31 July 2006

In Which We Find Truth in Fiction

Sheesh, this debate over creation versus criticism has been taking over my life! I keep seeing it everywhere I go. For example, I picked up Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell a week or two ago. Yes, a work of fiction. Yes, even a fantasy.

But the theme is there. The book begins with at the Yorkshire Society of Gentleman Magicians, but these aren't the magicians you would expect. None of them practice any magic, nor would they ever want to. You see, in this alternate Napolean-era England, magic has fallen from practical use. "Magicians" are more akin to historians, who study the works of the ancient magicians, and write long theoretically treatises on theories of how magic might work and whether this or that magician was influenced by the other, without ever attempting to try the spells they study. The implications on critical tradition are obvious.

Enter John Segundus. He questions why no one has tried magic, demands that we try and create new magic, to do new things rather than just reviewing the old--in other words, for creative work, rather than just analysis. The Society introduces him to the titular Mr. Norrell, who proves to be the practical magician Segundus is searching for. But even this new creative force has its problems: Mr. Norrell guards his art jealously, and can't stand the thought of sharing his books with other magicians. Also, he focuses so much on the agenda behind his art that often the creativity of it is lost. Then along comes Jonathan Strange, the other practicing magician, and things get interesting. . . .

But I'll spare you more plot summary, and I haven't quite finished the book yet anyway (300 pages left!). Even at this point, though, the implications for this criticize/create debate are clear. First, the worst state a society can possibly be in is one of pure analysis, where creation and creativity are looked down on. But just as bad is the society where creation is worshipped as a sacred, mysterious force, something for the elite, not to be shared with the masses, something jealously guarded.

The lesson I take away is this. Creativity must be taught, in as much as it can be. I realize it isn't a subject you can teach like math or even like a sport. Some essential parts of it cannot be taught, but others can. And we should teach them, even demand them. And demand the other parts too. I might even go so far as to say we should take a leaf from programs in the Fine Arts, and create a Writing major where you actually have to audition to get in.

I think one aspect that has led to the current fouled-up state of affairs in lit crit is the attempt to make it too scientific. We have tried to make our discipline too much like the social sciences, which in turn have tried to become like the hard sciences. We have tried too hard to squeeze writing into some comprehensible form instead of revelling in its marvelous creativity. In my opinion, the focus of the English major ought to be shifted to writing, with lit crit serving as a tool to help us understand other writers and through them ourselves.

There seems to be some third view, represented by Strange, but as I'm not yet sure of his fate, I will refrain from comment.

(Might as well finish off this book review properly. My only complaint about this book is that it is long. 800 pages type long. Now, I've read books that long before, but most of them didn't feel that long. I mean, HPs 4-6 felt so small! I attribute the "longness" of this book to the author's style: she's channelling Dickens so strongly that, were he alive, I might expect a copyright infringement case. And you may write down for the record that I detest Dickens--or his style anyway. But it's a sign of the brillance of the ideas that I am willing to put up with a style that drives me batty to get at them.

The only part of the style I really like is the very serious scholarly footnotes explaining when a character is wrong or giving large background stories and folktales. Pretty hilarious. And the old timey spelling is interesting. . . .

Additionally, this book is exactly the wrong size for reading. Too big a spine and too large of pages. I really want to get the three volume edition so that I can actually read it comfortably.)

P.S. I have started memorizing the Lady of Shalott, as per my post Saturday. I've almost got part one down! I feel very Anne-ish. Joni, you should be proud. :D

3 comments:

Marisa VanSkiver said...

I don't officially have the job at the Y. I have another interview on the 31st when I get back (I had a phone interview yesterday) and it sounds like I really have the job, just is a matter of formality that I meet with him again.

Marisa VanSkiver said...

Yea, Amber is getting married, November 18 I think. I forgot to ask which temple. It's the guy that just back from his mission in June. I guess it was pretty rushed, but they dated for a couple of years before he left.

Joni said...

I am ;)