[DWJ] conference write-ups?

Gili Bar-Hillel gbhillel at netvision.net.il
Wed Jul 15 13:32:04 EDT 2009

Sorry Irina, I couldn't get my usual blogsite to format the English
readably, and I was under the impression that the Facebook page was
accessible to everyone. I suppose I could simply attach what I wrote (or
rather, translated from the Hebrew):

an English version of my blog entry (
http://www.notes.co.il/gili/58392.asp )about the Diana Wynne Jones
conference ( http://www.dwj2009.co.uk/ ) .

Last weekend I attended a conference entirely devoted to Diana Wynne Jones:
three full days of academic presentations about the author and her works.
Unfortunately Jones herself could not be present due to lung cancer and
unpleasant complications. The approximately 70 participants from 14
different countries, of whom about thirty were presenting, signed a card
conveying their best wishes for Diana's health.

As stated by literary critic Farah Mendlesohn, one of the organizers of the
conference and author of a book about Jones, Diana Wynne Jones is an author
who "grew her own critics": the first critical works about her books
appeared two to three decades after she first started publishing, or in
other words, when those readers who had discovered her as children reached

DWJ's history in Israel followed a similar path. I first discovered her
books at the age of seven, in the British Council library in Jerusalem.
Twenty years later I became editor of children's books at "Keter" publishing
house, and that's how "Charmed Life" and "The Lives of Christopher Chant"
came to be published in Hebrew. The next to be translated into Hebrew was
"Howl's Moving Castle", published to coincide with the release of the
Japanese anime film in Israel. The film itself came about in a similar
fashion: author Neil Gaiman had discovered Diana Wynne Jones' books as a
young reader, and later when he matured and achieved recognition he was able
to recommend them to director Hayao Miyazaki. Additional titles translated
into Hebrew are "Witch Week" - another set in the same world as "Charmed
Life" (and one of my least favorites of Jones's works); "Castles in the Air"
, the sweet sequel to "Howl's Moving Castle", and recently "Archer's Goon"
(published by my current employer, Graff Publishing). Up to a few years ago
Jones had been virtually unheard of in our part of the world, and now she
has a small but elite following of Israeli readers. Hooray!

One of the best and most refreshing aspects of the conference for me was the
fact that all attendees were well versed in Diana Wynne Jones. It was enough
to mention a character or incident from one of the books, and a wave of
enthusiastic head-nodding washed through the audience. The presentations
were almost without exception quite excellent, interesting, decent, well
presented. Two of the most surprising were given by academics from the exact
sciences: the first, a lecture given by Jenni Tyynela, compared the theory
of "Possible Worlds" (parallel worlds) as it presents in the books of Diana
Wynne Jones to David Lewis's scientific theory of Worlds of Modality; the
second, a presentation given by Helgard Fischer, dealt with the application
of scientific methodology to the study and taxonomy of magic in a particular
book by Jones, "The Year of the Griffin" (a book which follows a year of
studies at a University of Magic, in a world where magic has been corrupted;
an incisive answer to the early "Harry Potter" books).

Several topics kept cropping up in several of the conference presentations,
as they seem to preoccupy Jones in nearly all her books: the complicated web
of relationships within a family, power struggles between siblings and
between parents and their children, etc. - in light of Jones' complex family
background, it's not too surprising that almost all the families in her
books are flawed one way or the other, and event he most successful families
seem to be built on an unstable basis of compromise and forgiveness. Guest
of honor Nicholas Tucker who had known the Jones family back when Diana and
her sisters were little girls shared with us some bittersweet anecdotes,
corroborating Jones' resentful autobiographical sketches. Many of the
presentations dealt with political and feminist outlooks implied in Jones'
books, that seem to be a larger-scale reflection of familial power
struggles: the relationship between the power source (the people, women) and
the figures of authority (the King, men). And more.

Another topic that occupied many of the presenters was the meta-poetic
treatment of reading and writing that can be found in many of Jones' books.
Frequently the books contain a character of an author or storyteller who by
the very fact of creating a narrative can affect reality; in addition there
are many characters whose arc of development in the book is an escape from a
narrative that seems to have been imposed upon them. The basic theory
underying Farah Mendlesohn's book is that Jones' fictions contain a level of
critical writing about Fantastic Literature. Jones seems to pick out and
identify patterns and conventions of Genre Literature, and then use her
writing to explore the limitations of the genre, or by subversion reinvent
it. All this sounds terribly pretentious when not backed by examples, but I
promise you the moment the examples are brought up it all becomes crystal
clear and great fun. (And please forgive me for not repeating all the
examples here, it's hard enough trying to sum up a three-day conference in a
few hasty words here at my blog).

Finally, a question asked several times was why don't Diana's books garner
the widespread popularity of, say, the Harry Potter books. Most participants
at the conference would probably agree that Jones' books are better and more
original than the Harry Potter books - but this precisely is the problem.
The Harry Potter books are written to reach a much wider common denominator.
Harry Potter appeals even to readers who previously had no habit of reading,
and who come to the books as a clean slate; whereas the books of Diana Wynne
Jones appeal more to experience readers, who identify and appreciate the way
Jones juggles conventions, pulls them apart and puts them back together.

Jones' American editor, guest of honor Sharyn November, claims that not
everyone will enjoy DWJ's books: only the SMART readers will. November
points out that even if this is not entirely accurate, saying so is a great
way to motivate kids to try and read the books and prove that they are
worthy. Other presenters also tried to define just what it was that marked
out the devoted readers of DWJ from other readers who do not enjoy her
books. One hypothesis was that Jones' books require readers to put in an
effort and think, put in an effort and try to understand, put in an effort
and try to break through paradigms of thought. All that putting in an effort
is very appealing to certain readers but exhausting and frustrating to
others. Another hypothesis is the one mentioned above, that Jones books are
primarily intended for voracious readers seeking out new and different

As one of the participants noted with surprise, she had been expecting to
hear lots and lots about Chrestomanci and Howl, Jones' two dashing and
charismatic wizard characters; instead the character who seemed to come up
most often was the seemingly marginal character of Awful, Howard's little
sister in "Archer's Goon". Awful is the ultimate obnoxious little sister:
she screeches, she's selfish, she's uncontrollable and manipulative. She
embarrasses her family on every occasions, holds things down and disrupts
and is almost never nice. Even her parents call her Awful (her true name is
Anthea). Without giving away too much of the plot, it is Awful who saves
Howard, prevents him by her very presence and egotistical demands from
falling into all sorts of traps or blindly repeating corrupt patterns of
behavior. Diana Wynne Jones is herself a sort of an Awful: demanding,
disrupting, forcing one to pay attention to things that other authors let
one take for granted, creating chaos and ultimately precisely for these
things arousing a great deal of empathy and devotion.

P.S. see that picture of Jones on the conference website? She's smiling at a
little baby who is mostly off camera. That little baby is my Tali six years
ago, now about to start first grade would you believe it.

-----Original Message-----
From: dwj-bounces at suberic.net [mailto:dwj-bounces at suberic.net]On Behalf Of
Irina Rempt
Sent: Wednesday, July 15, 2009 6:18 PM
To: Diana Wynne Jones discussion
Subject: Re: [DWJ] conference write-ups?

On Wednesday 15 July 2009 17:09 Gili Bar-Hillel wrote:
> I've translated my write-up into English:
> http://tiny.cc/9V7YC

Er, can you put it somewhere people without Facebook accounts can read it?
(If you don't have such a space I'll happily put it up on my site)


     "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth
should that mean that it is not real?"           --Albus Dumbledore
http://www.valdyas.org/foundobjects/index.cgi         Latest: 29-Jun-2009

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