Offence, Sympathy and Ordinariness


Shannon Hale posts on books that cause offence (and hopes hers will) and asks what offends readers: The Great Galley Giveaway

I’m offended by books that insult my intelligence: poorly written, poorly edited, poorly characterised, characters that are of course untrustworthy/malevolent/hypocritical/silly/fabulous because they are Jewish/Muslim/Christian/female/gay, etc. There are other books I prefer not to read because of their content, but I (almost always) put them down out of choice, not offence.


Jennifer Kesler on The Hathor Legacy has gone back for a second look at Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere: Neverwhere: review, take two. I’m really glad she did this because there was some controversy and discussion about her first review and it was interesting to see the discussion there (Neil joined in) and see her new opinions on the book and how he treats the characters. What I found particularly interesting was that although she felt he treated the female characters with respect, she didn’t like them as much as the male characters, many of whom were either funny or sympathetic to other characters. That sort of sympathy/empathy is often held up as being a feature of female characters, and Jennifer replied that that could be seen as a role reversal in itself.


Again on the Hathor Legacy Jennifer writes on Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and “[normalizing] the idea of a girl going on a quest by simply showing one without making an issue of her gender, without making her an exception to the rule that girls can’t quest”.

I do like it when people just do things without making issues out of them (that’s why my favourite movie is my favourite – ah, Chard!), but I was more struck by Jennifer’s comment that “Coraline is not special. She’s an ordinary kid with ordinary parents living in an ordinary home.” I’ve been thinking about how few heros (or heroines) seem to be around these days who don’t have magical powers, and this made me remember how much Coraline reminds me of Alice: unremarkable, unmagical, practical and sensible. And I do like heroines – and characters in general – like that. Alice in Wonderland’s slightly supercilious common sense, the remarkable scrapes E. Nesbit’s children get into (whether assisted by magic, as in The Enchanted Castle or Five Children and It, or entirely through their own efforts, as in The Story of the Treasure Seekers), the awful ordinariness of Edmund Pevensie and Eustace Clarence Scrubb and Jill Pole.

So many characters are extraordinary (often secretly so): secretly brilliant, magical, gifted, princesses, Destined, beautiful, inspired… I enjoy stories about people whose unique qualities eventually become recognised. But I also adore stories about utterly mundane people who manage to get by regardless: the dull, respectable heros, the plain practical heroines, the brave but not brilliant lassies, the smart but silly children, the lazy Jacks of the tales, all the people who are envious and proud and boring and irritating and who have adventures anyway, and change, and change the world.

Diana Wynne Jones, of course, manages to have it both ways: quite horribly human characters whose undiscovered abilities don’t necessarily make them or their extensive and awful families any better. And then, of course, she makes you love them anyway (sort of the opposite of Joss Whedon, who makes you love characters and then does awful things to them).

Writing Update: Leaves

I have been writing. At least 100 words every day. I’ve even managed to start my mother doing the same (!). Until recently my WIP has been a recalcitrant story which has been boring me (I can’t even liven things up with explosions, which means it’s really bad).

But now I have started a story I am (just a little bit) excited about. I know, for a change, how it begins and how it ends, and the tone and the teller. The heroine is trying hard not to be a villain, the hero is inclined to be a sociopath, and I am playing very fast and loose with history and myth, but I think I will be able to drag all three into line (well, maybe not the hero: I think he was a sociopath). It’s also been reason to acquire Gerald of Wales’ History of the Kings of England, Fraser’s abridgment of The Golden Bough, Child’s Ballads, and Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger (actually, that last has nothing to do with the story, but I was caught up in the moment – Kate, this is all your fault) and to retrieve a biography I’ve been meaning to read since glancing at the (very awesome) introduction. The story is episodic but less episodic than some of its inspirations and hopefully less romantic as well. It is not set in Queensland (sorry Aimee – I will get to that one!), but it’s not exactly in England either, and its still fun (at the moment). I even have a working title, and may not have to blow anything up at all.


Writing in Progress

Appearances to the contrary, my life has not in fact been wholly consumed by drawing. I am still turning up for work, going to the theatre, rewatching Ladyhawke* and even writing.

I have not written about writing very much because it takes longer to finish a piece and there aren’t as many cool, useful and arguably necessary accessories, but I am still writing at least one hundred words every day. Sometimes they are only fragmentary scenes and conversations, glimpses of characters, playing with ideas. It is all practice – treading water at least if not actually going anywhere – and is self-regulating because eventually I get frustrated and want to produce something coherent and complete.

The main works in progress are currently (working titles): “The Magedan” – a sword and sorcery short story the real hero of which is the Rule of Law; “Chattering Jack” – a little old-school dark piece; and “Angie Nettles” – a rural fantasy/fairytale retelling.

The story I mentioned here has been further edited (thanks to Aimee’s very helpful critique) and after encouragement from my writing group has been sent out into the world again. It is an urban fantasy and people seem to have liked it but I am still alternating between toleration and loathing – at least the alternations are only daily now instead of every five minutes.

I am also considering overhauling two other stories – stretching “Fierce Bad Rabbit” into a proper story (which is problematic because currently it is wierd/dark/horror but if I lengthen it may become a murder mystery and change genres) and turning “Stars Over Pilgrim’s Ford” (a parable/excuse for a sword fight) completely inside out and into a prequel for “The Magedan”.


If I post more about writing, I might talk about: The Problem with Positivity; Nuclear Testing Grounds; Longhand; Switching sides; and Jean Luis Borges and the Cultural Cringe. But those are only possibilities, not promises.

*No, it’s not a wonderful movie. It falls between To the Ends of Time and Lord of the Rings – subtract the difference and you get left with some odd facial expressions and corny lines, which Ladyhawke has plenty of. But the composition of the scenes is gorgeous – watched wide-screen format they are set up like the most beautiful fantasy paintings, or marvellous patterns of light and shadow. I was kind of awestruck, actually.