leaving spaces for her readers to fill: Diana Wynne Jones as worldbuilder

I have talked a fair bit recently about building futures (and ways of futuring) that are open, and it looks like I’m going to be talking about it a lot more in times to come. It’s an idea that I’m very committed to, but I’m also aware that it comes very much from the creative and artsy side of the notional divide: openness is a quality, not a quantity, and that means it can be a hard sell to folk who hail from more quantitative epistemes.

Nonetheless, I am also committed to not attempting to quantify the unquantifiable. Getting those folk to cross the line is hard—but that’s because it’s their worldview which holds the hegemony at present, and caving in to it serves only to strengthen its grip.

So I need other ways to make the argument—which is why this passage from a piece celebrating the work of Diana Wynne Jones is going straight in the public clip-file:

What I loved most, as a child, was the salute those books offered to their reader’s intelligence. Jones’s work is galvanised by her respect for the children who read her books. They are warm, sardonic and, in places, unexpectedly elliptical. She refrains from explaining everything – the books appear to say: “Let them invent, let them work it out.” The precise way in which Howl is able to make a John Donne poem into a spell, for instance, is unclear; and in leaving spaces for her readers to fill, the books invite collaboration. A Diana Wynne Jones book becomes your own, because you participate in the building of it.

That’s it; that’s it exactly.

Sometimes I get well-intended pushback on this stuff: “surely we need to make it easy for people, Paul, aim for clarity of explanation?” To which I say no, not at all; clarity of description, sure, but as little explanation as you can get away with. Worldbuilding is a collaboration between author(s) and reader(s); leaving spaces in which the reader can erect their own explanations is not “making it hard for them”, it’s inviting them to enter into the world and contribute to it.

(Which is not at all to claim that leaving those spaces in the right way is easy. The genius of a writer like Wynne Jones lies in a sort of instinctive generosity, a feeling for what a reader will and will not accept; it’s not a genius that I lay claim to, though I like to think I’m slowly learning a skill through which it might be approximated.)

The other form the pushback can take is the one that says “you can’t expect us to treat people like children”. Well, I definitely don’t think we should treat people in the way we all too often treat children: to patronise them, to talk down to them or over their heads, to barrage them with unarguable facts and assume they’ll get in line eventually.

But that’s exactly the way the (long discredited, but still utterly ubiquitous) information deficit model of science communications treats people all. The. Time.

This is related to one of my enduring gripes with the “futures literacy” paradigm. For the avoidance of doubt, I believe its advocates to be sincere and well-intentioned, but they are making the same error I just highlighted above.

Futures literacy is predicated on the idea that the majority of people lack the capacity to imagine different futures and worlds, and that this must therefore be trained into them.

This is precisely backward.

The capacity for imagination is vast and innate in pretty much every human being. We do not see it, however, because it is very carefully and deliberately trained out of them—by an educational paradigm that still prioritises the retention and regurgitation of facts over the exercise of imagination and discernment, certainly, but also by a culture that relentlessly signposts the rewards to be had for conforming to hegemonic perspectives, and the punishments to be had for stepping out of line*.

“That’s a very high-minded and countercultural assertion, Paul, but you can’t really evidence it, can you?”

Oh, to the contrary—the evidence is so plentiful that you can’t see it for looking. So I’ll suggest a way to make it snap into view, like one of those Magic Eye pictures**, by asking you a question.

Which of the following persons has greater access to and passion for their imagination: a thirty-something McKinsey consultant, or a five-year-old who has just discovered dinosaurs?

Answers on a postcard to the usual address.

[ * — This is true on both sides of the political fence. If you think it is a fault to be found only in your ideological opponents, I invite you to think again. This too is an act of imagination: imagining that you have more in common with people than you have in difference. Tat tvam asi—that thou art. ]

[ ** — What ever happened to them, eh? ]



, ,

Want to read more VCTB, but don’t use an RSS reader? No worries—you can follow along by email instead. Sign up here:

Join 90 other subscribers.

Comments and pingbacks

One response to “leaving spaces for her readers to fill: Diana Wynne Jones as worldbuilder”

  1. Paul Watson avatar

    This is a bit of a ramble, but bear with me. One of the main things I’ve tried to do with this new website —…

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.