Which Is Far Too Full of Muddled Thinking (on DWJ and Dahl)

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Thu Dec 9 23:22:55 EST 1999

On Wed, 8 Dec 1999 22:29:50 +0100, Hallie O'Donovan wrote:

>Oh darn!  I never expected that it would be you, Melissa, taking me on over
>Dahl.  I think this amounts to an imbalance of coherence and rational
>argument ability quite monumental in scale.  Be that as it may, I suppose I
>asked for it.
>But this is most definitely in the delete-if-you-choose category.

Actually, before I read the rest of this, let me clarify:  I don't really
have a strong opinion about Dahl.  I like his books okay, and I find them
full of interesting imagery--very strong.  Probably my favorite is _James
and the Giant Peach_, which for some reason made me cry as a child.  What
intrigued me was the statement "I can't imagine someone liking DWJ and Dahl"
because I think that says something different than just "I really hate
Dahl".  It suggests that there is something in one author's writing that is
completely at odds with the other's.  I think it's fascinating.

And I love striking terror into other people's hearts.  It makes me feel
somewhat taller than 5'4" and somewhat more physically imposing than 120
lbs. :)  I think being pregnant sometimes makes me think with greater
clarity--as though certain hormones are actually going where they're
supposed to.  In about three months you can expect to see me forgetting the
name of the hero of _The Lives of Christopher Chant_ though.

>Well, I don't actually lay claim to "reasons for thinking this" - I don't
>in fact *think* it.  My statement was more along the lines of exemplifying
>the situation you found in your discussion with Jessie - that it's
>difficult to understand when someone with whom you share many common likes
>or dislikes, doesn't share an opinion you might have assumed would follow
>given all the other shared ones.

>Your post on Susan Cooper was very useful in helping put some more pieces
>in place for me on the argument about why I am surprised to find DWJ fans
>who also really like Dahl.  Because I think part of it does hinge on
>worldview, philosophy of life, call it what you will.  I would never
>presume to say I could nail DWJ's philosophy of life, but every book of
>hers that I've read is indicative of a general outlook on life and human
>nature which I generally share.  You called it optimism, in contrast to
>Cooper's realism, which is one way to put it (although, I might get
>side-tracked into a discussion as to whether Cooper's view is definitely
>the more realistic!).

That's strictly a literary criticism term.  I have issues with it as
well--talk about presumptuous!--but it's just the one I learned to describe
fiction that looks at life from a rather more pessimistic point of view.  (A
side note would be how much I hate it that literary fiction is viewed as the
norm and everything else is "genre" fiction.  As though literary novels
didn't have as many defining characteristics as anything else!  If I can
find Dave Wolverton's article on this, I may post a link to it...anyway....)

>So, while Paula might say that DWJ's humour
>particularly appeals to her, and someone else might choose another aspect
>of her writing as appealing, while still appreciating the humour, I would
>expect that we would all share *some* part of her philosophy of life.  I
>mean, to work from the crushingly obvious up (hopefully!), no one on this
>list is going to believe that fantasy is a waste of time (or outright
>dangerous, as some people do), or that children's books are inferior (that
>smack, Deborah, would have been from MANY of us, had you been able to
>deliver it!). Moving towards the more risky, we might generally agree that
>people can rise above difficulties, learn to take responsibility for their
>own actions, learn to understand others, etc.  We may come from intensely
>different starting points to arrive at whatever central nugget of shared
>belief we'd claim, but I doubt many of us would be here if we thought
>*only* that DWJ had wonderful literary merit, but completely rejected her
>views on life, human nature, etc.  This is not necessarily true, of course,
>it's merely my gut-instinct on likelihoods.

I wonder if that's true.  It sounds true.  What do the rest of you think?

I think that thesis--that people can and should learn to take responsibility
for what they do--is one of the main reasons I like DWJ's books.  It really
hit me in _Fire and Hemlock_.  I mean, Polly TOTALLY screws up.  The way she
tells it, it's like she would almost like to blame it all on a spell cast by
Laurel, but in the end it doesn't really matter.  She made the mistake and
she has to make it right.  That really resonates with me--the lack of
excuses, the screwing up of her courage.  Being a hero by doing things even
(especially!) when you feel silly.  So yeah, I agree on that count.  There
is something in her books that is part of my personal philosophy of life.

>So, with that base-line, the reason I am surprised to find Dahl fans here
>is that I find every indication of his philosophy of life to be quite the
>antithesis of what I'd generally perceive as DWJ's.  This would start with
>the fact that I know him to be virulently anti-semitic.  Now I'm sure that
>some people won't accept that I am allowed to "use" that knowledge to form
>a literary opinion.

Tough rocks to them, then.  :)

>However, this is of course, not a literary opinion,
>but rather an explanation of why I find this overlap to be surprising.  So,
>even if I didn't see indications of this anti-semitism in some of Dahl's
>books, which I do, I think it's still a valid part of the information I use
>to form an opinion of Dahl.

I think it would be unfair to say "Roald Dahl is an anti-Semite, therefore
his writing is terrible."  Different if you could point out obvious
anti-Semitism in his writing.  Those would both be literary judgements.  But
my opinion (and I think we've established before that I Am Always Right :)
is that the one thing there is never any arguing about is a person's gut
reaction, like or dislike, to a particular book.  That's born out of
everything you are and everything you know; if you dislike something, how
can someone come out and say "but you know, you really ought to love this
book"?  So yeah, I think that's valid.  I do that myself; I find it hard to
like books by people who do things I think are despicable.  Fortunately
there are not many of them.

>That in itself would be a very major stumbling block for me.  It's not the
>only one,  but some of the others I will admit come from books I haven't
>read, but have merely read extracts from.  Not entirely satisfactory, but
>believe me, the quotes I've seen from _George's Marvelous Medicine_ ,
>describing the punishment of the grandmother, I found obscene enough for me
>never to wish to read the book.  Ever.

>So there you have my reasons for being surprised at this particular overlap
>of tastes.  For what it's worth.

I think it's an interesting point.  Myself, I have always come at it from
the other direction--how can someone who likes Book A not like Book B?--but
it's still the same issue: what elements in your reading are so important to
you that the absence of them, or the opposite them, in other books makes you
hate the other books.  Now I will have to go think about it.  I don't read a
lot of books that I hate--usually I just STOP reading because time is just
too precious.

I am a little ambivalent about Dahl.  While I recognize that he's going for
absurdity in a lot of his books, there are some things that, as a child,
just didn't sound right to me.  The things that happen to the kids in
_Charlie and the Chocolate Factory_, for example.  I remember wondering how
they could possibly be so evil as to be deserving of their fates--even
though it's all passed off as their Just Desserts, it still felt more like
personal animosity.  There is definitely a streak of sadism in his
work--that's sort of a strong word, but I think it defines it well...as
though the author liked being able to punish wrongdoers.

For some reason, _James and the Giant Peach_ seemed very different to me.
More gentle, somehow.  I should probably read it again; it's still one of my
favorites from childhood.

> Or--more generally--I would rather see those
>>making the assertions explain why THEY feel the way they do before those who
>>think differently have to explain themselves.  I think that will keep the
>>discussion more even than if one person makes a statement and leaves the
>>rest to fight it out. :)
>Um, I hope it's clear by now at least that I never envisioned anyone
>*having* to explain themselves, or even the rest fighting it out.  Gulp.

Oh, was that a martial metaphor?  It was.  Sorry.  I just figure if there's
discussion, there will be disagreement...and thus more discussion.  

That was great, by the way.  Very clear.  I don't see why you were worried
at all!

Melissa Proffitt
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