Sunday, April 10, 2011

Rabid Dwarves and Misplaced Senses

Welcome back guest blogger Laura Jones. This musing written to her MFA mentor, on Margaret Peterson Haddix's Just Ella. 

I must begin by admitting that I never intended to read this book. It's not on my reading list, it probably shouldn't be on my reading list, and I should probably be writing about Isak Dinesen's Winter's Tales which I enjoyed greatly and which is probably overdue because I had it out from the Boston Public Library and forgot it was in my school bag when I left Boston for Central New York. Maybe even I should be writing about The Sandman Papers, edited by Joe Sanders, which is a compilation of critical essays about a very well known graphic novel that was freakishly influential to me. At least The Sandman Papers feigns to be academic. Just Ella does no such thing, which is, in fact, probably part of why I read it.

I mentioned in my last missive that I intended to reread books I had enjoyed as a child or teenager, with an eye for what drew me to them. As a self-exploratory exercise, it appeals to me. It's also an excuse for me to buy up books I don't need; I found a copy of Just Ella at a Salvation Army Store. I paid somewhere around 39 cents for it. I remembered reading it as a kid; I remembered that it was about a princess that fell in love with her tutor. What I didn't remember until I started rereading it was that it was a retelling of Cinderella (specifically a delving into of what happens when a self-sufficient young lady is forced into proper royal behavior and realizes that what she thought was love was just infatuation, and must deal with the consequences).

If Just Ella hadn't ended up being shockingly relevant to my current academic and creative interests, I would have written it up on my annotated bibliography and otherwise ignored it. I mean, it's a children's book. I powered through it in an afternoon after having accidentally sedated myself by mixing a tranquilizer with an allergy pill. It was that accessible. But as I said: it's relevant. Two or three years ago I took a class where I was expected to read Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber. That was an awesome educational moment: I was required to read something that I ended up loving instead of something that I was merely required to have read. It was also at that moment that I realized that I'm fiendishly attached to retellings of fairy tales. I should stop ignoring it.

Another book I grabbed at the same time I got Just Ella was a hardcover copy of fairy tales ($1.23); of course I've read them all, but not quite with this wording, and certainly not with these illustrations. My god, it occurs to me that I'm ignoring something major when it comes to my creativity. I mean- the desktop background on my laptop is a really tweaked out illustration of Snow White (she looks possessed and the dwarfs (who are on rope leashes) look rabid).

And the funny thing is, it wasn't so much reading Just Ella that forced me to consider my love affair with reworked fairy tales as the fact that I was going over all of the books I've read in the past few weeks, trying to figure out what I had interest in writing about, and it occurred to me that yet again I passed up books I probably should have been reading in favor of a rewritten fairy tale that made me happy and was downright effortless to consume. As simple as breathing, reading stories based on long tradition and tried-and-true themes delights me.

I'm not really sure right now why I'm not writing fairy tales. I wonder if it's because I have a [perhaps misplaced] sense that contemporary fiction should be realistic. I wrote last about how delighted I am by fantasy that is portrayed as realism. The thing is, I'm also over the moon about fairy tales that aren't pretending to be anything but fairy tales. It may also, of course, be in my [perhaps misplaced] sense that if I write fantasy, I'm delving into the realm of Children's/YA. Of course that's foolish and I should know better. Just because many of the reworked fairy tales I've read are classified as YA doesn't mean they all must be, and – and this is probably more important – even if I am writing YA, I shouldn't be concerned about it. It is, perhaps, because I have a [certainly understandable] sense that poets are all a bit strange, nonfiction writers are all a bit too normal, and YA writers are all a bit too damned happy all the time. Mind you, that sense is probably also misplaced, but it's there. I stereotype other writers. So sue me.
But to get more to my point, once I justified having read Just Ella, and once I decided that it wouldn't be the end of the world if I wrote about it instead of writing about Dracula (main nit-pick: its format as a collection of letters and diary entries and the like kill suspense by way of ensuring that a reader knows at least one person survives long enough to write about the events), it occurred to me that one of the things I really actually like about Just Ella is that Haddix used the word 'automaton.'
No big deal, right? Well, I wrote with a group of people for a few years starting when I was about fifteen, and they were more or less obsessive compulsive about using language that was appropriate to the content and type of story. So a story taking place in a locale that is very Middle English shouldn't use latinate language, it should use germanic language. A sci-fi story that's heavily technology-oriented probably shouldn't feature a lot of thees and thous unless there's good reason for it. I had it drilled into me that the language the a writer uses should reflect the realities and truisms of the world s/he is trying to create.

And Haddix used the word 'automaton' in a story about glass slippers and dungeons. That's about as understandable to me as having Queen Elizabeth I talk at great length about robots and microchips.

But the thing is... I'm not at all certain that there's anything particularly wrong with using whatever language springs to mind. It didn't hurt the story any that Ella felt like she was expected to be as obedient as something synthetic. It just stood out to me as something that I wouldn't do. I notice it more in YA novels than I do in general literature: almost as if the authors don't notice their word choice, or as if they don't care, or as if they don't expect their readership to notice it. As somebody who loves Poe's short stories because of the poeticism of his word choice, it really catches my attention that you can just go out and write a story and not be all that concerned about the appropriateness of your word choice.

It's almost reassuring, in a way. Stories can be considered both clever and enjoyable without necessarily needing to be endlessly edited for linguistic merit. Of course linguistic merit is important too, but reading Just Ella brought a few really key things to mind:

  • There's nothing inherently wrong with writing fun and flippant stories.
  • I don't always have to show off my honed vocabulary when I'm writing.
  • I really need to get my shit together and stop ignoring the things that make me feel both happy and creative.
  • And so I finish thusly, with a meek apology that I wrote about a book that I wasn't really supposed to be reading.

1 comment:

  1. This made me giggle, and gave me a breath of fresh air as I motor through my critical analyses (due tomorrow, eek!). Thank you, Laura! And us YA folks aren't always ridiculously happy ;)