Stopping for a Spell, Diana Wynne Jones


Here’s a confession: as a rule, I don’t like short stories much. (And I’m in SFF! I knoooow.) Cynthia Ozick has said some interesting things about short stories that feel like they’re extracts from a larger world versus short stories that feel complete in and of themselves, and I tend to like the former better, but with some notable exceptions this is not my preferred mode to read or to write in (I’m with Bakhtin on the dialogic novel all the way). This is a little disingenuous to say given that I do read and write a metric ton of fanfic and that fanfic mostly falls into this category, but fanfic is sort of the ultimate case of ‘extracts from a larger world’, even if the narrative shape of a given piece of fanfiction is very ‘short story’ in its form. Thus I think the rules bend around it.

Stopping for a Spell contains three short stories pitched at a younger audience than Diana Wynne Jones normally writes for. I feel more inclined to bullet points than paragraphs today, so that’s what we’re getting. These are stories I feel you could say a lot about, but which I didn’t really love. Is that my mood, the medium, or the stories themselves? Let’s go with ‘all’.


Chair Person (originally published 1989)

* Once again DWJ’s flair for immediate, Dickensian characterization is on show. Here we have intense physical awkwardness and Heepish humility that really, deeply isn’t.

* I wonder if DWJ is trying to say something specific about this family’s class or lifestyle, or if it’s merely a time-jump between their era and mine, but: the food this family eats is weird. Spaghetti from a can, cake mixes for a slightly socially-anxious charity-do (cake mixes aren’t even popular in the UK like they are in the US! Did they used to have a better range of these?), lemon squash, (frozen?) pizzas and (frozen?) chips. I’ve had Spaghetti-Os a couple times in my life, but they’re not really in fashion and I wouldn’t call them ‘spaghetti’ per se. The mom doesn’t work, either, so it’s not a ‘pressed career mother’ sort of thing. I know I’m in a post Great British Bake Off cultural moment, but while in the US ten years ago I might have made a cake mix for a school function for children, I can’t really imagine relying on one for this kind of adult gathering in the UK now? At a children’s party, there are “jellies, cakes, crisps and big bottles of coke”. Jellies (aka Jello)?:/ Whatever floats your boat.

Aisha assures me that this basically represents the children’s party spreads of her youth though, JELLIES AND ALL, so it’s confirmed for India/UK normal.

Yet I remain unsure why there would be Jello at a party. Not as a single, unimportant element of a family bbq or pot luck spread, just like–in and of itself. In a bowl. Like potato chips would be. Not even Jello JIGGLERS. Just Jello!

* DWJ might be trying to say something about television and knowledge, in passing, with Chair Person’s absorptive faux-information and his way of broadcasting it back at people. If she’s making a passing ‘books are better’/’fuck the nascent information age’ swipe, or even just drawing on those feelings in a more subterranean way, she could possibly have developed that idea more.

* Even in this short story we still get a ‘wtf’ DWJ non-ending. Classic. Here the plot derails around some business with the wand and the disappearing box, and the characters themselves admit the resolution was unclear. The siblings’ mum is spared the further intervention of their telescopic philanthropist of a neighborhood busy-body, which I guess is the true resolution, because that and the Chair’s inconvenient personhood were the real narrative conflicts.

* Really nonchalant magic this time, little to no ‘what does this mean’ing or sense of a break from the mundane.

* I’m a little uncomfortable with this story, which is about inconvenience: inconvenient commitments, objects and people. There’s some bleed-through between the neighborhood busy-body’s obnoxious way of going about securing help with her various charitable projects and what she wants to do in and of itself. Are her projects for helping people equally officious and meddling, or is this a kind of complacent, conservative story about the bother of being asked to care? It’s difficult to say: we don’t exactly hear that her help isn’t useful or necessary. Such ‘leave well enough alone’ impulses aren’t very DWJ, really, but then the core problem of the plot is ‘we tried to get rid of an inconvenient old thing that’s been in our house ages, it gained sentience and was a bother, how do we unperson it?’

And no matter how annoying, repulsive and destructive Chair Person is (The story does some good work making you feel the cringing awkwardness of the family’s responses to this ‘new’ guest–the nasty tenor of the way they feel sorry for it. This is a Paddington narrative, but the newcomer is awkward and gross rather than cute.), it’s still hard to hear things like “it’s the only language they understand” from the shopkeeper when he screams at Chair Person and orders it about. That feels, in the context of the characters’ discussions about how maybe Chair Person will learn to be a proper person in time, and how it feels new, and their diminishing sympathy for it, raced? Or perhaps it sits on another axis of Othering–someone suggests their mother’s ‘eccentric old Uncle’ would be happier in a home.

This isn’t to say that DWJ ‘can’t’ or shouldn’t handle such content, or that I don’t think there’s value in being asked to think and feel difficult things about difficult subjects. But these undercurrents just sit in the story, hanging out and making the whole seem kind of cruel rather than opening the story onto deeper considerations. If your response to that is ‘but it’s just a short comedy story for quite young kids!’, well, I’m not sure that matters? It doesn’t make the underlying mechanics creep me out less.

* Another thing about these ‘short stories’ is that they’re structured like little novels, with content pulled out.

* This story also wants to say something about officiousness, but it doesn’t quite coalesce.


The Four Grannies (originally published 1980)

*   This is less uncomfortable than chair person, and has a few very fun lines. However that makes me realize that, compared to Jones’ usual high standards here, these protagonists aren’t very characterized (fair enough, in such a short space) and these stories aren’t that funny (which I think is more a function of the age range she’s trying to hit than their length).

* The magic is really scattershot in this one. Granny 3’s transformation into the sort of person who’d visit and bring things is never really explained, I don’t think. Nor is Emily’s ‘conversion’?

* These children’s ages are super vague.

* Do people really eat sardines so often or copiously that they need a special sardine tin opener? Is that different from just a can opener?

* There’s a lot of Incident Business in this one.

* Again, super mundane magic. Clearly a rupture from the ordinary, but not Wondrous.


Who Got Rid of Angus Flint? (originally published 1975)

* Kind of interesting epistolary style. Only one of the three stories in this volume in first person. Female narrator, where the previous two had brother and sister teams. Narrator strangely distant from the piece though–you’d be forgiven for missing her gender. This is curious as I sort of thought it took Jones a while to work into writing female narrators. I’d have to go back to the bibliography and see what gave me that idea, but if it’s at all true, then this is a very early example.

* This, I wouldn’t remarket for children. The titular annoying house guest foists himself upon this family because he’s getting a divorce. He’s getting a divorce because he seems to have beat the shit out of his wife. This is Bad, in the narrative, but not in a monumental way, and the parents (who aren’t portrayed as total shits) still leave this guy alone with their kids, even after he (very early on in his stay!) seems to feel free to painfully physically discipline them.

* This is the earliest of the three stories, but it’s also the best, probably because Jones is operating in something like her usual register rather than laboriously positioning herself for younger children. Again, though it’s the best it’s not something I’d have repackaged in 1996 (that’s when this copy was issued, or re-issued) with no comment.

* Interesting that she had three thematically-similar short stories to bundle. DWJ does have a core body of themes that I could have expected to provide such through-lines, but these aren’t quite them—we don’t get a textually admitted example of Bad Mother Figures or anything classically Jones. I don’t really think of DWJ as a short story writer, but then perhaps I’m wrong and she’s got mountains of them around back. I’d almost think an SFF writer of her era would have had more, due to the shape of the SFF market then. Perhaps it was a little different for her, given her typical focus on non-adult characters and readers?

* Fun ending. Honestly works for me. A DWJ ending! I know! Triumphant (insurrection of magical furniture, brought on by narrator’s enjoining them to respond to unfair insults against them) and then sweet.

* Same treatment of magic as last time, really, but with no Inciting Magical Object. All three of these feel different from DWJ’s varied other treatments of magic. Here magic is more just–plot matter, quotidian.

The Sleeper and the Spindle, Neil Gaiman


This book’s breathless Goodreads summary does it few favours:

“A thrillingly reimagined fairy tale from the truly magical combination of author Neil Gaiman and illustrator Chris Riddell – weaving together a sort-of Snow White and an almost Sleeping Beauty with a thread of dark magic, which will hold readers spellbound from start to finish.

On the eve of her wedding, a young queen sets out to rescue a princess from an enchantment. She casts aside her fine wedding clothes, takes her chain mail and her sword and follows her brave dwarf retainers into the tunnels under the mountain towards the sleeping kingdom. This queen will decide her own future – and the princess who needs rescuing is not quite what she seems. Twisting together the familiar and the new, this perfectly delicious, captivating and darkly funny tale shows its creators at the peak of their talents.”

For a start, big promises there. This is, as the summary suggests, a sort-of-remix and fusion of two fairy tales. Fairy tale retellings are big right now, and so people who don’t have a specific yen to work with a specific story are getting suggestions from their publishers along ‘why not crank out–‘ lines. I think we might be at the tail end of that boom, but I don’t see it producing great work, as I’ve said* in an SH review of Over the Garden Wall (which I liked). You’re Angela Carter and you want to return to those texts, or you’re any of the five people Catherine Butler flags up as reworking Tam Lin , or you ain’t. Some writers find a prompt qua prompt generative and productive, but that’s due to a certain responsive turn of mind on the writers’ part. Prompts really aren’t for everyone, and there is something to be said for the simple motivation of wanting to work on a topic: it indicates that you have something to say about it, or at least that you’re interested in the subject. And how can readers hope to be if you aren’t?

What do such retellings do? There’s a facile quality to the ‘watered-down Carter’ impulse that wants to make these remixes Dark and Sexy, an impulse which (again, as I’ve said before) demonstrates a total ignorance of the source material, which has never needed help there. The same is true of the similarly Carter-lite impulse to make these stories Correct, in modern soft-left terms. Not to reimagine them as radical or progressive, but to make them 90s girl-power feminist, with perhaps a titillating hint of homo. Note that these are largely treatments coming from straight authors (or semi-competent, rather complacent gays–we do make them, alas).

This telling is not the most egregious example of this breed I’ve seen (that honour belongs to something I once asked for a review copy of and then said nothing about, out of politeness), but man it sure is on trend.

Back at the start of uni, I really liked Neil Gaiman. And then someone did to me what the tenth Doctor did to Harriet Jones, Prime Minister’s reputation by whispering into my ear, ‘isn’t he safe? All that influence, all the capital and leverage in the world—why isn’t Gaiman more progressive, more experimental, or more interested in pushing himself than your average polite solicitor at a garden party?’

There is something to be said for enjoying art without feeling your reception is dominated by the weight of others’ opinions, but that said, my god she was right. Gaiman’s not bad, he’s never BAD, but he could be good–he could write a GREAT book, and he’ll never fucking care to, because he’s swathed in Being Neil Gaiman and what would be the point, even? Who’d want it? People just want him to Be Neil Gaiman. And if that doesn’t endure, if he dies and after a good long while he’s the Trollope who doesn’t get read much these days or what have you, well, it was fun while it lasted, wasn’t it? There’s an almost conservative drag to his work, which is never better than Sandman was and never even interested in being better, really. It’s never building on any of that, Gaiman’s never pushing himself or answering the changed questions of changed times. He just continues, like a reliable chain restaurant of the better class, a Pizza Express possibly, to offer up aimless, floating, serviceable prose. We all like Neil Gaiman, of course. He is competent and inoffensive and says nothing deeply felt. What is not to like? Quick, get a tattoo of something from “The Doctor’s Wife”. (I have no spoon, yet I must gag.)

I’m not just dragging him, really. I got accused the other day of taking unnecessary side-swipes and–sometimes, well, yes. Sometimes I’ve made cheap jokes, and sometimes I’m even retrospectively sorry about that, in a “badly done, Emma” sort of way. But honestly, this is me making the difficult effort to articulate a critical point, and this (contextualization via snark) is one tool I have to employ. I don’t even think it’s necessarily a bad one. There will be casualties, or at least I will feel and say that in some capacities something people like, often even something I love, didn’t work, structurally or politically or what have you. If you want a celebration that makes you feel great just for occupying the economic or social categories of Geekdom–I’m sorry, I don’t even believe in that? And I’m not happy about where we are, or even where we’ve been or where we’re going, or at least I’m not exclusively so. I don’t know that I ever feel anything unambivalently, does anyone? I’m not going to pretend that I am: I wouldn’t be good at it, for one.

“The Sleeper and the Spindle”, then, is wellish written, but not amazing. Information gets doled out quite subtly, but this feels like a bit of a gimmick to me. The world seems bigger than it is because we’re given pieces of it out of order, which suggests a rich back-story. Fine. The technique works, just not–seamlessly, and I do feel a little shown around the Potemkin village.

The Queen is very much figured as a Queen rather than a princess–in charge, doing the work of governing, a bit martial–but her motivation never really crystallises through these back-story hints. All right, so at the end she’s questing, in search of nothing–again, fine? A bit bleak. Like Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, but with dwarves. I never FEEL The Queen’s desires, either for freedom or for people. The homoeroticism is as static as the picture book illustrations, and lacks the visceral sensuality of the most restrained Aubrey Beardsley print. Given that this is written in a more novelistic than folkloric style, perhaps I should enter more into this character and her desires, psychologically?

The role of women in this world is weird (again with the light overlay of an unchallenging feminism). The Queen is a Cool Girl because she’s martial and don’t let no man tell her what to do. People keep adding ‘and some women too!!’ after saying something about what knights or merchants get up to, et al. In other words female participation is still exceptional, but there’s a Girls Can Do It vibe. This is the faux Middle Ages a la Murphy Brown. I don’t think there’s a problem with discarding bits of the kyriarchy that aren’t doing work in your narrative, but the nervous positioning of women in the text and the way female valorisation is tied up in assumptions of masculinity have me like ‘k’.

There’s a suggestion that the Queen is sexually drawn to the evil fairy at the heart of this story, even as she was (it’s hinted) drawn to her wicked stepmother. Putting in subtext knowingly is always odd. I’m not sure that subtext has to arise accidentally to function (I’ve heard that in stagings of “Peter Pan” the author knew exactly what he was doing and what he wanted the play to evoke, for example), but it does have to be nurtured in a particular way. I’d have to think more about how one generates subtext, or serves as a good custodian to it. Suffice it to say that incestuous mothers (and fathers) are old hat in fairy tales, as is this sort of veiled eroticism, and that I can think of less blatant and yet more dangerous and enticing examples fairly easily. I guess that’s a trade-off I’m looking for? If you’re writing now, consciously employing these tools and looking to generate these effects, then shouldn’t your effects be equally resonant, or differently so, or do anything other than sort of weakly gesturing at what’s already been better-said with fewer words? (As the Dowager Duchess said about Mary’s shit boyfriend’s communism.)

A1vDbflXiqL._SL1500_.jpgThe book is very beautiful, though I don’t feel as capable of talking critically about art as I do about fairy tales. (There are a few stupid touches: that goff skull bedspread is probably available at Hot Topic even now.) There’s a Tolkenian quality to the map images on the endpapers. Overall it’s the sort of picture book that I kept fretting I was going to besmirch with fingerly snail-trails.

So what do we gain from “The Sleeper and the Spindle”? I theoretically love remixes: why do they always disappoint me, of late? This whole great glut of them just feels unmeant and unnecessary. This example isn’t different. Not bad, not superlative, not much.


* The relevant bit of the earlier piece: “The New York Times claims OtGW “has the look of a dark fable but the mood of a fairy tale, more Wes Anderson than Tod Browning.”

Look, guys, how long ago did Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber come out? Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers? I know you know that Freud had some words to say on fairy tales, and that Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment had some follow-up thoughts. There is zero excuse to be working as a critic, and talking about fairy tales, and not to know about their adaptability, their sensuality and terror, the way they convey and contain cultural and personal fears, their potency, their scratchy humour. A mature and nuanced perception of fairy tales is a cliché at this point: it’s been academically accepted for damn decades. You’re seriously contrasting fairy tales with “dark fables”? You want to talk about how fairy tales’ “wistfulness” (which I find a rich and interesting mode, by the by: nostalgic and sad, and not something we should rush to temper and excuse) needs to be shaken up by sassy modernity? Are you an immortal who’s lived for centuries? Did you go to uni in the 1860s and thus miss this 101 material? Have you not read much since? Do you straight up know nothing about fairy tales and give zero fucks? If so, why are you writing about them?

(To be fair to these people, I also ask this whenever someone who doesn’t like or get the mode gets pushed into doing a “sexy grimdark fairy tale revamp” by their publisher. No one involved remembers that this material is always-already fairly sexy and dark. Just stop.)”

Boucher, Backbone and Blake – the legacy of Blakes 7


This essay was occasioned by the death, on April 13th of this year, of the actor Gareth Thomas. Thomas was most famous for playing Roj Blake, the eponymous protagonist of the landmark BBC science fiction series Blakes 7. While the essay contains elegiac elements, it’s grown into a longer piece on Thomas in a broader sense, Blakes 7, Blake as a character, television and fandom history, and the status of protagonists and politics in genre television today. I hope that scope doesn’t make the piece feel inadequate in its partial function as a tribute: personally, I think context makes it more of one. I hope, conversely, that an obituary isn’t all the piece is. An obituary, like a funeral, is for people who already care about the person in question and who want or need such a thing, whereas I hope a good deal of this discussion is relevant even if you don’t have that relationship with this actor and this particular text; I hope that it works if you’re simply interested in the mechanics of telling good and ethical stories on television. And of course I hope that if you don’t already love the things I love, you can be convinced of their merit. What is criticism, when embarked on as praise, but a small and understandable piece of selfishness—a little, affectionate tyranny?

Full article here.


News from Nowhere by William Morris, radio drama and novel


BBC Radio 4 recently dramatized William Morris’s 1890s Utopian novel News from Nowhere as part of their Dangerous Visions season, which advertises itself as a series of “dramas that explore contemporary takes on future dystopias.” It’s odd to find the unabashedly sanguine News under this heading, but if the producers wanted to stage it for a change of pace or because they particularly wanted to work with this text, fine. I’m for abandoning an over-arching structure in a case such as this (i.e. a series of loosely-thematically-connected, discrete pieces) when it isn’t doing good work. In fact, if the series’ “contemporary takes” framing is what gave us the topical Boaty McBoatface joke in this play’s introduction, destined to wither faster than the speed of meme, I feel they could even have broken with that structure a bit more dramatically.

I was not expecting great triumphs from the Dangerous Visions series to begin with. Maureen Kincaid Speller, the editor of this section/a local seller of hot takes and pies, pointed out elsewhere that “the BBC’s latest Dangerous Visions season [is] very male, very white, and the big-ticket dramas are mostly adaptations of things that have been done before. I really wouldn’t mind a lengthy chat with the programme planners about all the stuff they’re missing out.” Paul Kincaid, referring to the important 1967 short story collection edited by Harlan Ellison of the same name, observed, “wouldn’t it be interesting if they dramatised some of the stories that were actually in Dangerous Visions? Still 50-odd years out of date, but more up to date than most of what they’re offering. From the BBC you’d never guess that there were actually one or two science fiction writers out there [now], and some of them were actually female. But then, that might actually be dangerous, and despite the title that is clearly not the BBC’s intent.”

Full review here.


Steven Universe Review

You may well have heard about Steven Universe (and if you’re aware of the show, you might also be interested in some criticism about it—fingers crossed!). In certain circles (people active on Tumblr and other major media fandom platforms, USians with young children, etc.), this American Cartoon Network show, technically on the cusp of its third season, has been talked up ad nauseum. But outside of the aforementioned circles, the program is far less Universally known (that’s a truly awful pun, and I’m not particularly sorry). Whether or not you’re saturated with Steven, it still merits discussion by virtue of being simultaneously one of the best children’s programs and one of the best science fiction programs of its generation.

Full review here.

Papers in Search of Good Homes


I have only made a conference paper into an article once, and am currently in the process of doing it a second time. I’ve realised I have.. several that needed to make this transition. Scrapping the ones I hate too much to do anything with, there are still quite a few that I think could go somewhere… but where? I’m keeping an eye out for calls, but please let me know if you’ve any thoughts!

* Enchanting the World

 Horace Walpole sought via literary and material projects to bring the fantastic into the mundane, and to dwell in that altered reality. The writer of The Castle of Otranto and the builder of Strawberry Hill, Walpole was an originating figure in both gothic revival architecture and gothic literature. But even as Walpole was collecting artifacts and building a utopic, ‘gloomth’y retreat from modernity and the city (and, as a queer man, crafting spaces for himself outside of heteronormative relations), he was the PM’s son, serving in Parliament, and, via his extensive correspondence, participating actively in Society. Networking is as much the source of Walpole’s legacy as any discrete accomplishment; it was the means by which he founded genres. I’d like to propose that Walpole’s activities are not strangely juxtaposed, but in fact fundamentally intertwined.

 Using his letters, fiction, and art criticism, as well as Brooks’ The Gothic Revival, Pearce’s On Collecting and Rose’s The Pleasure of Ruins (with a little Burke, Sontag and Benjamin), I’ll discuss the centrality of place and materiality to Walpole’s conception of the fantastic. Even as Walpole’s seemingly disparate projects are actually interdependent, his aesthetic of bright, cheerful, ‘gloomy-warmth’ and literary camp positions charm at the core of the gothic. We normally view the gothic sublime and charm as diametrically opposed (threatening wilderness vs cosy domestic space), and the real-world spaces these aesthetics relate to as similarly at odds. I aim to trouble that unstable binary and illuminate the connections between the canny and the uncanny, the foundational kinship between Walpole’s dream-worlds and his real one.

* Inhumanity and Enchantment in Fairy Tales

In “The Fairies in Tradition and Literature” (1967), folklorist Katharine Mary Briggs presents several cases of humans being pulled into fairy mounds, threatening or benign. Some appear as ghosts, having been killed by the experience or having died before coming to the mound as spirits. Others are alive, but now too altered to ever leave. Still others manage to return to the mundane world. Of those that escape, some can lead normal lives, and some have been too changed to survive. The last may experience depression and madness–hunger for the lost world, restless suffering under an incomplete and irreversible change. But what precisely have these people been altered or changed into? Generally, how human are people in the altered states ofenchantment?

Fairy tales are often the stories of liminal encounters, and the people in fairy tales are threatened with change, or promised eucatastrophic alteration. Out of my wider research on the many roles charm (broadly defined) plays in fairy tales and folklore, I’d like to distill a discussion of the transformations wrought by various forms ofenchantment. We’ll determine what underlying logics organize the relationship between enchantment and humanity in these stories, and what forms any ‘violation’ of one’s humanity may take. This discussion can help us access the ways Western fairy tales define the porous boundaries between humanity and the inhuman. We’ll close with a look at what more modern authors working with the literary legacy of the fairy tale have done with enchanted states, and ask whether their treatments perpetuate, build on or reject the fairy tales’ theories of the enchantment process.

* The Afterlives of Christopher Chant: Handing Down Formative Trauma in the Chrestomanci Series

Diana Wynne Jones claimed she was influenced by Jung, but her Chrestomanci series seems more in conversation with Freudian thought, specifically Laplanche’s seduction theory. This paper will use Laplanche’s framework to examine the series’ conception of child-rearing as cyclical transmissions of trauma from reluctant fathers to reluctant sons. The paternal relationships here aren’t along genetic lines, but along the lines of magic users. De Witt (and/or Uncle Ralph) is effectively Christopher’s father, Christopher Cat’s, and Cat ‘fathers’ Tonio. These men resent their ‘sons’ for shameful weaknesses they see in their own pasts: the traumas of their rearing. These traumas linger and play large roles in the formation of these men’s identities.

Farah Mendlesohn has helpfully noted how often children distrust adults in YA, but I believe this series enacts a more nuanced and interesting series of failures, and supports Laplanche’s contention that such transmissions of trauma are at the heart of child-rearing. Jones’ work is brave and somewhat rare in describing this aspect of relations between children and adults in texts intended for young readers. The series itself may also serve to enact this trauma-transmission dynamic. This inquiry opens up a consideration of magical training situations in terms of the grammar of the Freudian family romance, and may also enrich our broader considerations of the role of family in Jones’ work.

* Epithalamion: Dangerous Domesticity in the Wimsey Series 

Popular discussions of Golden Age detective fiction often make gestures to the disjunction between peaceful, pastoral settings and murderous subject matter. These juxtapositions implicitly postulate a stable, rural domesticity that functions as a painted backdrop. But home-making is always work–and preventing a home from denigrating and sliding into chaos requires constant vigilance. This paper investigates the complex, fraught ways Dorothy Sayers’ Wimsey series does domesticity. Through examining the novels’ domestic spaces–Peter’s flat, Talboys, Shrewsbury, the scenes of crimes, country houses–we can explore what work these depictions accomplish beyond furnishing instrumental clues, as well as the constitutive role of commodity fetishism/collecting and the interplay of domesticity and class in these novels. 

How is Sayers’ domesticity an evolution of other eras’ and genres’ methods of thinking about and portraying the domestic? What separates it from the domesticity of, for example, a ‘tec story’ like Dickens’ Bleak House, or from the home-making of contemporaries such as Wodehouse or Tolkien? Rather than writing about a fuzzy, undefined present, Sayers insists on cataloging structures in flux via her use of detail and almost constructing a historical fiction of the present. What does this quite unusual use of hyper-local, domestic time accomplish? What can Sayers’ successful homes, as depicted in the early Wimsey books (Peter’s flat), Busman’s Holiday (wherein Harriet Vane says a world of interesting things about class, national identity, urban vs rural tensions and the domestic when she comments ‘I have married England’), Thrones, Dominations, and the WWII propaganda letters between members of the Wimsey family tell us about what is at stake in all this home-making? This examination of a particular series should open up a more general conversation about the temporal and physical spaces that, at least as much as the murders, define Golden Age production and continue to draw readers to it.

* From Christian Charisma to the Vampire: the Evolution of the Sorcerous Seducer from the Medieval to the Early Modern Era (thinking possibly about, but vv unsure)

Charm is a concept that combines unearthly (sometimes magical) power derived from inhuman sources with a contrastingly earthy ability to viscerally attract others, sexually or simply by force of personality. Over the course of the Medieval and Early Modern periods, the figure of the Charming Man passed through the three key stages, which represent evolutions of the type. These are individuals imbued withChristian Charisma, Faustian sorcerer figures, and vampires (in their various incarnations).

While the stages I identify have been studied in their own right, their relationship to charm and that concept’s evolution has not been properly explicated. Thus the connections between these instances of a recurring trope have remained obscure. Most previous work on, for example, vampires, such as Nina Auerbach’s seminal Our Vampires, Ourselves, has nodded to folklore and proceeded to focus on texts from the 19th century onwards, without realizing that the persistent appeal of the vampire is not necessarily rooted in and bounded by vampirism itself. Rather, vampires represent an instantiation of a shifting-yet-persistent constellation of ideas about masculinity, supernatural and temporal power, sexuality, and mesmeric triumphs over reason and consent.

We can trace a firm, cohesive lineage from Charisma in the sense of a divinely-conferred “ability to penetrate the neighbour to the bottom of his heart and spirit… and the gift to help him to freedom” (Ernst Wilhelm Benz) to sorcerers such as Faustus and Prospero, and thence to the vampires of 18th century poetry (with a gesture towards the incipient Vampyre of Polidori). In asking what the shifts and continuities in this lineage mean, we allude to the larger question of our changing relationship to the concept of charm. The evolution of the Sorcerous Seducer is part of a larger, cyclical pattern of the sublimation of magical thinking and the persistent return of that which is repressed.

* The Fantastic Modernism of G.K. Chesterton (probably going to offer Fantastika,


In March, I attended “The New Modernist Studies in America”, a postgraduate seminar at Queen Mary. In its own words, the seminar focused on “the ways in which the field of modernism has shifted and transformed in recent years, to some degree becoming co-opted by, and melding with, postcolonialism and what used to be called postmodernism” (though the content of the seminar left me with a different opinion as to who was swallowing who). As a non-specialist, my knowledge of these transformations lacks sophistication, but the totalizing Gesamtkunstwerk proposed by the seminar discomforted me, and indeed seemed in direct contradiction to modernism’s historical challenge to the totalizing grand narrative.

This vision of a modernism that stretches from the Edwardian era to the present seems, for all its discussion of multiple modernisms, to remove spaces for the consideration of ‘subaltern’ authors and to further enshrine the canon of European High Modernists in a broader context. It refuses an ending: modernism is not a historical moment that can be evaluated, but a never-ending disassociation. Twentieth century and current work can only be considered and valued insofar as it is in conversation with a modernism dominated by Joyce, Eliot and Woolf.

The non-modernist dimensions of works claimed for modernism are thus academically neglected. In this particular seminar, Kazuo Ishiguro, who has strongly-felt roots in the Victorian realist tradition and an obvious affiliation with speculative fiction, was unreservedly claimed for the modernist team. It would be wrong to say there’s nothing modernist about The Unconsoled, but I believe that Ishiguro’s work yields just as fruitfully to other forms of interpretation. Unfortunately, these avenues are foreclosed by a dogmatic view of the literary production of the twentieth century as the story of modernism (at least as far as concerns the literary production worth talking about).

Work that is not arguably modernist but that falls within the ‘golden period’ of modernism has no proper academic home. Where there are a thousand dedicated Joyceans, ‘golden age’ non-modernist work is studied erratically, if at all. An expansive modernism pushes the things it can’t absorb into the margins: things like fantasy and, relatedly, writers like G.K. Chesterton. I’d like to use his 1908 novel The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare to address this component of our prompt:

“Are certain ontologies, aesthetic strategies, approaches to character and subjectivity, ethical situations, or political concerns peculiar to modernism and fantasy?”

I would ask whether it is fair to claim that fantasy and modernism’s strategies and political/ethical concerns are de facto or even generally different. If a popular hierarchy of valuation holds that modernism is a superior mechanism for aesthetic experimentation and political/ethical essaying (which I believe it would be pointless to deny), are the foundations of this judgment legitimate?

* All Your Bastards Rising: Conditioning Illegitimacy in Transformative Fiction

MA Thesis (17k? Because I was younger when I wrote this, it’ll need cleaned up, and I could see it losing a few thousand words. But not the 9k necessary to make it hit the OTW cut-off.)

No formal abstract exists, so I suppose I’ll c/p a little bit:

Whether or not fanfiction’s detractors are conscious of it, their anxiety and the terms of its expression derive from a long intellectual tradition. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar speak of “an implicitly or explicitly patriarchal theory of literature” 7

which usefully illuminates the argument’s context. “In Patriarchal Western culture, therefore, the text’s author is a father, a progenitor, a procreator, an aesthetic patriarch whose pen is an instrument of generative power…”(Gilbert & Gubar, 6). The air of wounded horror or patronizing moralism that suffuses these public repudiations of ‘illegitimate’ creation thus becomes explicable. It’s not just the integrity of authors’ own creations at stake. If authorship is an activity rather than a select class, performable and, to a degree, masterable by anyone given practice and certain socioeconomic opportunities, then the Authority of Authorship and the patriarchal pride associated with creation are at risk.

What is it to, as Hobbs says, “pretend to be creating a story”? As I hope to demonstrate, fanfiction does all the work traditional literature does. It has, both as a process and as a product, all the claim traditional literature has on validity and artistic merit. Thus, though it must include related elements in order to make its points, the matter of this paper is not a vindication of the rights of fanfiction. This has been capably achieved by refutations of Hobb’s essay on fanfiction (and similar pieces) by people working within fandom, who argue that fanfiction “viewed critically, easily holds up to the original work and, in some cases, does it one better.”8 I am instead primarily interested in an investigation of the arguments marshalled against the validity of fanfiction, both as artistic work and as a means of interacting with media, and an attempt to determine the sources of such arguments’ motive forces.

Why isn’t fanfiction popularly or academically believed to be literature, and what specifically about it does not cohere with our criteria for such validation? Is fanfiction by its nature incapable of achieving equality with its parent-canon or with other original work? What does it mean to support this position or to find it problematic? What do such stances reveal about our conception of the literary and legitimacy?

“Do You Speak For This Planet?”: Doctor Who as a Dialogic National Epic (MA paper: again, would need to substantially bring up to date)


As Doctor Who changes and evolves, it provides multiple (and sometimes conflicting) responses to issues, negotiating conflicting and changing ideas about English identity, English vs. Britishness, and related considerations, including inextricable, uniquely English or British performances of class, gender, race, and post-colonial and political positioning. The text has, at various times, positioned itself as a document of the mainstream/a shared site of cultural signification, and as marginal/in political or cultural opposition. If Doctor Who is not immediately recognisable as a national epic, that is only because we are not yet accustomed to the transformations of dialogic post-modernity on the seemingly static constructions of the ‘national’, the ‘epic’ and the ‘national epic.’

It would, however, be misleading to speak of Doctor Who as though it were a national epic from the moment it began. It took time for the programme to sketch out its mythology and parameters. Pinning down the moment it became a national epic is something of a Sorites paradox/parable of the heap, and not an ideal point of entry into how it functions as an epic. We can instead discuss Doctor Who as a dialogic national epic by tracking the Doctor’s development into an ever-evolving, quintessentially British hero.

* DIY-Culture as an Anti-Capitalist Endeavour? DIY Craft and its Juxtapositions with the Corporate (MA paper, same caveats)

Excerpt (forgive the clunky intro, it was what they wanted):

In order to examine DIY craft, particularly its sites and modes of interaction with the corporate, the first section of this paper will interrogate the definition of DIY culture formulated by Amy Spencer in DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture. Spencer conceives DIY practices as “translations” of unifying anti-corporate ideals, and consequently valorises the DIY practitioner as an anti-establishment figure. This paradigm is based on a simplistic binary opposition between DIY and the corporate, which I will argue is inadequate to describing DIY practice.

In the second section, I will use the Cath Kidston brand’s reliance on ‘consumer-producers’ to illustrate the complexity of the relationship between DIY craft and corporate modes of production. This analysis of the Kidston brand will serve as a synecdoche. With it, we can allude to the myriad of reasons people engage in DIY practice, many of which are wholly unconnected with Spencer’s anti-capitalist ideology.

From this consideration of the interaction between DIY and the corporate, the paper’s third section will examine the DIY ethos of anti-capitalist purity as a construction of privilege, insufficiently considered, which causes real harm to female DIY craft practitioners via the Etsy Ghetto effect.

In the final section I will explore the relationship of DIY to the corporate in light of Autonomist Marxist thought and Olga Goriunova’s work on “open content”. This will contextualize and reframe ‘selling out’ and ‘appropriation’ struggles, clarifying the ways in which these struggles are endemic to late capitalism.

To conclude, given these questions and the comparative paucity of writing on DIY, I must return to the question’s components: ‘writing a history’, ‘key junctures’ and ‘meaning as culture,’ to address methodology. Do Spencer and others engaging in scene-documentation have any responsibility to the movements themselves, and the people working in them? We will glance at a parallel question in the history of exploration and archaeology.

* “That Graceful Charm Which Lingers in Every Little Tasteful Work of Woman’s Hands”: Consuming Femininity in Dickens (submitted somewhere, can’t say whether it’ll get in)

Charm, a slipperier and less obvious attribute than beauty, has long been a vital component of  literary descriptions of women. It has described and coded their embodied physicality, their gendered identity, and ultimately their sexual appeal. Lewis’ The Monk uses ‘charms’ as a  euphemism for female genitalia. Dickens calls charm the defining characteristic of “female society”, and curiously notes its absence “where the lady of the house [is] a mere animated  doll.” Yet there has been relatively little academic attention paid to the linkages between  charm and constructions of femininity, or indeed to charm as a broader concept. This article would interrogate charm as an aesthetic mode, which shifts and develops over time (from totems to twee), yet always remains tied up with the feminine.  It would examine connections between charm, models of femininity and the marriage market (perhaps the ultimate realisation of consumable gender) in 19th century novels, particularly those of Dickens. 

In so doing, I’d like to look at how these novels stage male consumption of femininity: not just of beauty, or straightforwardly of sexuality (or even exactly of the prospect thereof), but of women’s (constructed) gendered essence. Via these novels, 19th century and contemporary readers consumed and consume media constructions of femininity, the literary idea of women. What is it to watch men watch women, and how do these novels involve and implicate their readers? Consider also the title (from Nicholas Nickleby), ‘every little tasteful work of woman’s hands’, and the material cultures that construct gender in these novels. Femininity here arises from labor, the graceful execution of ‘tasteful work’. But what consumptions does this emotional and productive labor itself involve? What do Kate Nickleby, Fanny Squeers, Tilda Price or Madeline Bray need, materially, to perform femininity in this way, or what lacunae cause them to fail to? Who is consuming the tasteful work of woman’s hands, and how?

Using the work of Woolf, Freud and Rose Macaulay, I will interrogate what can be gleaned from Dickens’ definition of charm as a precipitate of women’s “native grace and true  gentility of manner” in light of Dickens’ contradictory associations of charm with  nostalgia/novelty, earnestness/falsity, domesticity/public display, and sexual availability/purity-childhood. Long before this Dickensian understanding of the term was  shaped, charm was a potent Middle English word with almost exclusively negative, magical meaning. I will argue that this heritage lingered (and to an extent, still abides) in the term, giving it its witchy or vampiric erotic charge. In the 19th century, this sublimated trace content enabled charm to function as a means of thinking itself-sublimated sexuality. This mechanism was accessible to those who could successfully sublimate the erotic and economic content of courtship or social intercourse. By  thinking about how Dickens curates the relationships between charm, femininity and sexuality, this article opens a necessary consideration of the neglected broader role of charm as a concept in our understanding of representations of women. 

Book of Mormon (West End Production)


Book of Mormon is not bad, but it is nothing like good enough to justify its hype. Granted, hype is an amorphous construction that sits somewhat outside an artwork, and a given piece isn’t quite legitimately answerable to its reception. Nevertheless, it’s very difficult to go into this musical unaware of the kind of commercial enterprise it is.

Even inside the venue, the degree and nature of Mormon’s success are impossible to escape. The building was crowded with unusually over-dressed people wearing giant shoes, like they’d come to a club or their proms, tottering about slowly. The show started late, in part because people didn’t have access to shared knowledge about how to move in a space like this and in part because they didn’t take final calls seriously. The tourist-heavy, US-weighted (American accent-peppered) crowd displayed different audience behaviours than what you’d see from the attendees of a shorter-running production selling largely to a theatrically-experienced British public. My partner and I had wanted to see Mormon primarily because it was such a big-ticket item, and so raved about. Having seen it, I feel it’s big with people who do not Theatre much, and that that’s actually part of the mechanic of its appeal.

This competent but not exceptional performance got a standing ovation. I used to watch bullfights in Seville. That is a tough crowd. It’s a major arena, one of the big three, and the Sevillanos do not, as a rule, award trophies. Then one day I went to this tiny town with a podunk ring for some novilladas—so novice fights. And these rural spectators could not stop giving out trophies. That is what crowds for Tourist Musicals are like: a collection of bb David Copperfields who act as though every play is the BEST PLAY, by virtue of existing on a stage. (I’m talking about the really sweet bit where David thinks a production of Julius Caesar is the best thing to ever have happened to humans and Steerforth is like oh honey, it seriously blew, but bless your little face.)

Several factors go into making up this sort of house. It has to do with a play’s buzz, its run-length, its subject matter, the amount of Pagentry involved, the venue (that venue’s size) and the (exorbitant, Luxury-marketed) ticket price. I would almost avoid big shows or good (expensive) Friday-night seats at something like Les Miz because the stalls will be: fucking full of out-of-towners.

Yes, I’m being a giant snob about this, and yes you can go and enjoy theatre if you don’t go often or live somewhere with a lot of theatre, etc. I’m from rural (well, it was at the time, now the town’s really grown up) Missouri, so like, I had a learning curve myself, and it’s also to naïve to suggest Londoners can’t be awful (we can) or that there is a Singular Right Way to Theatre (there isn’t, and public behaviour arguments are often dispatched to truly gross ends, like policing black enthusiasm in theatrical spaces). But let’s not pretend the atmosphere of a house doesn’t affect your reception of a performance, and that entire character of theatre for tourists isn’t a different enterprise from something like Curious Incident, which can attract tourists but is not built expressly to do so.

A friend wondered why Americans would go see Book of Mormon in London. I think Americans from an area without a big theatre community often like to get in that combo-vacation: the attractions of another country blend with the attractions of any large urban area (‘oh, we can go to Ikea while we’re there!!’ is, for example, a real thing I have said to real relatives). Plus the West End can have better availability than Broadway, and the prices vary from ‘cheaper than Broadway’ to ‘ridiculously cheaper than Broadway’. If you’re going with a group—flying from say, St. Louis, then coming to London for a show—even with plane fare, you might find going to London cheaper than trying to see a blockbuster show in New York. For example I guarantee you US people will come see Hamilton here, especially with Lin Manuel Miranda transferring. (Resold, a Hamilton ticket is currently running $800, apparently.)

With all that throat-clearing out of the way, and with me having exposed myself as an awful snob who doesn’t want to see Thriller Live with your Auntie Leslie from Versailles, MO (pron. Ver-sails) on any account, let’s talk about the musical.

A small note: I initially suspected the set-painter to have been a rogue Canadian, because a Tim Hortons was depicted in Salt Lake City. But now I learn those snow-encrusted bastards are making inroads south, to the tune of 650 US restaurants in the last years! I have never before suspected this threat, and now see that we must act to prevent the White Menace from consuming our sweet native franchises.

The story follows two young American Mormon men going out on their two-year mission journey. They’re rather surprised to learn they’re being dispatched to Uganda, a country about which they know nothing. An awkward geek, Arnold, is paired with Kevin, the flower of Mormon youth. Kevin is an entertainingly self-obsessed boy whose messianic conviction of his own virtue and importance has always chimed perfectly with his community and its faith.

The characterization and music alike both have some Moments, but aren’t great. I had some laughs, but not as many as I might have expected, and now, with a few days’ distance, I can remember almost nothing I found particularly great? Essentially this is, as you might expect from the creators, South Park humour and plotting: that level of liberal thinking, that scatological quality, that irreverence that actually doesn’t challenge much, that ‘or did I just blow your mind’ fauxfundity. The acting was very good, but the parts didn’t necessarily ask the world of the performers. The staging was expensive, but I’m not sure it was particularly good as such. Mormon felt—like a super-glossy version of a random Fringe musical. That level of writing skill, etc. Which is fine, but the production doesn’t really scream to be brought to the West End and have tons of cash heaped on it.

Obviously, this musical’s racist as hell. Like, it pushes through that so you think it’s not and then enters back into it, leaving none of the fundamental underlying assumptions unchallenged. Yes, the show does think it’s dumb that white Americans have simplistic, entertainment-based narratives about Africa and want to make sweeping changes there with little idea of the factors involved in the continent’s issues (or even much idea of the size and diversity of said continent, and thus the diversity of its issues). The song “We Are Africa” is kind of great for evoking and mocking these assumptions.

But the musical, about missionaries introducing faith to a beleaguered village, never says a word about the role white people and missionary drives, and colonialism more generally, have played in creating this current depressing state of affairs. So when belief, in an admittedly rather sophisticated manoeuvre, is presented as a possible social good in and of itself at the musical’s conclusion, that feels amnesiac. Belief caused this: belief is going to fix it as well? Mormon never once asks about the faith, or lack thereof, of the inhabitants—we’re shown folk beliefs born of desperation, but never the religion Mormonism is supposed to displace. The village is a tabula rasa.

Mormon is fundamentally the story of its white characters, with the black cast used as backdrop. And it’s funny when done consciously in “We Are Africa”, which features awkwardly smiling Africans on the periphery, silent, and white men making tits of themselves centre stage. But it’s less funny when the entire plot mechanic is reliant on this effect. A warlord shoots a villager, and we zero in on how worried this makes Kevin, and then forget even that trauma quickly. No one in the village grieves their friend, who ultimately exists to be a comic bloodstain on Kevin’s shirt (and then to be forgotten when the tempo picks up and Kevin changes).

Yes the black characters deservedly mock the Americans’ prissiness, earnestness and cluelessness, but it’s all a bit Heart of Darkness, isn’t it? This is never their story. Mormon’s not quite minstrelsy, but there are times I felt uncomfortably conscious of that vibe. Are we laughing with the characters who have real problems these newcomers blithely think they can solve with bible study, or are we laughing at this stupid girl who doesn’t understand what ‘texting’ is? Can Nabulungi’s dimness be just her own, in a context where we’re told so little about her social situation? Can the dim white character/her love interest’s comedic inability to say her name right and disinterest in learning how to do so ever not be racist? Is the fundamental naïveté of these Africans okay because this is just a musical comedy, or a kind of creepy reflection of the degree to which the creators and appreciative audiences understand people in very different situations to their own to be thinking beings? And what does mocking American monolithic ideas of Africa actually do, when what we see in this musical is exactly that Elephant Graveyard out of Lion King (complete with the massive skeleton from Julie Taymor’s production’s set design) in village form and a floating, contextless clit-hating warlord?

In the end, via a transformation of the faith they’re peddling (largely Arnold’s limp, unfunny, nerd pop-culture reimagining, rather than the Ugandans’ making Mormonism something that works for them), the work of the missionaries is fundamentally successful. (To be honest, it felt like the warlord could and even logically should have gunned this village down in the climactic scene. Why did no one bother to clinch this climax?) So you don’t have to ask questions about Western complicity in this village being in this position in the first place or continuing Western involvement in Africa. You don’t even have to ask too many questions about Mormonism’s pros and cons. The mechanic of this show’s plot is, at its core, complacent. This is a production that aims to generate publicity-making Daily Mail outrage, and nothing more. It’s Urinetown’s failed ending, all over again.

I’m so sick of media that bungles its message via bad editing. It’s such a salvageable situation, if the problem’s thoroughly addressed early on. I think a musical shaped like this could have sold like this has, even if it had a more challenging core, and that that’s the difference between something that sells well in the moment and a long-sighted project that endures as a cultural artefact (and thus may ultimately make you more money—why does no one think about this when thinking about quality? Why are capitalists so bad at capitalism?).

Overall, (and I’ve not seen it since it came out, so could be misremembering) I thought South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut had better jokes, more of a sense of its form and more heart. I’m not mad I saw this musical, though I am deeply uncomfortable with its thoughtless, white as hell delivery of what I suspect are well-intentioned politics. I would be mad if I hadn’t gotten in via lottery and thus gotten cheap seats.