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When I was a child, the world seemed so wide March 22, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, memories.
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2 comments

For someone whose favourite series of books is about the absolute necessity of embracing conscious, adult existence, I sure spend a lot of time reminiscing about my childhood. On days when adult life seems to ‘suck beyond the telling of it’ (Gratuitous Buffy Quote #1), childhood experiences seem that much more wonderful, their joys that much fiercer, their emotions that much stronger, the whole 17 (to pluck an arbitrary number out of nowhere) years that much more meaningful than anything the previous seven have had to offer. Nowhere is this more apparent than in my attitude to my favourite texts (TV series and movies, but for the most part books) of my younger years.

It became apparent, in a couple of conversations with Sibylle, that I mythologised my personal canon of childhood to an absurd degree. Sibylle has set herself a rather awesome reading challenge this year: to read the best young-adult, science-fiction and fantasy novels out there. Since these are my three main genres, I was happy to oblige with suggestions. What we both noticed was that I was constantly saying things like ‘such and such a book was my favourite book when I was seven’ or, ‘so and so wrote the books that meant the most to me when I was a teenager’. Although I have discovered texts that I adore since hitting the wrong side of 18, they are much rarer. (Hello, current crazy Watchmen obsession! Why don’t you stand up and take a bow, Great, Epic Fangirling of Scott Westerfeld and Cory Doctorow of 2007-8? And let’s not forget the time that American Gods reduced me to a quivering heap of awed silence.)

But a recent post of Sibylle’s forced me to reexamine my rather blinkered, uncritical view of my childhood canon.

I’ve also watched Grease (1978) for the upteenth time. It was my favourite movie when I was 13, which means nothing as to its quality. I’m very suspicious of my teenage and childhood loves as I don’t think half of them were based on merit. You won’t find me writing about how wonderful something is based solely on my childhood memories of it.

Ouch. Even though she assures me this comment wasn’t aimed at me, it did make me think that I needed to assess exactly why I champion my beloved texts of childhood so fiercely.

One of the things I’ve noticed about adulthood is that you have much less time to be a narcissist. (Somewhere, my mother is rolling on the floor laughing at this admission of her most narcissistic of daughters.) I know this sounds odd coming from someone whose idea of a good time is to sit in her room, reviewing books on the internet while talking to people on IRC, but the pull of the ‘real world’ is slightly more insistent once you’re an adult. If nothing else, there’s a need to earn money to support an expensive lifestyle of Buffy boxed sets, fantasy novels and, once in a while, food. Childhood and adolescence, in contrast, offer many opportunities for sitting in one’s room, thinking about how such and such a novel (or film, or song) PERFECTLY ENCAPSULATES ONE’S LIFE. (That is, if one’s childhood is as wonderfully middle-class Canberran as mine was.) But it is not merely opportunity that causes this vastly expanded childhood canon.

I’ve realised that I like texts in three different ways. These can be roughly summarised thus:

  • Head: These texts appeal to me solely on an aesthetic level.  I appreciate the technical proficiency of their creators, and in some cases, their complex themes, but I feel no desire to reread or rewatch them.  I can’t list any examples because, once I’ve read or watched such texts, they exert no further pull on my imagination.
  • Head and Heart: These texts are aesthetically pleasing and speak to me on some personal level.  They have some kind of meaning that either fits in with my worldview or has some relevance to my life, and tend to encourage me to want to write about them and discuss them with others.  The majority of the books of my childhood would fall under this category, as would most of my current personal canon (Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas series, China Miéville’s books, Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series, Dollhouse, most of the immrama that I’m writing about for my dissertation).
  • Head, Heart and Soul: These texts are technically proficient.  They possess themes which speak to me on a personal level and make me want to write about them and discuss them with other fans.  But, most importantly, they make me reexamine who I am, make me want to change, to become better, to think more.  These are the texts that I would quite possibly die to save.  Thinking about these texts makes my life worth living.

This last category contains such things as His Dark Materials, Buffy, Firefly, Sara Douglass’s Troy Game series, Parkland, Earthsong, Firedancer, The Beast of Heaven and Taronga by Victor Kelleher, The Tiger In The Well by Philip Pullman, The Vampire Chronicles, Catherine Jinks’s Pagan series, Adele Geras’s Tower Room series and book The Girls in the Velvet Frame, John Marsden’s Tomorrow series, Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths, American Gods by Neil Gaiman, Small Gods by Terry Pratchett, the films Amelie and Waltz With Bashir, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield, Jo Walton’s Tir Tanagiri Saga, Cirque du Soleil’s show Quidam, Buile Shuibne, and the graphic novel Watchmen.

Of that list, only American Gods, Small Gods, The Vampire Chronicles, Buile Shuibne, The Troy Game, The Tir Tanagiri Saga, Waltz With Bashir, Firefly and Watchmen were read/watched by me when I was an adult. And of that small list, the only ones read/watched by me after I finished my undergrad degree were Waltz With Bashir, Watchmen, American Gods and Small Gods. That’s a very small proportion of a rather large personal canon.

I do read slightly less than I did as a child (when I would routinely read three books a day), but that can’t be the only reason. Of the three books a day I read as a child, after all, not all became Head, Heart and Soul books. Why, then, are so few of the texts that have meaning for me texts I’ve discovered as an adult?

It’s not a reflection of quality. Objectively, I know, for example, that the Pagan series is of a much higher quality than the Vampire Chronicles, and that Victor Kelleher is a much better writer than Sara Douglass. I might (after doing Honours in English literature, working for five years as a book reviewer and two years as a feature sub-editor) know a bit more about what makes for bad writing than I did as a child, but none of the ‘childhood canon’ books on my list are badly written. I’ve read them all many times as an adult, and they remain as wonderful now as they seemed to me as a child.

Perhaps it has something to do with the relative complexity (and stability) of one’s adult identity in comparison to the fluidity of the identity of a child. A child is, to a certain extent, unformed, and capable of possessing many facets, not all of which must be satisfied in a work of fiction. Thus, the part of my child-self that consoled itself through ‘supposing’ was satisfied with A Little Princess, while the part of it that thought all humans were beasts found expression in the works of Victor Kelleher. I did not require a text to be all things to all parts of my personality, and so was satisfied with texts that embodied just some parts of that personality. As an adult, I require more of my texts, and so, for the most part, am disappointed in this regard. A text must, as I wrote elsewhere in this blog, speak to me and for me and and about me, but it must do so to and for and about all parts of my identity.

That is asking a lot of a text. In fact, in the face of my high-maintenance requirements of texts, it’s a wonder any have managed to find their way into my personal canon at all since I turned 18. So thank you, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Ari Folman, Alan Moore, Sara Douglass, Jo Walton, Anne Rice, crazed anonymous medieval author of Buile Shuibne, and Joss Whedon for somehow finding a way into the seething mass of contradictions which make up my mind, heart and soul. Sometimes, your writings are the only things that make me feel anything for this confusing, terrifying, beautiful and heartbreaking thing called adulthood. For this, I am eternally grateful.

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Something for the sraffies May 29, 2008

Posted by dolorosa12 in sraffies.
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8 comments

So, for some weird reason, I found myself last night re-reading lots of my old reviews. I was searching for one on Peeps and The Last Days by Scott Westerfeld, but I ended up reading them all. It was like peering back through the pages of an old diary, laughing at the clunkiness of my old prose and, every so often, shocked, thinking, ‘I believed that?’ My review of Eragon is absolutely painful to read. I described the book as ‘richly imagined’? That pile of dross recycled from The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and The Earthsea Quartet? What was I thinking?

What I really wanted to post here, was, however, my article about literary internet fansites. I think it will be amusing for all the sraffies. I certainly laughed when I read it (and not only at the clunky writing). The illustrations show a very early image of the BttS homepage, with news stories by Merlyn (that’s how old this article is, sraffies) and Blighty (is that Will?).

So, for your reading pleasure and amusement, I present ‘It’s Booklovers Anonymous in cyberspace’.

One of the delicious thrills of joining a literary Internet chat room is the possibility that you may actually be talking to a friend. Hidden behind the many adopted noms de plume may be someone you know – a casual acquaintance or even someone you passed in the street that day. While in the library at uni a few weeks ago, I noticed something unexpected as I waited in line to check my email.

Another student, already on the computer, was browsing the forums of an unofficial literary Internet fan site with which I was perhaps too familiar. I did not know this girl – indeed, I know none of the other members of the fan site. All go by pseudonyms, preferring to cloak their almost fanatical love of books in obscurity. It is strange and slightly unsettling when the anonymity of the Internet is threatened in this way – when its artificial world comes too close to the real world.

This girl and I did not know each other, and yet we may have been sharing thoughts on our favourite books for months. A literary fan site provides anonymous possibilities similar to the pleasures of a masked ball.

While many have claimed that the wonder of the Internet is email – instant communication in real time – for those with a passion for particular authors or genres of literature, the unofficial fan site would have to run a close second. For booklovers who perhaps had scorned the Internet as yet another small-screen diversion from life’s real purpose, of reading more books, the development of literary fan sites has proved as much of a diversion as the Australian Idol website has been for those with a different kind of passion.

Literary fan sites – on authors from Sir Thomas Malory to George Orwell to the generic writers of The Saddle Club – are generally run by fans, places where groups of like-minded people can discuss their favourite books, trade gossip on book-related topics, and essentially indulge their obsession with a particular series of books. (argh! three ‘books’ in the one sentence. *winces*)

Indeed, one of the chief delights of literary websites lies in sharing the obsessive pedantry of the fan with like-minded souls around the world. While some of the sites are little more than chatrooms providing a front for selling merchandise, others include transcripts of interviews, heated discussion about the significance of particular events (on the fan site for His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, the discussion about whether two characters slept together goes on for 36 pages and counting!) and speculation about where a particular series of books is heading. (hmm, only 36 pages? It must be close to 200 by now…)

Many fan sites, particularly those related to fantasy writing, are really clusters of sites. The main site for Isobel Carmody fans is obernewtyn.net, which has a sister site, Obernewtyn Theories. The main site has transcripts of interviews, fan fiction, fan art, news and gossip. The second site is an endless forum for discussion of the meaning of texts, plot development and cross-text references.

The Philip Pullman site, which is at bridgetothestars.net, includes a series of forums dedicated to not only the His Dark Materials trilogy itself but all other books by the author, as well as separate forums for discussing other books, movies, music and interests. As well as the inevitable fan fiction (stories using the original novels as a starting point), bridgetothstars.net also has a section where fans can publish their essays.

Fantasy sites seem to attract mainly young people, who enjoy writing themselves into the story. However, these fantasy sites are not simply filled with lost children escaping the real world. The existence of an essay section in bridgetothestars.net actually encourages readers to research and write essays about aspects of their favourite texts. (No, really?)

Children and teenagers are writing essays on topics as diverse as the scientific basis of the multi-universes of Pullman’s world, to his use of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, in in work, for the sheer love of it.

[…]
Just as the line between fantasy and reality can be thin on the Internet, so it it too for these avid fans. One of the more recent issues discussed on the Pullman site was the possibility of dedicating a park bench – which plays a significant role in Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – in the Oxford Botanical Gardens to the chief characters in his books. Later, English fans returned to the site to report that the characters’ names had already been carved into the bench by more switched-on fans. They also reported that the bench had been formally dedicated to a couple of women already, and a search began to find out information about these women and the possible reasons behind this dedication.

The obernewtyn.net site hosts monthly “moonfairs”, complete with competitions and prizes, in an attempt to emulate similar moonfairs in the series. The moderators of the sites use a number of creative methods to contribute to the intellectual life and discussion of the site. For example, members of obernewtyn.net belong to “guilds”, similar to the guilds created by Carmody’s heroic characters; each guild member attracts points by contributing to the site.

On bridgetothestars.net members are rewarded for posting on the numerous forums by being moved up on the invented hierarchy of characters from Pullman’s trilogy. For example, a member who has posted 25 times or less is known as a “grazer” – a bovine-type character with no consciousness – whereas 25 to 50 posts puts the member in the category of the “mulefa” – a creature similar in appearance to the grazer but with the bonus of human-like consciousness. (hmm, someone didn’t understand the conventions of php-based forums, clearly. Someone also appeared to think that post-count related ranks were there to reward post-whorage. *shame*)

All of these things combine to create a friendly, if obsessive, atmosphere, full of like-minded people. As for collectors of memorabilia and the other groups of passionate oddballs, the sense of community, of shared experience, in literary Internet fan sites, is strong. They provide an outlet for such people to enjoy literature away from the academic world, and without its pressures.

With the freedom of anonymity, users are able to cultivate individuality and enhance any quirkiness they are able to express. While the rise of the Internet was seen as a threat to the future of the book, just as television was supposed to signal an end to reading, literary fan sites encourage an appreciation of literature and should be applauded.

Fantasy web sites, in particular, created for the most part by young people, have encouraged the close reading of texts and the self-expression dear to the heart of any English teacher. They are also lots of fun!

~ This originally appeared in the CT on Saturday, January 31, 2004.

I feel shame that I ever wrote this badly, but the comments about teh sraffies crack me up now. Anonymity? *falls over laughing* I also love that I hadn’t quite been bitten by the Internet bug yet – and still believed in a false dichotomy between the ‘online’ and ‘real’ worlds.

First post March 25, 2008

Posted by dolorosa12 in Uncategorized.
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3 comments

Well, I’ve decided to start using wordpress. I skipped over here after being thoroughly disgusted with some stuff that was going on at LJ, and although I don’t think I’ll abandon LJ – my blog there is a bit like a spoiled, much-loved child – I’ll try wordpress for a bit.

What can I say?  I tend to spread myself too thinly across the internet – especially when vanity and exhibitionism are involved.