Sunday, November 12, 2006

A Little Too Harsh, Perhaps

I hate to take on Naomi Wolfe, because I do appreciate that she brings a feminist perspective to children's literature. However, I think she was a little too harsh in her New York Times' review of Fairest by Gail Carson Levine.

While I agree with her that the singing in the book doesn't work, I don't think it's at all inappropriate that Aza, the main character, "sees herself harshly, for most of the book" and "sees others who possess beauty in an equally obsessive way." Wolfe says, "this worldview is not terribly interesting."

It's interesting if you're a teenager, which is the group the book was written for. It's audience is probably going to be girls on the younger end of adolescence and appearance is important to them. Wolfe and I may not think that's right, but what we think isn't going to change anything. Adolescents are self-conscious about their appearance and to be told outright that you're unattractive, as Aza is, is going to be the source of pain and suffering. To make Aza just take it, to just ignore it because she's above all that would be nice and instructional for readers, but it wouldn't have a whole lot to do with the world that, sad to say, they have to live in.

Wolf also says, "If you look at the great unbeautiful heroines of literature, whatever they were contending with, they insisted on the right to love themselves."

I wish she had told us who these unbeautiful heroines might be, and if they were teenage characters.

Finally, Wolf tells us, "A heroine who obsesses about her own appearance — especially when she is experiencing such intriguing things as dragon-flake soap and skirmishes with ogres — interferes with the reader’s encounter with her magical world, just as it interferes with her understanding of her own situation."

This raises another question for me about fantasy, which, as you all know because I keep telling you, I've been reading these last two weeks. What's the point of fantasy? Is it just so that we can encounter a magical world? Or is the magical world used to do something else? To address a theme, for instance?

I think Carson Levine was trying to do something more in Fairest then just provide us with an opportunity to encounter a magical world. I think she was trying to make statements about how we perceive others and how we feel about ourselves. I think those statements go down a little easier because she made them through a character who responds to her situation as many teenage girls would.

Thanks to Big A little a for the link. I forgot all about The New York Times children's supplement this weekend and am glad you didn't.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

What's the point of fantasy? Is it just so that we can encounter a magical world? Or is the magical world used to do something else? To address a theme, for instance?

Another 64 million dollar question ! Answers include:

1 - Modern fantasy is escapism, the half-remembered dreams that plague humanity still. It's a rejection of the science that permeates the western world.

2 - There's a lot of modern fantasy that's used to explore moral questions, or used as metaphors for reality. Joss Whedon's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" series is the most popular example of this, but a lot written fantasy that predates his series did similar things.
Fantasy is partcularly well-suited to tackling painful moral issues because the fantastic aspect gives reader and writer a certain emotional distance that allows for greater clarity.
At the same time it is an escape, like all good stories are.

3 - Fantasy is there to entertain, to instruct, to understand the world especially unpleasant aspects such as crime, death, abuse etc, to discuss things that wouldn't be palatable to discuss without fictionalising of some sort.

4 - Fantasy gives people something to aim at, role models.

5 - Fantasy joins all other forms of entertainment as an opiate, dulling the sharp edges of modern life and fostering hope that despite the apparent impossibility, staggering improvements are possible through the courageous action of ordinary people.

5 - The purpose of Fantasies is to explore the human relationship with the divine or numinous outside of a specifically religious context. Fantasy, by this definition, is about the things out there that are huge and awesome and ineffable, and what human beings can do when they come up against what's huge and awesome and ineffable. Or it's about mysterious forces working out justice in their own way, no matter how strange and unjust that way may seem.

Don Morgenson, a Psychology professor at the Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, noted that fantasy lets people get caught up in something bigger than their ordinary lives. He said that fantasy is a way to escape, as other people here have mentioned. He also thought that most fantasy writing fufilled a human need to have something to fight for. The values and morals in western society are not very strong, so people can feel lost, without many values to hold on to. Most of the main characters in fantasy (and lots of SF, for that matter) have a goal to fight for. They have a purpose which is important for them to fufill. (Full article at e.Peak.)

Anonymous said...

Another good answer is to turn it around and ask why an author sets a book in an historical setting, or an SF one - the answer being, in order to tell a story that can only be told in that time and place.

gail said...

Well, I'm making a copy of the e.Peak article to add to my materials to read in January.

Anonymous said...

Good call !

Erin said...

When I read that review of Fairest, my reaction was the same: a little too harsh. I really enjoyed Fairest, not as much as Ella Enchanted of course, but quite a lot.

Julia said...

Though your question regarding fantasy is very open-ended and thought-provoking, I can't help but wonder about its connection to the accuracy of the mentioned review.
In my reading, Naomi Wolf's words are indeed "the plain truth"...
While I worked through the novel, I wondered why it wasn't as fantastic as "Ella Enchanted"; Wolf has pinpointed exactly why "Fairest" is lackluster in comparison.
Though Ella's character is perfectly capable of being content on her own, Ava's character cannot see the happy ending that she eventually achieves without the presence of the trophy male. Additionally, while Ella saves herself with her own selflessness and courage, Ava must be saved by Prince Ijori's pat on the back; her own moment of singing herself out of the mirror is unconvincing and unengaging.
All in all, what does "Fairest" tell a girl like me?
Nevermind physical hindrances. Nevermind your own weak personality. Appeal to the boy, and you win!