Thursday, June 30, 2011

Pulling Books Apart

Sorry for the long silence. This is a recording....

I've been nose to the grindstone since getting back from Perth the other week, busily beavering away at the paper I delivered at the biennial IRSCL congress in Brisbane yesterday*. I looked at Coraline and The Graveyard Book, both by the wonderful Neil Gaiman, and examined the construction of family within them.**

So, of course, I've had to give both books a very close reading. My copy of Coraline has so many little yellow post it notes attached that it looks rather like a very odd sunflower. And The Graveyard book is even worse. For me, at least, a 'close reading' involves going through the book, pencil in hand, and literally reading it on a sentence-by-sentence basis, considering issues of construction and meaning behind pretty much every word.

All this has, of course, got me thinking...

During my visit to Perth the other week, two different people, both writers I respect enormously, told me how much they dislike academics who read into their books ideas and meanings that they never intended to be there in the first place. And I have to admit that I've read a few analytical comments about my own books in scholarly papers and had to fight the urge to bang off a quick email to the author.

But one of the central principles of literary analysis - and it's as constructed an idea as every other in the field - is that the meaning a reader, any reader - even a theory-obsessed academic -brings to a book is as valid, if not more valid, than the meaning that the author intended. There's also an argument to be made from an analytical perspective that authors are perhaps the least qualified people to comment upon the underlying social meanings that inform their writing.***

In any case, to get back to the central point of this post, one of the chief comments that writing students (and other writers) often make about having to do very close readings of books is that it can 'kill the enjoyment of the book for me'. The idea being that, in having to analyse a creative work so minutely, you lose sight of the overall beauty of it and that, in turn, doesn't help improve your writing. It's an argument I've heard a few times over the years.

And I have to say - speaking only for myself, of course - it's an argument I just can't agree with. Stephen King points out that 'if you don't have time to read, you don't have time to write', and I think you can take this a step further and argue that the more closely you allow yourself to engage with the words of other writers, the more you understand, at both a conscious and unconscious level, about your own writing.

If anything else, for me the process of doing a close reading only heightens my appreciation of other writers' works and my admiration of their skills. Seeing how the placement of a single word in the right place and time can frame up the rest of a story without you (the reader) realising it always gives me something of a thrill.

I'll give you an example from my paper -

Take Gaiman's The Graveyard Book - one of my favourite books. I've read it countless times, including the close reading I did for this paper. One of the things I picked up on when looking at the book was this, the fourth sentence of the novel, right on the first page...
The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.
There are a whole lot of things in that sentence that are really interesting in terms of my paper, but one thing that really got me is the power behind one little word there; 'almost'. As soon as you read that word you know - you just know in the back of your head - that until the knife has completed its work, one way or another, that the world is going to be a dangerous place. The word 'almost' implies such a strong sense of incompleteness, of tasks left hanging and unaccomplished, that the reader is immedately - just four sentences into the story - feeling unsettled and uneasy.

And for me, as both a writer and a reader, understanding something like that doesn't in any way diminish my capacity to enjoy the book. If anything, it heightens it. I still get all teary at the end of The Graveyard Book, perhaps even moreso now than the first time I read it.

And of course, this raises the question of whether or not Neil Gaiman deliberately placed that little word, 'almost' there to achieve that effect, or whether it's just a happy co-incidence, or whether I'm simply reading far too much into the book.

In all honesty, I suspect the answer to that question is: 'yes'. My feeling is that Neil Gaiman is far too accomplished a craftsman to not be aware, at some level, of the impact of every single word in his stories. I know I've had long discussions with my editors over the placement of individual words on many occasions.

I also know, from personal experience, that often the decision as to which words to include or not include aren't made on a conscious level, but are made in an instant - a hundredth of a second - at some instinctual level while you're writing, but that doesn't mean that you're not still making them.

And I also know - regardless of what Neil Gaiman himself intended - the effect that word 'almost' has upon me, as both a reader, a student of writing, and a practitioner of it. And at that one, Neil Gaiman's intentions (with all due respect to the man) become irrelevent.

So for me, at least, pulling books apart is part of the joy of reading them.

*A conference which has, to this point, had many highlights, one of which was me stepping into a duckpond up to my waist while walking through the botanical gardens on my way to catch the train to the airport to come home last night. Luckily I had spare clothes in my backpack. And enough money on me to afford a new pair of shoes on my way through town...

**I could, at this point, bang on using words and phrases like 'unravelling the liminal spaces', and 'transgressions of thresholds' and 'Freudian signifiers of the heimlich and unheimlich' and 'Lacanian o/Other' but, trust me, you've got better things to do with your life...

*** Though that's a whole other blog post...

Friday, June 17, 2011

Youth Literature Days...

Today I'm halfway through my stay at the Fremantle Children's Literature Centre, and it's been a great week, if a busy one. I've been presenting as part of the FCLC's series of Youth Literature Days, which are always full on, but fantastic fun.

I was lucky enough, back in about 2003 or 4, to be involved in the setting up of the first Youth Lit Days (or YLD's, as they shall henceforth be known), and it's a program that I'll happily keep coming back for. I think it's pretty safe to say that there's nothing else like it in Australia.

Once each term, groups of students between years 9-12 meet up at the centre and spend a day working and writing together. The days are mentored by various writers - the groups I've been working with this week have, for example, worked so far with people like Markus Zusak, Bridget Lowry, James Roy, Julia Lawrinson and heaps of others. Next term they've got Isobelle Carmody coming and in term 4, Simon Higgins.

YLD's tend to be a sort of win-win situation for all involved; the students selected (the criteria for selection is that you have to be interested and committed to writing. That's all. Grades etc... aren't important, just a love of putting words on pages) get the opportunity to work with some amazing and diverse writers, they get exposed to different ways of thinking about writing and stories, and different ways of approaching the various parts of the writing process. The writers, for their part, get to work with big groups of bright, motivated young writers, all of whom have actively chosen to be part of the program. From my point of view, I come out of YLD's really tired, but refreshed and excited.

And some of the writing produced... wow!

So that's how I'm spending my week. This week I've been doing days at the Centre in Fremantle with groups in their first and second years of the program. Next monday I'm doing one last day at the centre with a group who've been coming for four years now, and then Leslie (the centre director) and I head down south to Bunbury for a few days down there.

I can't help but wish there'd been something like this around when I was a teenager - would have been just the sort of thing I'd have loved. Still, at least I get to be involved with them now.

Have a good weekend, everyone.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Off we go again...

So, I'm sitting here in the main reading room of the National Library of Australia, waiting for a book to come up from the stacks, so that I can not embarrass myself at the IRSCL Conference I'm speaking at in Brisbane in July. I won't pretend I'm not a little nervous about this paper, for a whole pile of reasons that I'm not going to go into right at the moment, but I'm sure that when this particular book* pops out of the little hatchway things will get a lot better.

I hope.

Still, on the upside, the 20 minute wait between logging a book request and having it appear on the shelves gives me a chance to pop over here and post a long overdue blog.

Since last we spoke, I've been buried in writing stuff. I've also had the printout of The Hunter** sitting on the coffee table in my office, staring accusingly at me, and quite literally whispering "edit me... you know you want to...." into the back of my mind*** I'm really hanging out to get my red pen out and start slashing away, but am restraining myself until I'm in Perth next week, because editing is just the perfect way to fill the evenings while away from home.

On the subject of which, I'm about to head over for a couple of weeks at the Fremantle Children's Literature Centre, which is just one of my favourite places in the world to work. I'll be doing a series of their Youth Literature Days, which are always fantastic. Also talking at the WA State Librarians Conference this saturday, and doing some sessions with the lovely Coral Tulloch (who is almost wholly responsible for encouraging me to go to Antarctica a few years back) at the FCLC open day on Sunday 19th June. If you're in Fremantle, and near the centre, please do come on by and say G'Day.

Then I'm home again for a week, which will doubtless be spent bashing out the rest of the paper which has currently got me sitting at the NLA, then up to Brisbane for the IRSCL, then back for a week, then off to Noumea for a week of (Shock! Horror!) ACTUAL HOLIDAYS!

So I'm keeping busy.

In the meantime, there've been all sorts of things I've wanted to blog about, including this incredibly stupid article from the Wall Street Journal, which rests upon all sorts of broad generalisations, and provides a fantastic example of how to cherry pick a genre in order to prove your (uninformed) point, but sadly time has gotten away from me, and all sorts of other bloggers have done a nice job of unpacking the piece, in any case.

I also recently read up a whole lot about Mary E. Patchett, and specifically her 1953 book Ajax the Warrior as the foundation for a book chapter I was invited to put together. It was a fascinating little journey into one of the little known byways of Australian Literary History.

In any case, the trolley has just popped out with a whole pile of books on it including, I suspect, the one I'm waiting for, so I'm off to be a happy little researcher for the next little while.

*New World Orders in Contemporary Children's Fiction, by Bradford, Mallan and Stephens, (2008), just in case you were wondering....
** Formerly known as Orion, but I've changed the title.
*** Actually, this might not in fact be true. I've been reading a lot of Neil Gaiman lately, and I suspect it's messing with my subconscious....


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