Sunday, October 25, 2015

Alice in Wonderland at 150: Why fantasy stories about girls transcend time

John Tenniel, The Nursery Alice
It’s 150 years since an Oxford mathematics don published the most important work of children’s literature and one of the most influential books of all time.

The origins of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in a story that Charles Dodgson told 10-year-old Alice Liddell and her two sisters while rowing along the Thames in 1862 are well known. What is less understood is why it has become such an enduring cultural touchstone across the globe.

Many popular stories can be distilled to the basic structure of a male hero undertaking a quest. In 1949, Joseph Campbell described the common features of the “monomyth” or hero’s journey that are evident in stories from those of Buddha and Jesus to Luke Skywalker.

In W.W. Denslow's illustrations and L. Frank Baum's
original text, Dorothy is a much younger girl (with 
silver shoes instead of ruby slippers).
Contrary to the dominance of heroic tales of men, there are several iconic narratives of pre-pubescent girls journeying through dream-like fantastic realms that have become enduring phenomena.

Like the ubiquitous Alice, Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz has gained a life of her own beyond L. Frank Baum’s books. The Kansas orphan’s journey into Oz is, if anything, better known through the MGM film starring Judy Garland. The film transforms Dorothy’s journey into nothing but a dream— like Alice’s— inspired by a cyclone-induced blow to the head.

The stories of Alice, Dorothy and more recent girl protagonists in popular fantasies, such as Sarah’s encounters with the Goblin King in the 1986 film Labyrinth, are strongly inflected by fairy-tale tradition. Campbell himself later acknowledged that he “had to go to the fairy tales” in order to bring any semblance of female heroism into The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

As fairy tale scholar Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario explains throughout her work, fairy tales are most often about girls on the cusp of maturation and marriage.

Alice Liddell photographed as a
"beggar maid" by Carroll
In their original book incarnations, however, both Alice and Dorothy are very young girls: Alice is just seven and Dorothy is estimated to be eight. Carroll was notoriously fascinated by pre-pubescent girls, whom he often photographed in staged poses.

The young ages of Alice and Dorothy free them from involvement in a romance plot. In girls’ fiction from the early twentieth century, it was common for adventurous heroines become hastily engaged in the final pages of a novel.

Even more importantly, as girls, Alice and Dorothy occupy a transitional borderland between childhood and adulthood. This also seems to make them more attuned to crossing the boundaries between fantasy and reality.

Whether this capacity derives from the combination of negative assessments of children and females as less rational in comparison with adults and males, or marks girls out as more perceptive and empathetic, is debatable.

What is clear is that these girl heroines take different paths to characters on the typical male hero’s journey. Even within fantastic literature, where anything is possible, there are clear gendered distinctions for protagonists.

As my Deakin colleague Lenise Prater pointed out to me in an important scholarly dialogue on this topic (a Facebook chat thread), female hero quests in fantasy tend to encompass an internal quest that takes place in a dreamscape. In contrast, male heroes enter into literal fantasy worlds; their adventures are supposed to be “real” with the space of the story.

The dreamy adventures of Alice work through or play with some of her waking interests and anxieties. As in Carroll’s text, Tim Burton’s film adaptation explicitly signals that Wonderland is a purely imaginary place. Alice suffers from nightmares about Wonderland as a child, and her father reminds her that dreams cannot harm her and she can “always wake up”.

Judy Garland in a publicity still from 1939
The MGM Oz film changes Dorothy’s journey into a dream through its casting of the same actors in roles in both sepia-toned Kansas and Technicolor Oz. (Farmhands Hunk, Hickory and Zeke appear as the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, while neighbour Almira Gulch proves all dog-haters must surely be green-skinned witches.)

As lone questers, girl characters are the most vulnerable and physically weak. Despite their powerlessness in conventional respects, heroines such as Alice and Dorothy are able to survive the dangers posed by people and supernatural beings who possess advantages that are not available to them (adult authority and magic chief among them).

The lives of both Alice and Dorothy beyond their original books by Carroll and Baum suggest a cultural investment in stories about the most vulnerable of people. Alice and Dorothy experience the most amazing of journeys, in which they triumph over the highest forms of authority and power, from queens to witches.

It is reassuring that these stories about girls, who are often overlooked because of their age and gender, are almost universally known. Nevertheless, imagine the possibilities if our most iconic girl characters did not always have to “wake up” at the end of their adventures.

Michelle Smith will be chairing the Making Public Histories seminar on “Melbourne’s Alice” at the State Library of Victoria on 26 November 2015.

The Conversation
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Feminism Today talk, 'We are the 50%' seminar series

This is more rightly a talk about anti-feminism, and the challenges faced by feminists in light of the insidious forms that anti-feminism now takes. It was delivered as part of Deakin University's 'We are the 50%' series on 17 August 2015.

Feminism Today - 'We are the 50%' seminar series talk by Dr Michelle Smith, Deakin University from Michelle Smith on Vimeo.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The literary pilgrimage: from Brontëites to TwiHards

Fan tributes on Oscar Wilde's tomb. Chrissy Hunt/Flickr
In response to the post below, I spoke with Michael Mackenzie on RN Afternoons about literary tourism. You can access the recording here.

When I first travelled overseas as a student, I visited Paris’s Pére Lachaise cemetery, resting place of Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, and Jim Morrison. Wilde’s tomb was covered in red lipstick kisses — now thwarted after the installation of a glass barrier in 2011 — and a young goth man sat at its base reading a book of poetry.

The desire to connect with literary places, from authors’ birthplaces, homes, and graves, to sites of fictional inspiration, supports a substantial tourist trade. The reasons why people embark on literary pilgrimages are as diverse as the kinds of fiction that inspire them.

In a study of why tourists visited the ruins of Tintagel Castle in Cornwall — a site associated with Arthurian legend—Benjamin Earl found that many visitors sought to “maintain their cultural distinction and assert their cultural capital”.

In other words, travel to the historical site made tourists feel unique in comparison with people who only consume stories and images relating to the myth through readily-accessible popular culture.
The former home of the Bronte family is
now a museum
Man Alive!/flickr

Visiting Charles Dickens’ London home or Haworth and the Brontë parsonage similarly demonstrates the traveller’s literary knowledge and taste.

The homes of celebrity authors also foster a degree of connection to them. The normally private realm of the venerated author is opened up in these literary museums, allowing the viewer to situate themselves in the exact position as Dickens, looking at the very same desk at which he wrote Oliver Twist.

In the past week, annual Bloomsday celebrations took place in Dublin and around the world. June 16 has become an opportunity for the sturdy readers who appreciate James Joyce’s Ulysses to recreate the day in the life of protagonist Leopold Bloom that the novel depicts.

It might begin with a liver and kidney breakfast and continue with a walking tour that follows Bloom’s path from Middle Abbey Street to the National Library.

For most of his life, Joyce lived outside Dublin. Yet, as with Bloomsday, much popular literary tourism is fixated on visiting the real inspirations for the settings inhabited by fictional characters.
Detective Sherlock Holmes, for example, has inspired a plethora of tourist attractions in London. A number of these attempt to bring imagined places, such as the famous 221b Baker St, which operates as a museum, into being.

The Sherlock Holmes pub in London capitalises on the popularity of the
fictional character. Steve Lacy/flickr
The difficulty of assembling a museum for a fictional character for which no historical artefacts exist is evident in the often scathing TripAdvisor reviews. While the Sherlock Holmes pub in Charing Cross, which some fans appreciate as at least having been referenced in one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, includes a “recreation of Holmes and Watson’s study and sitting room”.

Tours of locations that inspired novels, including Sherlock Holmes, are increasingly becoming a way for readers to express their fandom for a particular book or series.

There is a long history of fans of LM Montgomery visiting Prince Edward Island, Canada in order to see the homes and landscapes that inspired Anne of Green Gables. Anne is the most prominent feature on the island’s tourist website, which notes that hundreds of thousands of tourists visit “her island” each year.
Twilight tourism in Forks, Washington. drburtoni/flickr

Twilight fans who descend on the small town of Forks, Washington, nevertheless, won’t find traces of author Stephenie Meyer, who resides in Arizona, or sparkly vampires during their visit.
The rainy former logging town nevertheless serves, as Tanya Erzen suggests, as “a prism for fans’ collective fantasy that they might momentarily live in the marvellous world of the books”.

Each September “Twihards” gather in Forks on the date of protagonist Bella’s birthday for a full weekend of activities as part of the Forever Twilight celebration.

Similarly, in the past decade, numerous Da Vinci Code tours of the Louvre and Europe and the UK have mapped the fictional ideas and theories of Dan Brown on to important cultural and historical destinations.

In the cases of these supernatural, or at least fanciful, novels, there is a desire to find an element of that fantasy in reality. Harry Potter tours, for instance, regularly visit the medieval village of Lacock, which is described as having inspired the town of Godric’s Hollow in J K Rowling’s series.

Modern technology enables us to feel connected with an imagined group or community of people who read or view the same stories as we do . As Roger Craig Aden shows in Popular Stories and Promised Lands: Fan Cultures and Symbolic Pilgrimages, the journey to a sacred destination — whether a football game or the Green Gables house — sharpens that sense of a bond with like-minded individuals.

This desire to seek out a heightened feeling of belonging to a literary community transcends age, class, and taste distinctions.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Talking Princess Culture on Life Matters, Radio National

To coincide with the release of Disney's new Cinderella film, I was a guest on Radio National's 'Life Matters' last Friday. I joined host Natasha Mitchell in a talkback session on the subject of girls and princess culture, along with Samantha Turnbull, author of the Anti-Princess Club series of books and children's author and school principal John Marsden.

Listen in to the podcast for a variety of perspectives on what wanting to be a princess means, not only for girls, but for boys too.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The 'Hole' in the Pantry Story: Should Penguin have Validated Belle Gibson's Cancer Claims?

Would it ever be responsible to legitimise the story that someone
“healed themselves” of cancer through diet? 
Jan Hallbæck
Australia is no stranger to a literary hoax or deception, from the “Ern Malley” affair to the falsified backgrounds of Helen Darville and Norma Khouri.

Social media entrepreneur Belle Gibson, developer of The Whole Pantry “health, wellness and lifestyle” app, is now the first to be accused of fabricating a miraculous recovery from metastasised cancer.

There are well publicised allegations that Gibson invented the story of her successful battle against malignant brain cancer using alternative therapies. No doubt Gibson’s personal story was a major hook in the publicity for her brand and helped to drive more than 300,000 sales of the app alone.

The questions raised both by those who have known Gibson and medical experts are beginning to taint the legitimacy of Gibson’s lucrative app and the cookbook she published in October last year.
Penguin, publishers of The Whole Pantry, have stated they did not check the validity of Gibson’s cancer account as they did not see that it was “necessary” given that the book is “a collection of recipes”.

The book does, however, contain a 3,000-word preface that is devoted to answering questions about Gibson’s cancer diagnosis and how she came to the decision to “heal herself” instead of continuing with the prescribed chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

In answer to the latter question, she contrasts her experience of vomiting after medical treatment with the approach she devised through reading articles on the internet and speaking to people. Her solution involved “nutrition, patience, determination and love – as well as salt, vitamin and Ayurvedic treatments, craniosacral therapy, oxygen therapy, colonics”.

Recipe books are proving to be far less benign subject matter than publishers might have imagined.
Also in the past week, the publication of celebrity chef Pete Evans’s paleo-inspired cookbook for infants, Bubba Yum Yum, has been delayed. The book includes recipes for bone broths that appear to be recommended as substitutes for breast milk or formula, and which doctors have warned might pose a risk to babies under six months old.

What is the responsibility of a major publishing house, then, to check the credentials and claims of its authors’ biographies? Or even the validity of particular health claims, such as alternative therapies for cancer or fad diets?

After all, the standing of a publisher can confer authority on a published work. We know there is a continuum between self-publishing houses such as Trafford, who published the much-mocked anti-vaccine polemic Melanie’s Marvellous Measles, and respected academic presses that require books to pass expert review.

Both Apple and Penguin would have perceived the benefits of an association with an “inspirational” social media star who claimed to donate a significant amount of her company’s earnings to charity.
It is troubling that either reputable company would wish to promote someone whose profile and theories rested on entirely unproven claims about the power of food, mindset, vitamins, oxygen and colonic irrigation to cure malignant brain tumours that usually have a poor prognosis.

People are now alarmed by Gibson’s recovery story because it cannot be true if the accusation that she was never diagnosed with cancer is factual.

Yet would it have ever been responsible to publicise and legitimise the story that someone “healed themselves” of cancer through diet? While a good diet certainly does not harm a cancer patient and the role of diet in the development of particular cancers, such as bowel cancer, is established, diet-based “cures” have not been scientifically validated.

Encouraging cancer sufferers to have faith in unproven cures is ethically problematic, purveying false hope and potentially drawing sufferers away from treatment that could be efficacious.

Moreover, the suggestion that a young woman with no medical or scientific education or training was able to devise a cure for her brain cancer through some hours spent googling the topic (and her discovery of the “detoxification properties of lemons”) is preposterous.

Suppressing ideas that are not accepted by contemporary thinking would thwart new knowledge. But, as Patrick Stokes points out in his widely-read article No, you’re not entitled to your opinion, the ability to voice an opinion that is difficult to argue for is different to having views “treated as serious candidates for the truth”.

If the foundation of a book is so far outside of accepted knowledge and little evidence can be mustered in support of it then publishers might not wish to affect their reputation through publication. For instance, Keith Windschuttle’s controversial three-volume The Fabrication of Aboriginal History is self-published.

Whether Belle Gibson suffered from cancer or not, the core dilemma with the publication of The Whole Pantry is that the influence of the author rests upon unverifiable claims about curing cancer with alternative therapies.

The Conversation
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

To Kill a Mockingbird, My Brilliant Career and long-lost 'sequels'

Harper Lee
By now there can be few people who don’t know Harper Lee’s supposedly long-lost manuscript, Go Set a Watchman, will be published in July. It will be the first book published by Lee since To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960 and, with both novels essentially hewn from the same manuscript, the works are intimately connected.

When a beloved story ends, whatever the medium, there is a sense of loss and disappointment. We can re-read or re-watch a book or TV series, or turn to fan fiction and different formats such as comics, in an attempt to continue our immersion in a favourite world and extend the adventures of its characters.

The temptation to give official life to popular books after the death of the author is often too strong to resist.

L Frank Baum’s Oz series was taken up by a new “Royal Historian of Oz”, Ruth Plumly Thompson, who published 19 books in the 1920s and 1930s. Geraldine McCaughrean wrote the “official sequel” to J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (1911) almost a century after the original in 2006.

And after rights to a Winnie the Pooh sequel reverted from Disney – who had turned the character into a lucrative merchandising phenomenon – the estate of A.A. Milne authorised David Benedictus to write Return to the Hundred Acre Wood in 2009.

The Gothic family sagas of V.C. Andrews continued to corner the market for tales of incest even after her death in 1986, with more than 50 additional novels authored by a ghostwriter. Recently it was announced that Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series, for which he wrote three of ten projected novels before he died in 2004, will be continued by a new author.

Readers’ desire for more once an original author has passed away rarely leads to satisfaction. But what if the original author happened to write a prequel or a sequel around the same period as their most famous book?

Such is the case with Go Set a Watchman, the forthcoming book by the reclusive Harper Lee. Many who hold To Kill a Mockingbird dear have been celebrating the news of a second work of fiction.

The novel is set 20 years after the events depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird, but was written prior to the high-school English mainstay. Lee has said she was advised by her editor to write another manuscript, from the perspective of Scout Finch as a child, and Go Set a Watchman was left aside.

As strange as the situation seems, there is a similar case in Australian literary history, albeit by an author who did publish other works of fiction and non-fiction.

Miles Franklin

Like Lee, Miles Franklin’s first novel became one of the most successful books ever written in her home country. My Brilliant Career (1901) was – as with Mockingbird – narrated in first-person by a girl, Sybylla Melvyn, who is a teenager coming into womanhood.
Franklin felt her novel had been misread, a process that began with the alteration of her original title: My Brilliant(?) Career, and was heightened by the perception that is was an autobiography. (She even withdrew the book from publication, and it was not reprinted until after her death in 1954.)

Franklin immediately wrote a satirical sequel, The End of My Career, to right the situation, but publishers rejected it. According to Penelope Hanley, the manuscript was “too audacious, with characters too recognisable”.

It was not until 1946 that the work was published as My Career Goes Bung. Like Lee’s long-thought-vanished first manuscript, what was to become My Career Goes Bung was also thought lost for a substantial period. Franklin believed it had been thrown into a furnace in Chicago when a man had wanted to use the trunk that contained a number of Franklin’s manuscripts.

Franklin was also something of a recluse in that she lived overseas for more than 30 years and published a number of novels in the latter part of her career under the pseudonym “Brent of Bin Bin”.

Both Lee and Franklin were inhibited by the weight of the success of their first published novels.

Though published almost half a century afterwards, the sequel to Franklin’s most successful novel was obscured by the original, the reception of which it directly responded to. While Lee was never satisfied with any of her subsequent attempts to write both fiction and non-fiction manuscripts.

In both cases, editors declined early manuscripts that were subsequently thought to have been destroyed. When it was finally published, readers did not find My Brilliant Career: Part Two in My Career Goes Bung, which deliberately rewrote the original to achieve different ends.

Go Set the Watchmen, which will be published in its original unedited format and focalised through an adult Scout, is also unlikely to give readers all of the pleasures to be found in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Yet the millions of readers of one of the highest selling books of all-time will be curious to see the world once again through the eyes of Scout Finch.

The Conversation
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The ‘death’ of J. K. Rowling: Why it doesn’t matter what she has to say about Harry Potter

The invisible diversity of Harry Potter: Joya Wu/Flickr         
Who owns a story? When an author writes a book, are the words on the page the definitive version of the plot and characters? Does what the author have to say outside the world of the book have the power to add to the meaning of the book itself?

Youth Project poster shared by J.K Rowling
In response to a question from a Jewish fan, J.K. Rowling recently explained on Twitter that the Harry Potter series includes a Jewish wizard, Anthony Goldstein. Goldstein’s name is recorded in an early notebook in which Rowling listed the original forty students whom she imagined attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Within the series, however, he only appears as a minor character in the fifth and sixth novels.

Within the same Twitter question-and-answer session, Rowling also “revealed” that the school was similarly diverse in its inclusion of gay and lesbian students. She shared an image created by a Canadian LGBTQ organisation that reads, “If Harry Potter taught us anything, it’s that no one should live in a closet.”

Both Jewish and LGBTQ news sites have reported these brief comments by Rowling in positive terms. The Harry Potter series, which totals some 4,000 pages in US editions, did not give millions of readers any clear sense that Hogwarts was home to Jewish or gay and lesbian students. However, Rowling’s declarations on Twitter are not only newsworthy, but a cause for pride.

Similar feelings of celebration were evident when Rowling announced in 2007 that she had “always thought of [beloved headmaster Albus] Dumbledore as gay”. Likewise, very few people had gathered from the books themselves that Dumbledore was homosexual. Although subsequently his penchant for “plum velvet” and high-heeled boots were interpreted as clues to his sexual orientation.

With both of these announcements, some fans have also questioned whether these extra-textual announcements carry any weight. If it was not possible for readers to detect that a character was gay or Jewish then how could they possibly be considered as positive signs of increasing representation and inclusion of minority groups in popular culture?

Admittedly, there is an argument that attempts to depict a character as being of a particular race, sexuality or religion could appear tokenistic. Should Rowling, for example, have made more of Anthony Goldstein’s Jewish identity by mentioning his observance of Hanukkah, or need for kosher meals at banquets in the Hogwart’s Great Hall?

Nevertheless, depicting a character like Dumbledore as having fallen in love with a man as a matter of course could have done much to present gay and lesbian relationships as unremarkable. In an imagined world in which the supernatural is possible and the limitations of reality are few – something for which the books have been criticised by religious extremists – it speaks volumes that a gay relationship cannot be represented to the degree where it is discernable.

The Harry Potter series has had worldwide influence Hung Chieh/Tsai/Flickr  
To figure out to what degree Rowling’s comments should influence our interpretation of the highest-selling book series in history, we can turn to a standard idea within literary criticism.

In his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author”, French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes challenged the traditional practice of analysing literature by focusing on the motivations and biography of a work’s author. Barthes argues that looking to the author for a text’s explanation not only limits it to a single meaning, but also denies the influence of other texts (intertextuality) and the responses of the reader in producing meaning.

Indeed, Barthes famously suggests that individual readers produce their own, different interpretations of the same texts, dismantling the idea of the author as the creator of a text’s definitive meaning. As Barthes describes the process of removing the author as the explanation of a text, “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”.

Barthes and Michel Foucault, among others, contributed to changes in the study of literature under the umbrella of the poststructuralist movement. Scholars abandoned the search for a work’s “true meaning” – as imparted by the author – to marshalling a variety of critical approaches relating to gender, sexuality, and class, for example, to expose the shifting meanings of a given text.

When we study literature today, we are not interested in answering what we think an author truly “meant”, but what readers understand it to mean. We examine the words within a book, their interaction with other stories in all kinds of media, and their reflection of and influence upon the world in which they have been written.

If we approach Rowling’s Twitter comments armed with Barthes, we can say that what she “always thought” of a particular character, or whether she always imagined gay and lesbian students at Hogwarts are irrelevant to how we interpret the Harry Potter series.

Though the final Potter book was published in 2007, Rowling seems eager to retain an influence on how we understand her books by revealing ostensibly new information about her characters. Whether these character points were announced to readers via Twitter or alluded to within the Potter books, however, the meanings that we as a diverse international community of readers wish to take from them trump Rowling’s intentions as an author.

The Conversation
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.