mendicant memorial

It’s six years this week since I first arrived in the UK. On reflection, it was kind of like an awkward first date, where you think you’re all into each other but then why did you tell that story about the cat, and it’s exhilarating but a bit frightening, really. I was with a tour group—we were the stereotype: loud Americans rushing around too fast in a very large bus—and it wasn’t a happy time, to be honest. Except for those moments when, I could clandestinely wander away from the main group and just roam around whatever village or city I found myself in.

That was when I learned how easy it is to get lost anywhere in Britain. And that was when I found myself in coat and tie, wandering through a cobbled church square beside the river. A mum and a wee girl were standing on the medieval bridge—the kind that’s been charmingly marred with Victorian iron railings—throwing bread to the ducks and pigeons. And I thought, suddenly and unexpectedly, that I had been born for Europe.

Sometimes I envy folks who have rooted comfortably and long to a certain place—folks like my hog-farmer friends in East Kentucky, whose family have been raising hogs on that land for two hundred years. And I grew up with a sense of rootedness, certainly—sixteen years in the same house. But even then I felt sense of displacement, which of course makes more sense now: my American roots are pure Chicago, and living in rural Wisconsin would be somewhat equivalent of moving from Scotland to France. Another country, another culture. Another world, maybe.

I think there is a literature of displacement—something that emerges from liminal places in cultures. I don’t mean immigrant or minority literature: those involve whole cultural groups, usually, while what I’m thinking of is particular to the individual. I have a colleague who actually has a fully-articulated theory about this, and I might get him to guest post here at some point. But the basic idea is that we turn to literature for different reasons, and write in a somewhat different way, when, in the words of a French travel-writer whose name I forget, we embrace life as ‘a stranger, a passer-by, a man without place or fire.’

Mr Pond in Print

(Well, Mr Pond and a bunch of more interesting people.)

I’m very, very happy to be able to announce that Rethinking George MacDonald: Contexts and Contemporaries was published today, and is available for purchase at this link. This is an anthology I co-edited with Christopher MacLachlan and Ginger Stelle, and was published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies as Vol. 17 of their excellent Occasional Papers series.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may remember when I co-organised a conference on George MacDonald. Well, that conference turned into an anthology and now you can read it for yourself. It’s a book that looks at MacDonald as a Victorian writer, rather than a proto-Inkling, and there’re a lot more of his books and topics and perspectives covered than you’ll see most anywhere else. If you want to read about How the Fairies were not Invited to Court, or Divine Alchemy, or Speaking Matrilineally, or even
George MacDonald and the Grave Livers, look no further: read this anthology.

I’m really very proud of this book.


Publisher’s Description (with the wonderful word ‘hitherto’ in):

George MacDonald (1824–1905) is the acknowledged forefather of later fantasy writers such as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien: however, his place in his own time is seldom examined. This omission does MacDonald a grave disservice. By ignoring a fundamental aspect of what made MacDonald the man he was, the critical habit of viewing MacDonald’s work only in terms of his followers reinforces the long-entrenched assessment that it has a limited value – one only for religious enthusiasts and fantasy lovers.

The sixteen essays in this anthology seek to correct that omission, by looking directly at MacDonald the Victorian – at his place in the Victorian literary scene, at his engagement with the works of his literary contemporaries and at his interest in the social, political, and theological movements of his age. The resulting portrait reveals a MacDonald who deserves a more prominent place in the rich literary history of the nineteenth century than he has hitherto been given.

from: “Strange Democracies”

a bit of blogalectic

The three of us began with some diverging ideas which I believe we still hold, but we go on growing in our own thought and in understanding and respect for each other. None of us, I think, holds any hard feelings, and in this world of bloodshed, that’s reason enough for gladness.

It’s easier to notice dehumanizing language when you know someone on the other side of any argument, whether relatively light, or very serious. I’m learning this all the time, and I’m realizing that one of the most refreshing things about this discussion is it’s freedom from artistic evangelism and the inspiration our discussions give me to try new things. We will probably never agree on Harry Potter, Twilight, or mediocrity, but, to paraphrase Mr. Pond, I like and respect my blogging friends. That tells me there is something worth considering, a reason to keep the conversation going.

You may have noticed that over the past few weeks I’ve tended to write other people’s words instead of my own. Not in a plagaristy sort of way, or in a guest-posty sort of way, just in a throw-up-an-occasional-TMBG-video-and-call-it-a-posty sort of way. This is partly due to constraints of time, because I am, I’m pleased to say, busy concocting a pantheon of beautiful things for you to read, which I shall begin unveiling shortly.

But it’s also due to my growing sense that it’s often better to hide behind the words and ideas of others, to put forward old concepts acknowledged as old, rather than rush recklessly for uniqueness, idiosyncrasy, and individuality. The idea is to gather fragments of the most varied things and point out their cohesion; to put up someone else’s words as indicative of what I think, but without the being bound to words.

So, to answer Masha and Jenna’s posts, I’d like to take refuge behind someone else’s ideas. I’ve had occasion to quote E.A. Wilmot before at this blog. And I recently stumbled across a interview he gave to The Neo-Leftist Observer in September 1947 (25:3), a few months before the release of his critical masterwork, Dying Gods and the Interior Cult of the Narrative West: Spenser, Marx, and the Poesis of Radical Marchen. The interview, “Strange Democracies: A Conversation with Professor Wilmot,” seems to have been the first part in a series of celebrity interviews by neo-marxist poets (the series, like the journal, was mercifully short-lived). Wilmot was interviewed by the as-yet-unknown Darren Halliday, in what seems to have been a truly remarkable confrontation of minds. The whole interview is rather too long to reproduce here, but Wilmot’s remarks on argument and discourse are, I think, of some interest. Typographical errors have been carefully retained. Read on below the jump.

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In blogalectic with Jenna St. Hilaire and Masha.

We were TALKing of DRAGONS | TOLkien and I

If you want to learn how to write myths, perhaps the best place to start is this absolutely wonderful tutorial: Myth Writing Workshop with Jane Yolen. And you will indeed learn how to write myth, in the strict sense of “an origin-story that anthropomorphises the natural world.” A visit to the site is worth it simply for discovering the Yolen’s own myth of that type, “Mother Nature’s Son.” But having written a “myth,” in that sense, is not necessarily the same thing as having performed mythopoesis.

Mythopoesis can be roughly defined as “the writing of myth.” That definition precisely—almost perfectly—encapsulates what mythopoesis is not. It is, indeed, a cheat—a desperate appeal to the precise translation of words, but hoping to bluster past the self-evident definition: “the writing of stories.” If it were as simple as that, we could all just call ourselves mythopoets. Or else bring in Occam’s Razor, call ourselves “writers,” and have done.

This question is timely for me, as I’m currently preparing an article on one of my favourite authors, Claire Massey, whom I consider one of the most important writers of this generation, and whose work beautifully embodies mythopoesis. So, following George MacDonald’s example, I can only say: read “Raven.” That is mythopoesis.

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possibility and estrangement

The Man Booker prize of 2011 has come, and the Man Booker prize of 2011 has gone. It’s been a Booker season of few surprises. In fact, according The Guardian he bookies at William Hill reported glumly that bets were 6/4 on favourite Julian Barnes, who won.

And it brought all the usual delights of the season, including a fevered debate on whether the Booker does, in fact, Matter. The debate, in case you missed it, centred around this year’s stated bias for “readability,” or what one columnist cleverly called “zipalongability,” rather than the usual bias for experimental audacity. A nice, crisp plot well-told, the judges suggested, was to be favoured over inchoate masses of gorgeous, delicately wrought prose.

The divide is of course spurious. A book is by simple definition “readable,” assuming it contains a grammatical order of mostly known words on the page. Books, after all, are made to be read. Even Chomsky’s famous dictum of non sola grammatia—“Colourless green ideas sleep furiously”—is readable (it just means nothing, we can read it fine). But the decrepitude—even, as I see it, sheer silliness—of this debate didn’t stop the pundits from screaming. But then, not even sudden total disappearance of the Earth would could stop the pundits from screaming. Although in space, thankfully, no one can hear them scream.

Columnists and literary figures harrumphed and grumped about the alleged paucity of the shortlist, and rehashed tired old arguments about some theoretical “lit-fic vs. SF” smackdown. Internet pundits and forum users have pontificated and fumed about supposed judicial incompetence, with widespread agreement that anyone could have done better, and that umpires en masse should be killed. It’s felt, for all the world, like some experimental hybrid of a neighbourhood Oscar Party and watching the World Series with your extended family. Just without the nachos and cheap booze.

Credit must be given where it’s due, so hats off to Guardian columnist Sarah Crown, who had the perspicuity to put the Booker question to the Rising Star of SF, China Miéville, author of the appropriately titled Un Lun Dun. Just about anything Miéville says is going to be tangential to most other things, and is worth hearing. Ms Crown’s delight is evident when she writes that “Miéville made a point that I found so interesting I wanted to disseminate it further.”

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