Saturday, April 12, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #101: Reflections by Diana Wynne Jones

No author is good at everything. I'd hate to see a cast-of-thousands WW II action thriller from Gene Wolfe, for example, since it would quickly turn into a sequence of enigmatic scenes between one mysterious quartermaster and a befuddled young soldier. And, in particular, writers of fiction aren't necessarily going to be able to translate their skills -- for characterization, for plot, for the telling atmospheric detail -- into discursive nonfiction.

When the novelist's book of non-fiction is made up of essays and speeches and other occasional work -- most of it on the same subject -- from a period of over thirty years, it can go one way or the other. Perhaps each piece will show a different aspect of the novelist's thought, refracted through time, and the whole will be more than just its parts.

Or, sadly, it can become an exercise in reading the same anecdotes and opinions and stories over and over again for three hundred and fifty pages. And, even if they're really good anecdotes, that tends to cast a pall by the end.

Diana Wynne Jones's posthumous nonfiction collection Reflections: On the Magic of Writing is one of the latter, I'm afraid. (And I won't get into the twee title, which I'm going to hope was foisted on Jones in her declining days by someone I respect much less than her.) It contains a few speeches and a lot of essays, most of which were on the subject (stated or implied) of "How did you become a fantasy writer, anyway?" Most of the pieces here tell the same anecdotes, and examine the same sources for her writing -- which is absolutely legitimate, and clearly true, though I don't quite see the need to read about her horrible parents for the fifth time in a hundred pages.

Authors sometimes also have odd or crankish opinions, which are amusing or marvelous when turned into fiction, but spikier when presented straight. Jones, for example, several times bluntly states that there were two World Wars because her mother was raised to hate fantasy and stories -- she's got a wider point about that whole generation, but she basically elevates her mother to the type specimen and damns tens of millions of people globally because of it. One might disagree with her about the importance of fantasy stories for the peacefulness of Europe and still think she's a great writer of fantasy stories.

Most of all, Reflections is frustrating because shining dimly through it can be seen the outlines of the memoir Jones never wrote: she gives a number of stories from her strange childhood -- most of them several times, like the shelf of Arthur Ransome books doled out, one at a time, as Christmas gifts to her and her sisters collectively -- but skips around in time and repeats the same information over and over. Maybe that's a book she never could have written, since she knows that she used that material copiously in her novels, but it's a book no one else could write, and the flashes of it here make it seem utterly wonderful.

Reflections is repetitive and probably not all that useful to a would-be writer; it doesn't give a lot of writing advice. Jones does tell us that her sons loved fantasy stories when they were young, and that inspired her to write new ones. (Repeatedly.) And she tells us about the two novels she wrote to read to her sisters in their teens. (Also repeatedly.) And she tells us the deformations of the Young Adult novel, especially the long tyranny of the Problem Novel. (Several times.) And she tells us that she saw Tolkien lecture when she was at Oxford, and that he would just mumble into the chalkboard. (Three times or so.)

Most disconcerting to me was the fact that, especially in the earliest pieces here, Jones has a brisk, pull-up-your-socks British mother voice, and it seemed like nothing so much as the kind of motherly advice that Pratchett's Nanny Ogg was designed to parody. I presume that tone is homier and more comforting to actual British people, so it could be a positive for them.

So I'm afraid I have to call Reflections a curate's egg: there are some good things in it, but it's the same good things over and over, and they seem less good each time. I may not be as huge a Jones fan as I thought I was -- perhaps I'll need to go back and read a few of her great novels to double-check.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

1 comment:

=Tamar said...

She didn't have the choice of what went into it; she was busy dying. Please don't blame her for its repetitiveness. If you want the story of her childhood, read Time of the Ghost. She had to tone it down a bit but that's the closest to an autobiography that she ever wrote.

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