Susan Cooper

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Tue Dec 7 02:20:25 EST 1999


Okay, this ended up longer than I thought it would, so if you don't want to
read any more on this topic, go ahead and delete freely....

On Thu, 2 Dec 1999 16:50:59 -0600 (CST), Paula Burch wrote:

>> Tea With the Black Dragon is good, but has anyone read Susan Cooper? Her =
>> "Dark is Rising" series is fantastic 
>
>I read only one volume of this series - only the first few chapters - 
>and could not even finish it because it was so tiresome, so portentious,
>above all so humorless...surely I must have picked the worst one of 
>the whole series if anyone can say anything so glowing about it!

Or, just possibly, it's not to your taste?

We've already been over this ground--not that I expect everyone who joins
this list to read the archives first, just that since our primary discussion
point is DWJ, I'm reluctant to go into detail about other writers.  However,
it just happens that I had just started my yearly re-reading of _The Dark is
Rising_ when this post came across, and after finishing I thought it would
be worthwhile to let Amanda Farrell know that not everyone on this list
dislikes Cooper's books.  :)

>I lost a certain amount of respect for the author when she kept going 
>on about how big a deal it was that Will Stanton was beginning his 
>eleventh year, its being his eleventh birthday. :-) (Of course one's 
>eleventh birthday is the *last* day of one's eleventh year; one's first 
>birthday is not the first day of one's first year, after all.)

It's hardly going on and on about it.  In one place, Cooper makes this
mistake; she refers to the day before Will's eleventh birthday as "the end
of his tenth year" and the beginning of the second.  That's the ONLY place.
I guarantee it, because this time I was looking for it.  Other references to
the "first day" are to his first day as an Old One, not to his age.

> But the 
>humorlessness and hopelessness were what really defeated me.

Here is the key...and I'll go on in a moment.

>I'd like to analyze why I found Cooper so very much the opposite 
>of DWJ, when you found her to be her equal (because I'd like to 
>know why some people's book recommendations work so well for me 
>while others' do not). I think that DWJ's humor is a huge part of 
>her attraction for me. I also always really appreciate her intellect - 
>she'd *never* make a mistake as basic as that eleventh year thing. 
>Maybe the things you like about her are different. Or maybe I just 
>picked up Cooper's worst volume. 

Part of our earlier discussion was how the normal human characters in Susan
Cooper's books aren't given much credit for being able to cope with unusual
events.  They're constantly being made to forget things they see in
connection with the Light or the Dark, supposedly unable to handle such
things.  An interesting thing I discovered in this rereading is that NO
PERSON in Cooper's universe is able to cope with the supernatural without
being changed in a fundamental way.  The leaders of the Dark, for example,
are described as being men who let themselves be set above their peers--to
be swayed by the possibility of power over others.  Will Stanton, after his
session with the book of Gramarye which trains his power, becomes aware that
he's lost something of himself in that learning, and that loss is going to
set him apart from his family forever.  This is a part of Cooper's worldview
in this series.  In reading the whole series, it gradually becomes apparent
that this whole vast struggle between the Dark and the Old Ones is rather a
necessary evil than something to be cherished.  When the Dark is finally,
utterly defeated in the last book, it doesn't mean there's no more evil in
the world, simply that now mankind is free to save or damn itself.  Both the
Dark and the Light are utterly inhuman, despite being made up of human
individuals--they are humans who have given themselves to something that
does not allow them to remain fully human.  I think this is actually the
main difference between DWJ and Cooper--that DWJ is always writing about
people who retain their humanity no matter what.  In her books, the inhuman
ones are invariably evil and incomprehensible.  Cooper tries to make
inhumanity comprehensible.  (Well, and that they're writing in different
genres.  Cooper is high fantasy, despite the trappings, and DWJ is
emphatically not.  It makes a comparison of the two ultimately
pointless--one might as well criticize DWJ for not making her every book
hinge on the ultimate battle between Good and Evil.  But there are certainly
points to look at why a reader might like one and not the other.)

So, yeah, these are extremely dark books.  Darker, I think, even than they
appear to be on the surface.  If what you look for in a book is primarily
humor, it's not to be found here, other than in brief moments.  One of the
reasons this book in particular appeals to me is that, as a member of a
large brood of children myself, the scenes with Will's family ring true.
They are extremely funny to me--not laugh-out-loud funny, but humorous
nevertheless.

What I was actually thinking about, in regards to this thread (and talking
about other writers we like in general) was how the actual shape of the
yardstick each of us uses to judge a book is always invisible.  You can
guess at it, by looking at what books you do like and comparing that list to
what others like.  But then you can fall into the (natural) mistake of
believing that other people like the books you do for the same reasons you
do.  The nature of this list prevents us from discovering if there are any
Susan Cooper fans who dislike DWJ, though there probably are (I can be
cynical enough to say they're probably the ones who think that dark, heavy
fiction=literary greatness, but that's just cynicism talking).  What we have
here are a few people who get something out of both Cooper and DWJ, and many
more who only enjoy DWJ.  I find this curious because until the discussion
here, I had never met a single person who DIDN'T like Cooper.  I have a
feeling that there is a way to figure out where all of our reading tastes
coincide and why, but I'm not sure what it is.

The fact is--I love Cooper's books.  There is something about her writing
that appeals to me.  She has the same deceptive style that Ursula LeGuin
does--it sounds incredibly stultifying, but if you parse it out, she's not
using any really complicated words, just the basic Anglo-Saxon, never a
"pontificate" when a "say" will do as well.  And I think her portrayal of
humanity is an aspect of the truth.  People in general don't do all that
great a job choosing good over evil--they may in the large cases, like not
murdering someone, but the little daily honesties get lost much more easily.
People are motivated by fear and greed perhaps more often than by love and
honor.  And yet there are some who rise above it.  They're very rare in
Cooper's world, which makes them all the more precious as I see it.  By
contrast, in DWJ every hero rises to that challenge, even the ones who
occasionally slip (like Polly in _Fire and Hemlock_).  Even the bad guys
like Ginger Hind in _Archer's Goon_.  Here you have a boy who is basically a
hood, who works for Shine, and who then learns that he's been manipulated
into doing so.  But Ginger has the fundamental moral strength to rise above
the embarrassment of all this to choose to do good.  If this story were
reality, Ginger Hind would be an extremely unusual person.  This just
doesn't happen all that often!  DWJ shows us people at their best even when
they're temporarily showing their weakest sides--shows what people can be
and ought to strive to be.  So while I like Cooper for her realism, I like
DWJ because of her optimism...and for not being unrealistic at the same
time.  Ginger Hind may be unlikely, but he's not impossible.  I find this
just as appealing as anything in Cooper.

Melissa Proffitt
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