Interrogating the Text #2: Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” – The Lessons

At first I was a little embarrassed that I was going to write three entries to run a full analysis of lessons learned from Lev Grossman’s novel, The Magicians.  I was able to contain a short review, analysis, and lessons learned of the short story discussed in my first “Interrogating the Text” series in a single post.  And then I realized: waitaminit… a novel is a lot longer than a short story, and there’s a lot more depth to what’s going on in a novel.  It only makes sense that a complete textual analysis for a novel is going to be longer than for a short story.  Heck… I’m probably missing a lot even confining it to three overlong posts.

That said, to get the full benefit of this post, you’ll probably want to check out the prior two posts discussing my reading of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians: here and here.  The first is a relatively spoiler-free review that discusses my initial reactions to the book.  The second is a deeper and more thorough (and far more spoilery) analysis of why I had the reaction I had.  Now, I want to bring it all together to talk about the lessons I think I can take away from all of that.

The short version, then, is that I enjoyed reading the book.  The reason I enjoyed it was, mostly, for the high-quality prose, style and voice of the book, first of all, and for the clever twists and tweaks on common and sometimes-cherished, sometimes-maligned fantasy (and YA fantasy, especially) tropes. Continue reading

Interrogating the Text #2: Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” – The Analysis

Last time I picked up the pieces of this “Interrogating the Text” series and gave you a general review of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.  But I wanted to talk a little about the writing lessons I learned from this book: what I liked, what I disliked, why I liked or disliked it, and what I can learn from that to apply to my own writing.

The remainder of this discussion won’t make much sense if you haven’t read The Magicians, I’m afraid.  And if you haven’t read it, and think you might like to, this post will contain spoilers for the ending of the book.  If you’re not sure if you’d like to, may I suggest you take a gander at my review in last week’s post, or this review here.  And one last warning: I’m going really in depth here, so this post is rather quite a bit long.  So settle in for an epic journey, if novel-writing-lessons are your cup of tea.

First, I want to make it clear, in case it wasn’t in my earlier post: I really enjoyed reading this book.  It was compelling and interesting.  For much of the book, it was a page-turner.  But I wasn’t satisfied by it’s ending.  Something felt off about it.

So let’s dig into that.

What did I like about The Magicians?  I liked the book’s style: while not as lyrical or poetic, for instance, as the works of Cathrynne Valente, it was nonetheless composed with a very compelling and interesting style.  It’s intelligent, and it makes no excuses for its intelligence.  It comes with a clear literary pedigree, but instead of eschewing the conventions of genre or speculative fiction and especially of YA fantasy (despite being decidedly not a YA book). 

I especially liked the manner with which the book played with genre conventions, and the clever use of a book (series)-within-a-book.  The Magicians plays up the tropes of the normal-person-enters-magical-world (i.e. “portal fantasy”) at every turn, and cleverly lampshades these conventions several times.  (For example, the Harry Potter books are mentioned by name in the course of the narrative, as is Tolkien’s Middle Earth.)  And there’s a lot of cool meta-fictional layers to the whole idea of Fillory in the book.  For example: Christopher Plover, the fictional author of the Fillory books, has a webpage.  There are even web pages for “fans” of the Fillory series.

But there were some difficult things about The Magicians as well, and they relate primarily to the characters and to the ending.

The characters are somewhat problematic in The Magicians because most of them, with the exception of Alice, are to a greater or lesser degree unlikable. Continue reading

Interrogating the Text #2: Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” – The Review

Some time ago – back in August, now – I started a new, very occasional series of posts focused on critically reading and reviewing published works of fiction that I call “Interrogating the Text”.  The series, so far, has had a grand total of one entry (on the subject of Catherynne Valente’s “The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland – For a Little While”).  Today marks the second entry in that occasional series.

I recently finished reading Lev Grossman‘s send-up to the fantasy genre: The Magicians.  It was an interesting read – I enjoyed it but, as I say, with caveats – and at about the two-thirds mark I resolved to blog about my reactions to the book: what I liked and what I disliked and why.

I’m going to start this off with a relatively spoiler-free review of the book, in a general sense, before I load up with an extra helping of spoilers and do the in-depth analysis that someday if this series ever gets more than two entries will be thought the hallmark of the “Interrogating the Text” series.  I’ll be breaking this down, then, into two posts.  One for the review, and one for the spoilery analysis.

So… Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.  I liked it, but with caveats.  I keep saying that.  What does that mean?  It means that I found the writing and story to be engaging and interesting.  It was very well-written, stylistically.  The prose was at times poetic, clean, and evocative.  I kept reading because I found I had to know what happened next.  And yet, at the end of the story, I wasn’t satisfied. Continue reading

Writing Prose as Poetry

I saw an interesting post on author Jay Lake’s blog a few weeks ago in which he “recasts” some of his book’s opening lines as poetry.  He got the idea from this post by author Jim VanPelt, where VanPelt suggests this as a tool for analyzing one’s use of language on the merits of the language itself, rather than as part of a larger story-centric context.

This is a fascinating idea… and given my recent admiration,as an example, for author Catherynne Valente’s poetic style in her prose fiction, you can imagine that it appeals to me.  I’ve always fancied myself something of a poetic writer – one who revels both in alliteration and in extended metaphor.  The truth of that self-assertion is, of course, as yet untested.  And I know my work isn’t nearly so poetic as the aforementioned Valente’s work.  But is my prose writing effective, on its own, as poetry?

I’ve a few short flash-ish length pieces I’ve posted on this blog, and I thought I might play a little with them, and see what happens.  The way this works seems pretty simple: punctuation, mostly is an artifact of the prose, so you can leave that out or shift it around a bit.  Line breaks can be where ever you want them.  The words, mostly, have to be the same words in the same order.  I’ve done a few very minor edits in the examples I’ve done – which mostly consists of eliminating words that play a grammatic role but are not meaningful on a poetic level.  Admittedly, this makes the words flow slightly better in a poetic sense, so are likely to skew the results a little, but you can compare them to the original.

Also, obviously of necessity, this will likely come off mostly as non-rhyming free verse – though as poetry it may well  have its own rhythm and cadence or even a clearly identifiable poetic meter.

Here’s the opening paragraph from “Bright Hands“: Continue reading

Interrogating the Text #1: Cat Valente & Fairyland

I read a short story recently, and I wanted to share it.  I figured: what the heck, I’m a writer writing about writing on my blog, and especially about Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and the Greater Speculative Fiction Metropolitan Area.  So I can just post a link to a short story that I think deserving of attention!  Besides, it’s my blog, so nyeh!

But then I thought about it a little more.  I don’t often give writing advice, per se, on my blog because I don’t know that I’m really qualified to do that.  I do talk about how I do what I do – how I write.  But, if there’s a story I decide I particularly like, might it not benefit me to dig a little deeper into it to try to understand why?  And, if so, might that deeper exploration be of similar value to my readers?

Hey, why not?  Long ago, when I was in a middle school art class, I had a teacher who encouraged us to learn art technique by trying to copy the works of more famous authors.  (I attempted a rendition of Winslow Homer‘s “The Fox Hunt“, committing a terrible replica of which I am oddly still a little proud.)  As it turns out, studying the techniques of more advanced, more skillful, and more worthy artists is an excellent way to improve your own technique.  (I’ll never be a famous painter – probably because I’ve put more effort into learning the craft of writing than of painting, because as much as I enjoy painting I enjoy writing more – but I’m a passably fair artist with a pencil or a brush.)  So today begins a new, occasional and periodic feature here at “The Undiscovered Author” that I call “Interrogating the Text” in which I do a little analysis on a story that I’ve read – and let’s see if together we can’t learn a thing or two about the craft of writing.  Most – possibly all – of my example stories will be Speculative in some nature, and I’ll try  to reference stories that I can link to so you guys at home can follow along.

To kick this off, I thought I’d point you all to a delightful little story called “The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland – For a Little While” by Catherynne M. Valente.  It’s available to read for free on Tor.com.  “The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland” is described by Valente as a prequel to her recently published novel “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making“, and as a bridge to that novel’s sequel.  I have not read the novel – it was on my list, but after reading this story it may have to be bumped up the list by a few slots.  This story is really quite remarkable in ways that are difficult to understand right away. Continue reading

Spring in My Step

I’ve been contemplating this little short bit of prose for the past week or so, and thought I’d go ahead and share it.

Sometimes I wonder if anyone ever goes back and checks on the Groundhog, to check whether his famous forecasts are really all that accurate.  I often think about this in March, when it’s been six weeks or more since the coddled marmot’s eponymous day.  Sometimes my thoughts go in unusual places.  How many people give the groundhog a second thought this far out from February 2nd?

I most recently thought about the groundhog in mid-March.  We had a few uncharacteristically cold mornings that had followed a warm and sunny weekend.  As I was on the way to stop by the pet food store to pick up a refill on Shasta’s favorite meal before making the long trek to work, I noticed the tiny white flecks that swirled in the air and pelted my windshield light the lightest, coldest of rains.  Snow flurries in March!  Not the first time I’ve seen that, but in my part of the country, it still seems a bit out of the ordinary.

It was the last gasp of a dying winter.  The days were warming.  Over the past week, I’ve watched and wondered as the world around me sprouted, like clockwork.  Walking Shasta to the dog park under trees that look like nothing so much as pink and purple and white puffy clouds, so covered in tiny flowers they were.  It’s the same everywhere you turn.  I live in a long-established neighborhood in a small craftsman-style bungalow.  Trees line the sidewalks.  Here and there are small parks with bigger, older trees, but most of the trees on the walks are younger, and their exuberant flowering is the surest sign of their youthful optimism.

They’re full of life.  Full of hope for the future.  Hope for a warm, wet, rainy summer and long days of sunshine and thick green leaves.  It’s hard not to get caught up in the wild longing for Spring and new beginnings, in those moments out about the neighborhood with Shasta and with Dear Wife.  There’s no reason not to get caught up.  There are problems and challenges for another day, but in that moment, with Spring blooming from every bud, there is no need for problems and unhappiness.  There is only need for laughter and singing.

I’ve been lucky so far.  My allergies haven’t really been acting up this year.  They’ve been waning in the past few years, growing dimmer.  Sometimes my eyes still itch and water (especially in Fall, when the pines paint the world in yellow pollen), but the sneezing and wheezing and stuffiness feel like a thing of the past.  I have my theories why.

In these moments, I wonder.  How would I describe this?  I would I write about the Spring?  What would my characters say, or think, or feel when they see the world coming back to life with soft pastels and pale greens?  What does it mean, in the context of their stories, and their challenges, and their adventures?  Or is their no Spring where the live?

I don’t know.  But when it’s this nice outside, I don’t need to know.  At least, not until it rains, or I feel the longing to sit down and write building up inside me again.

Happy writing.