as the previous book presented them, well then, go ahead. But respect your work and stand by it otherwise.

This seemed entirely reasonable to me at the time, but now I realize it’s not quite that simple.

Modern Fiction is More Than the Printed Word

Because we don’t live in a world where our experiences are limited to the printed page anymore. It’s not a singular experience between the covers of a book, or an episode of TV viewed once, or a movie you only caught in theatres. No, nowadays our stories can be watched and re-watched, and we can compile characters lists, and lists of tropes, and make vast encyclopedias of every little detail of a work we love. And we create, most importantly, fan communities. And somehow author’s works are not mere stories, but worlds, and these world spill beyond whatever medium the story was originally told in.

Obviously, this is all thanks to the internet. And Harry Potter’s popularity has been fueled by the internet in a way few books before it ever were. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published in 1997. And during the late 1990s, traffic on the internet was growing by about a hundred percent a year. How much of that traffic was on Harry Potter fan websites and communities I’m not sure, but there was a good chunk of it that drove the fan experience.

So the readers’ experience with Harry Potter likely goes beyond the printed page. We’d debate and predict endless theories of what would happen, and view each others’ fanart, and look at fanfiction. And this runs right up against another darling literary concept, and drives this whole debate.

Killing ‘Death of the Author’

There’s a lovely little concept known as ‘death of author’ – in other words, it’s the idea that an author’s own interpretation of their work is no more valid than anyone else’s. Whatever their intentions are, it’s not important, so endless debates over the author’s intentions are meaningless. What matters is what the reader gets when reading it. Authors tend to not love this idea, of course, not in the least because in theory someone could declare what you wrote means the opposite of what you meant.

This is a concept J.K. Rowling seems to have devoted her Harry Potter series to fighting. Whether this was intentional, I’m not sure. But it’s plain as the nose on your face that she doesn’t believe in it.

Obviously, she does think she has the creative ability to add details to the story after the fact, whether it’s by announcing Dumbledore is gay, or Ron and Hermione’s relationship was a mistake, or hinting Harry and Ginny may not be completely happy. She happily feeds her fan communities the details they clamour for. And you know what? She’s always done that – she’s always extended the world of Harry Potter beyond the printed page.

Between the releases of her books, she used to post elaborate puzzles that led to clues for the new book’s title, or hold polls as to which question about the book she should answer. And then, when the series was done, she granted interviews to a couple of webmasters of incredibly popular Harry Potter websites, to fill in all the details that the series hadn’t addressed. Including, incidentally, her opinion at the time on Harry-and-Hermione (that believers in that ship were ‘delusional.’ How times change!) Lastly, she’s created Pottermore. That’s like spitting in the face of ‘death of the author.’ This author is definitely alive!

Does this give me hope? Does it give me the authority to tell readers what I really meant when I wrote those ebooks you see over to the right of my blog? You know, I suddenly find leaning towards the readers’ side. Because, come to think of it, I don’t always want to know every single details about these fictional world. And some of these details I would like to know – I’d like to experience them on the printed page, finding them out through the eyes of another character, rather than from the mouth of the author herself. That almost collapses the suspension of disbelief, injecting the reality of the author too firmly onto a fantasy. That’s not what I’m advocating for.

Oh dear, I’m going to argue for, of all things – balance. Once again. You need to leave the reader with some freedom to own their own experience in a book. But you don’t have to hand over the reins.

 

What do you think? Who should get the final say? And do agree J.K. Rowling is dealing a blow to death of the author?

 

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Filed under GENERAL Bookish Thoughts, Harry Potter

How the Sochi Olympics Illustrate the Value of Books

The big news when this set of Olympics started in Sochi was how much the whole thing cost – fifty billion dollars! – and cue predictions of how these fancy Olympics venues would all fall apart in a decade or so from lack of use. Okay, okay, I can definitely get in line with the thought that, however good for the ‘human spirit’ athletic competitions are, Olympics costs are ballooning to an unreasonable amount. I mean, couldn’t humanity find something better to do with fifty billions dollars than build some amazing venues that might be only fully used for a month?

But… humanity spends an insane amount of money on a lot of ‘useless’ things. The Olympics, at its heart, is entertainment for the masses. And don’t other forms of entertainment – movies, music, video games – need a gigantic amount of time and money to make too?

Watch a couple of those YouTube videos on the making of The Hobbit movie… there’s practically a city’s worth of people, making practically a city’s worth of sets and costumes, to create a world that doesn’t actually exist and doesn’t benefit anyone except those who got a few hours of entertainment out of it. I can think back to the days of old Hollywood, when they built an actual Roman racetrack for Ben Hur, and put an actual chariot race in it to film. And then I compare it to today, where they don’t need to actually build every little thing they film. The special effects far surpass what was possible in Ben Hur, but everything else about movies have ballooned as well – actors’ salaries, production budget, number of people involved…

On one hand, previous generations of humanity would probably look at us like we were touched in the head to spend such enormous amounts of time and money on such fleeting experiences. Fifty billion to host the Olympic Games. Six hundred million to make The Hobbit. We can pour time and money and immense amounts of effort into fleeting experiences. Have you ever thought about how much actually went into your two hours of enjoyment in the theatre? How many thousands of people were involved in getting the product to you?

I’m not going to start ranting about how we should stop this and start using all these billions of dollars, and billions of hours of manpower, to go out and solve world poverty or something. Of course it’s more complicated than that. Of course all this money and effort drives the economy. Maybe it’s just our modern world is more complicated, and more interconnected, and everything we do tends to be on a massive and complicated scale (think the Internet… or the cellphone network… or global corporations…)

I’m just going to say – all of this makes me appreciate the simplicity of a novel all the more. At its heart, a novel is just one writer with a vision he scribbles on paper. Once the printing press was invented, and books were able to be mass-produced, the writer’s message could reach more people. But there’s something to be said for one person’s ability to create a whole new world inside the pages of a book, without hiring an orchestra to play the soundtrack, and without actually constructing something pretty to look at in the background of the action scenes.

Someone will come at me next and protest there’s editors, and copyeditors, and cover designers, and marketers, and distributors involved in book-making too. And there is, of course. But you can cut back the book industry to a writer, and maybe a printing press. The simplest form of a movie is still far more complicated.

Or think about it this way. If our modern world disappeared tomorrow, would you rather have a book with you, or a copy of your favourite DVD?

And the nice thing about our modern world still existing is that we DO have choice… we do have the amazing ability to entertain ourselves with expensive-to-make movies, or expensive-to-host Olympic Games. But I’d like to call for a moment to appreciate the simpler things in life – and appreciate them for being simple.

Simplicity is something our world lacks. It’s something overlooked and taken for granted. But it will never lose its value.

And, therefore, neither will the writers among us, who create these magical things known as ‘books.’

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Filed under Bookish Thoughts, Randoms & My Life