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More Fan Mail

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So, okay, I was going somewhere with all that stuff I was saying yesterday but between then and now, I’ve received yet another e-mail caused by a complete inability to understand what’s happening in third person multiple viewpoint.

And I’ve got to admit that the Internet is not my friend in some ways.  When I used to get these things by snail mail, it was easy to just ignore them. 

I even manae to ignore a lot of them now, but this one–.

Okay, it wasn’t just the first e-mail, which I answered in what I thought  was a pleasant manner, but which my correspondent thought was “haughty.”  And because I don’t use the common e-mail convention for italitics, but use caps for emphasis instead, she also thought I  was shouting.

But the problem remains the same, and it’s driving me absolutely crazy.

In this case, the reader objected to the fact that some character in Cheating at Solitaire had thought dismissive and inaccurate things about the Harry Potter novels.  She didn’t tell me which character this was, and the remark was obviously some kind of aside, so I have no way of tracking down what I did and what I meant to do for the character involved when I did it.

Now,  I’ve got nothing against the Harry Potter novels.  I’ve read them all.  I own every single one of them.  I own every sinle one of the DVDs, too, and in deluxe expanded editions on top of it.

I do know, however, that there are people out there who do not like these books, and others who just don’t get what the fuss is about.  In Living Witness,. tere is at least one Christian fundamentalist character who is convinced the books are agents of witchcraft.  And those people really exist.

And when I write from the point of view of such characters, then they will think what they really think about Harry Potter and everybody and everything else.

And  I explained that to her, and she went on to say not only that I was shouting and being “haughty”  (I really wasn’t–I got to that in my response to her second e-mail), but that I should have put a disclaimer at the back saying that these were the thoughts of my characters and not mine, and how I really do like the Harry Potter books, so that readers wouldn’t be put off reading them because of what my characters think.

Oh, and she kept putting the word “character” in quotes, to indicate that of course she knew I was lying, what the “character” said was obviously my opinion.

This thing is going to make my head explode eventually.

Third person multiple viewpoint is an extremely common literary device.  It’s used by thousands of writers, and not just literary ones.  It’s a staple of Stephen King’s work.  It shows up in every genre and every historical period.

If there really are hordes of people out there who do not understand this  process, then there are hordes of people out there who can’t understand much of what they read in fiction. 

And then it hit me.

Harry Potter.

I was thinking a while back of the curious fact that a lot of what has become popular for adults in recent  years has actually been written for children.  That’s true not only of Harry Potter, but of a raft of reissues and movie adaptations of older children’s books.  Think The Golden Compass.  And Inkheart.

What all these books have in common is this: they employ a relatively restricted vocabulary, and a very restricted set of literary conventions.  They’re utterly straightforward–no multiple points of view to confuse an audience not yet trained to understand how to read that’ no complex systems of allusions to baffle people not old enough yet to get what we would assume to be common references for adults.

With Harry Potter novels, you’re always completely clear on who is good and who is evil.  You are told what you are supposed to think about everyone and everything, and the only narrative voice in existence is the voice of the author.  If she wants you to know that one of the characters is thinking something, she puts in “he thought” so you’ll know for sure.

And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this.  Lots of literature has been written this way.   It’s called the omniscient narrator, and Dickens liked it a lot.

But it’s not the only literary device out there, and it’s nearly died out completely in adult literature over the last century.  The closest writers get to it these days is to write an entire book in third person, single viewpoint, which means the reader stays in the head of only one character throughout.

Third person multiple iewpoint makes it possible to present human beings in all their variety in ways that are not possible with omniscient narrators or single viewpoints.  And it makes it possible to present these characters in a way that allows the reader to make up his own mind about the moral worth, intellectual ability, even likeableness or loveableness of the character involved.

I don’t understand readers who want lectures instead of fiction, who want to be told what to think. 

When my Christian fundamentalist characters dismiss Harry Potter as witchcraft, that tells you something about them, about the way that they think, about their limitations of intellect and even of morality.  When Gregor Demarkian throws up his hands in exasperation because he can’t figure out what’s going on with Harry  Potter and those books, he’s exhibiting the fact that he is a male in late middle age who grew up in a traditional family and was educated by traditional educators in an era when any mention of magic or the supernatural made a novel automatically unworthy of consideration by adults.

And that is, in fact, who Gregor is, just as Bennis (who writes fantasy) is very different, and Tibor is ery different, and each of the suspects in each of the books is very different.

But they are all themselves, and they have a right to their opinions just as much as any reader does.

And if all their opinions are mine, then I’m a Christian fundamentalist atheist  Republican Democrat Communist Anarchist Ayn Randian straight woman lesbian traditional housewife who cares only for her career.

To name just a few of the opinons my characters have had over the last few years.

Maye we should all stop worrying about whether students are reading the Canon and start concentrating on teaching them basic literary forms that my generation knew by the time we got out of elementary school.

Written by janeh

April 18th, 2009 at 9:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'More Fan Mail'

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  1. People have made a big deal about Harry Potter getting kids to read. I think they’ve missed the part about it getting *adults* to read for pleasure as well. I suspect most of the adults who read HP when it became popular don’t read regularly. Somehow it became okay for grownups to read a kid’s book, and they found themselves comfortable and not challenged.

    Then some of them moved on to other types of literature, HP being thin on the ground, as it were, and found themselves adrift in motivations that aren’t explained, but implied, character actions that are contradictory if not actively self-destructive, and varying viewpoints in a book.

    Maybe there is a big market for simple, easy to understand narrative. Most of these people seem to have aggressively “forgotten” everything they were exposed to in school. They resented being forced to read back in school, actively disliked what they were assigned, and now that they’ve discovered pleasure in the act of reading, need to return to the beginning and learn the conventions that make up adult literature.

    I think it goes back to that “love of reading” discussion. It isn’t that these people haven’t been exposed to literary forms. It’s that they hated the process of learning literature so much they’ve blanked it out. What kind of literature is out there to lead them gently by the hand into understanding??

    As for letting ignorant and stupid fans, get to you, don’t. If a short correspondence demonstrates they are ineducable, drop it. Suggest they go read C.S Lewis or something. I would never presume to excoriate an author I’d read for not writing to suit me. If I didn’t like the work, I’d just assume that my taste differed from their style and move on.

    Of course, I’m well aware that there are multitudes of authors out there, all with a different take on the world and thousands of different styles of writing. Maybe this woman isn’t aware of that. Which is sad.

    Let them read Harry Potter!


    18 Apr 09 at 1:26 pm

  2. I recall reading something by Ruchard Feynman. He was talking about being a graduate student and making a suggestion to his adviser who immediately shot it down. Feynman’s comment: “I did not then know that an experienced professor can see in seconds, what will take a student hours to work out.”

    The most feared words in a physics or math textbook are “It can easily be shown.”

    I wonder if Jane is running into that effect with her

    When you are good at Physics or Math or Computer Programming, you soon realize that many people “just
    don’t get it.” You can explain something until you are blue in the face, and the still don’t understand.

    Jane is a very accomplished writer and an expert on literature. Perhap sosme of her readers are people who “just don’t get it,”


    18 Apr 09 at 5:38 pm

  3. There is also a kind of person who enjoys complaining and/or righteous indignation so much that they look for opportunities. For many I’ve encountered, the actual facts matter very little, or not at all. If they can find an excuse, no matter how much willful misunderstanding they have to do to find it, they’ll run with it.

    I’ve encountered a number of these people at the reference desk; I think there are fewer since the internet showed up. I assume they’re spouting off where they’ll get a bigger audience than one librarian hanging onto her patience by her fingernails. The worst of them will target an item in the collection & try to get it removed, apparently just for the fun of it. (By no means all people who try to get items removed from the collection fall into this category; most are honestly trying, by their own lights, to protect other patrons, especially children, from things the complainant thinks are bad for them. It never occurs to them that it’s none of their business what other people read.)

    It’s very hard to deal with these people tactfully, because they’re not interested in tact. However, calling them idiots would probably not accomplish much, either. It sounds to me like you’ve been polite enough. Can you blacklist her in your spam filter?

    Lee B

    18 Apr 09 at 8:53 pm

  4. It could be that she doesn’t get the multiple point of view. Or it could be that she had “What is the author’s point of view?” rammed into her head as the most important question to answer in end-of-the-year school English exams. But I think Lee B is right: There are a lot of people who are constantly angry that something they hold dear is not held dear by everyone. They look for damning evidence of this. They catch one half of a phrase said by someone somewhere, and they go ballistic. They are filled with righteous indignation, which is, I think, one of the most gratifying emotions. You don’t have to act, you don’t have to argue or persuade, you just feel RIGHT RIGHT RIGHT and enjoy your wonderful indignation that someone else is WRONG WRONG WRONG. You can write her until you’re blue in the face, but it won’t change a thing. She doesn’t want to give up that satisfying emotion, especially since that would mean recognizing that she was WRONG about something.

    The accusation of “haughtiness” is probably the same thing. She created a virtual JH, based on TV shows like The Lives of the Rich and Famous and exacerbated by poor reading skills (so that she can’t tell character point of view from your point of view), and decided that you are a haughty writer making fun of her beloved HP. No matter what you write and how you write her, she’s going to cling to that.

    Maybe you could write: Thank you so much for your interesting letter. Yours sincerely… and then never respond again.


    19 Apr 09 at 4:40 am

  5. It’s a good thing I never wrote a fan letter to an author, because it does seem to require a certain obliviousness to what the author was trying to do! I always just thought that I’d have nothing to say after ‘I really liked your book’ other than ‘Why don’t you write faster?’, which seemed rather embarassing (for me) and rude to send something so inarticulate and ungrateful.

    I think everyone has probably hit on some possible aspect of the ‘can’t get third person multiple’ mindset. Different sufferers of the mindset might have different sources for the problem.

    I wonder if this problem might be due to a lack of imagination. It’s not always easy to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and someone who finds it particularly difficult might not believe that the author can do so so well that she can describe thoughts she doesn’t have.


    19 Apr 09 at 5:40 am

  6. Yes, I can still see those viewpoints on a chalkboard, though I’m not sure how far they broke down third person. It could have been 7th grade, perhaps? There was a film clip too.
    But you should feel flattered. Thirty years ago I was reading complaints that Shakespeare had been placed in every political box imaginable–monarchist, democrat, what have you–always based, of course, on the words of his characters.
    Which tells us the problem isn’t new, and isn’t likely to go away soon. The rise of the preachy novel which really does mean to drive the readers to correct thinking–Pullman is an excellent example–probably doesn’t help this.

    As for children’s books showing up as adult reading, this is getting fairly widespread. The Burroughs Mars books, the Heinlein Juveniles, even the Oz books show up in the adult sections of bookshops. But I know why.

    Perform the experiment yourself.Pick out a popular recent novel–something you enjoy. Then call up PRINCESS OF MARS. (It’s available from Guttenburg.) Take a good look at the vocabulary. Count the words in a sentence, and ask yourself which book was meant for the more experienced reader. In 1912 PRINCESS was kid stuff. Today, it would be too hard for the little darlings. You CAN convey complex ideas in simple sentences with a limited vocabulary: look at the King James Bible some day, and remember the translators could have knocked off to watch Shakespeare down at the Globe. You can do it, but it isn’t easy. In the past 50 or 60 years, we’ve lost about 300 years of progress in reading fluency. We’re going to be a while getting it back.


    19 Apr 09 at 11:00 am

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