Grade: 5 stars
DWJ had a fascinating life. She went to lectures by both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis in university. ("Lewis booming to crowded halls and Tolkien mumbling to me and three others." (pg. 290)) She once lived in the house that the kids from Arthur Ransome's book lived in, and Arthur Ransome himself lived in a houseboat nearby. (He would complain about all the noise DWJ and the other children would make. (pg. 135)) Beatrix Potter also lived near this house, and once slapped Diana's sister and her friend for playing on BP's front gate. (pg. 135) It's so strange to think of all these writers as real, actual people (with faults and everything!). Her parents were neglectful and her life was full of strange people and events. But perhaps the most insightful essays were the two by her sons at the very end of the book. After all the descriptions of the nastiness of her parents and the strangeness of her life, her sons' perspectives gave a sudden twist on all of that, and gave a whole new view on who DWJ was. It was the perfect end to this collection.
But my favourite thing about this book wasn't the biographical details of a strange and interesting life, but her ideas on writing for children vs. writing for adults, and her thoughts on fantasy. "Two Kinds of Writing" (pg. 33), about children's vs. adults books, was one of my favourites. "[S]everal grown men confessed to me that, although they were quite shameless when it came to hunting through the juvenile sections of libraries and bookshops, they still felt incredibly sheepish on a train reading something that was labeled Tenn Fiction. Why? I wondered. The assumption underlying their sheepishness seemed to be that teenage fiction counts as just close enough to adult fiction to be seen as regressive, whereas if they are seen reading a children's book, that counts as research. In neither case are they assumed to be enjoying the book for its own sake." (pg. 33) She talks a lot in this essay about how in writing for adults, you often end up having to explain more, not less, which I've always thought, but I doubt many people would believe me. To quote DWJ again, "Here we have books for children, which a host of adults dismiss as puerile, overeasy, and are no such thing; and there we have books for adults, who might be supposed to need something more advanced and difficult, which we have to write as if the readers were simpleminded." (pg. 35) I could talk forever on this topic and elucidate a lot more, but this is already the longest review I've ever written, so I should go on to the next part of this topic.
I also especially loved "A Talk About Rules" (pg. 99), which talked about all the pre-conceptions about fantasy, and what people considered (wrongly) the absolute necessities of the genre. She talks about a man who could manage to read The Fellowship of the Ring because he pretended it was all an allegory, but then once he came to the Ents, he completely gave up, because walking trees could only possibly be for children. (Man, it bugs me when The Lord of the Rings is listed as a children's book. IT'S NOT. Yes, children can read it (I did), but it is NOT A CHILDREN'S BOOK.) She talks about how people often insist fantasy (and children's books in general) must "teach" something (about divorce, bullying, etc. etc.), or that any fantastic lands children travel to should be shown to be in their heads. Oh, there is so much here--I really can't get into it properly.
Couple other random notes:
- It was nice that although DWJ was not Christian, she could still enjoy C.S. Lewis a lot. I find it quite a annoying how many people nowadays seem to a) misunderstand a lot of the points Lewis was trying to make, and b) think he's not worth reading because he often writes Christian allegory (while often simultaneously lauding Philip Pullman for writing what's basically the atheistic equivalent).
- "Less than five years ago it was a truth generally acknowledged that anyone who could follow the plot of Doctor Who could follow anything. Maybe that was going a bit far the other way, but.. anyway, most adults professed to like their books simpler than children did." (pg. 112) YAY, Doctor Who!!! Nice to see its genius recognized. And see, I KNEW children's books (or in this case, TV) could often be far more complex and subtle than many things written for adults!
- "Most recently, I have had a whole crop of letters from guilt-ridden students. These are mostly in their first year university and not altogether happy in it, and they are afraid that there is something wrong with them because they're still rereading and enjoying my books at the advanced age of eighteen or nineteen." (pg. 177) Hah! Silly people. This whole book makes me feel very vindicated for being a university student who still revels in the joys of children's books. (Also see pg. 179 for more on university students' somewhat erroneous view on children's books.)
- The Tolkien essay, "The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings", was rather magnificent. As much as I adore Peter Jackson's movies (and always will), I think this essay would have been good for him.
- "The Heroic Ideal: A Personal Odyssey" (pg. 79) was another one of my favourites. Fire and Hemlock is one of my favourites of all her marvellous books, and it was amazing how much structure and shape and thought went into this book. As Neil Gaiman said in his introduction, "It [is] easy [...] to forget what an astonishing intellect Diana Wynne Jones had, or how deeply and how well she understood her craft." (pg. xi) Man, though, she made writing seem like a lot of work in this essay.
NB: All the quotes and references are taken from the hardcover edition, from Greenwillow Books.