Sunday, January 20, 2008


On what writing is

"I always thought writing was arraying words in beautiful patterns, but now I think it's more like walking blindfolded, listening with your whole heart, and then looking backward to see if you made any tracks worth keeping." Sara Lewis Holmes in her recent Poetry Friday post at Read Write Believe.

On why fiction/fantasy matter

Ten days ago, I put up a post entitled "Why We Need Fiction", about which I remain pleased. One of my rationales for why fiction is important reads as follows: "We need fiction because it allows us to create an artificial barrier, behind which we can examine Big Important Issues in a hypothetical setting, instead of beating people's brains out, possibly literally, by addressing those issues in the real world."

I've started reading my copy of The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy by Leonard S. Marcus, and it appears that Lloyd Alexander agreed with me in part:

"Q: Why do you write fantasy?
Because, paradoxically, fantasy is a good way to show the world as it is. Fantasy can show us the truth about human relationships and moral dilemmas because it works on our emotions on a deeper, symbolic level than realistic fiction. It has the same emotional power as a dream."

On poetry

Here, the first seven lines of a fourteen-line poem by James Kirkup called "The Poet":

Each instant of his life, a task, he never rests,
And works most when he appears to be doing nothing.
The least of it is putting down in words
What usually remains unwritten and unspoken,
And would so often be much better left
Unsaid, for it is really the unspeakable
That he must try to give an ordinary tongue to.

And from Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, which airs tonight at 9 p.m. on most PBS stations, the novel of which I reviewed last July. Here is a portion of the text taken from a description of the developing friendship between Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe. This section is often referred to as Austen's "defence of the novel", and is found in Volume I, chapter 5 of the novel:

. . . and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together. Yes, novels; ——for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding ——joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens, -- there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. "I am no novel-reader ——I seldom look into novels ——Do not imagine that I often read novels ——It is really very well for a novel." ——Such is the common cant. —— "And what are you reading, Miss ——————?" "Oh! it is only a novel!" replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. ——"It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;" or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.

Seems the more things change, the more they remain the same. No?

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