How do you Solve a Problem like Susan Pevensie? Narnia Guest Post by Kat Coffin

Every few years or so, I’ll get a PM on my Twitter or my Tumblr that asks what is essentially the same question.  These followers know my love of all things C.S. Lewis, particularly the Chronicles of Narnia, have heard me wax poetic about gender theory, and have heard me scream about feminism in varying posts or tweets.  All of these factors lead to one question:

How do you solve a problem like Susan Pevensie?

Oh, Susan.  The most maligned and misinterpreted of Pevensies.  And, incidentally, my favorite character.  Let’s talk a moment about these misinterpretations, particularly the ones that have absorbed themselves into the popular consciousness despite how many times I yell about them on Twitter.

In a Time Magazine interview, J.K. Rowling described her debt to C.S. Lewis.

“I found myself thinking about the wardrobe route to Narnia when Harry is told he has to hurl himself at the barrier in King’s Cross Station—it dissolves and he’s on Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, and there’s the train to Hogwarts.”

However, she points out that there were aspects of the Narnian chronicles that bothered her.  She also points out that Susan Pevensie

“…is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a real problem with that.”

On that note, Philip Pullman penned an angry Guardian article where he claimed that for Lewis, a girl’s achieving sexual maturity was

“so dreadful and so redolent of sin that he had to send her to Hell.”

To address this, we ought to look at the problematic scene in question, from the final Narnian Chronicle, “The Last Battle”.

“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. “If I have read the chronicles aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?”

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.”

“Oh Susan!” said Jill, “she’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grownup.”

“Grownup, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

“Well, don’t let’s talk about that now,” said Peter.

Fair point, Peter.  Let’s talk about it now.

To respond to Philip Pullman, anyone with basic reading comprehension skills can see that Susan is NOT sent to Hell.  There is quite a difference in being sent to Hell and being absent from the final adventure.  Susan was left alive in this world.  Lewis wrote in a letter that she grew up to be a “silly and vain young woman” but that she “had plenty of time to mend.”

Susan was not left behind.  She chose not to be present in The Last Battle.  To deny her that choice robs her of her own agency, her own right to make bad choices and deal with consequences.

As for the accusations of sexism, I will grant that Lewis was not perfect in terms of gender.  There are reams and reams of problems in the Cosmic Trilogy (for as much as I love them) and my final senior thesis dealt with three of Lewis’ worst short stories.  (In terms of gender, that is.)  And while I would never dare to call the Narnian chronicles the Holy Grail of “Unproblematic”, I think the accusations of sexism are unfair.

I strongly, strongly dispute the idea that the “lipsticks and nylons” line in The Last Battle was sexist.  Susan’s fatal flaws were her trying to “act grown up”, not her being sexually active or femininely vain.

The first time we meet her, in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, her very first lines show her “trying to act grown up”.

“We’ve fallen on our feet and no mistake,” said Peter. “This is going to be perfectly splendid. That old chap will let us do anything we like.”

“I think he’s an old dear,” said Susan.

“O, come off it!” said Edmund, who was tired and pretending not to be tired, which always made him bad-tempered. “Don’t go on talking like that.”

“Like what?” said Susan; “and anyway, it’s time you were in bed.”

“Trying to talk like Mother,” said Edmund. “And who are you to say when I’m to go to bed? Go to bed yourself.”

This expands into a literal arc for Susan and foreshadows her exclusion from the final Chronicle.  We see this in the next novel, Prince Caspian.

In Prince Caspian, Lucy attempts to convince her siblings that she has seen Aslan and that Aslan wants them to follow Him.  None of the Pevensies are able to see him so they doubt Lucy, choosing to make their own decisions—particularly Susan.

The first time Lucy sees Aslan, the others outvote her and proceed a different route.  The second time, Lucy announces she will be following Aslan whether they come or not.  Susan insists Lucy was dreaming and progressively gets nastier as they follow her.

Susan was the worst. “Suppose I started behaving like Lucy,” She said. “I might threaten to stay here whether the rest of you went on or not. I jolly well think I shall.”

But as they walk, all of the Pevensies begin to see Aslan.  Susan sees him last.  And then:

“Lucy,” said Susan in a very small voice.

“Yes?” said Lucy.

“I see him now. I’m sorry.”

“That’s all right.”

“But I’ve been far worse than you know. I really believed it was him—he, I mean—yesterday. When he warned us not to go down to the fir wood. And I really believed it was him tonight, when you woke us up. I mean, deep down inside. Or I could have, if I’d let myself. But I just wanted to get out of the woods and—and—oh, I don’t know. And whatever am I to say to him?”

These lines are key to Susan’s entire characterization.  What’s more, this entire scene foreshadows exactly what happens to Susan in The Last Battle.  It’s not about Lewis being afraid of female sexuality (he wasn’t, I point to Joy Davidman’s personal and explicit letters about their married life as evidence), it’s about Susan “trying to act grown up”.  A form of superiority, of pride—something Lewis himself struggled with all his life. Lewis said,

“When I was ten, I read fairytales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

This is a particular theme of Lewis’ we encounter in his works time and time again.  People acting “too grown up”.  We certainly can be bothered by Susan’s exclusion from the final chapter.  After all, she is my favorite character.  And there’s something to be said about the fact that by the end of the Chronicle, she has lost her entire family and is left alone in the world.  But this was not a “punishment” for going to parties or wearing lipstick or having sex.  The invitations and lipstick (and perhaps the sex) were secondary to the bigger flaw—Susan’s pride and her mocking her siblings for playing with childish things.

This is not to say that Lewis was a perfect feminist and that there are zero problems with his female characters.  What I would give for someone to chat with me about Jane Studdock or the Green Lady.  How I hunger for a complicated, nuanced debate about Orual.  But it always comes back to Susan.

Particularly annoying because the hyperfocus on Susan tends to ignore the other dynamic and interesting female characters in the Narnian chronicles such as Lucy, Jill, Polly, and Aravis.

But that’s how we solve the problem of Susan.  By adding more feminist readings of his work.  Once we get past this Susan stumbling block, we can really start complicating the discussions.   

Kat Coffin (@KatinOxford) is a part-time serious academic and full-time writer/musician, currently residing in St. Louis, Missouri.  Her academic field specializes in the works of C.S. Lewis and gender theory.  She completed her second fantasy novel last year and it is being shopped between publishers.  When she’s not writing dry twenty-page essays on the evolution of C.S. Lewis’ female characters or writing stories about the horrifying and hilarious ramifications of demon summoning, she enjoys long car rides, playing guitar, a good stout, and tearing her hair out over politics.  She is in the process of applying to several programs for her PhD and is a contributing author on Fellowship & Fairydust. Kat blogs at:

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Affirming Creation in the Lord of the Rings #earthday

Perhaps it isn’t that surprising that J.R.R. Tolkien’s books are so environmentally sensitive. Like Sam Gamgee, Tolkien loved things that grow and good tilled earth. He loved walks–long walks beyond his garden through English towns and villages and vast, untouched countrysides. His Middle Earth writings are layered with a rich and expansive architecture of nature.

Perhaps his books are so environmentally rich because he saw the results of the industrial revolution first hand. In his mind, WWI, with its crush of men like bags of bones scattered upon a pulverized Europe, was the natural end of an absolute human commitment to bend Nature to the will of economy and progress. In France, Tolkien saw only black mud stained with blood, and he felt that rapid urbanization and industrialization would lead to about the same result.

What’s so surprising about Tolkien’s love for creation, however, is how very prophetic it is. His creation care is not merely about the love of growing things, but about a sensitive, living balance between all living things. Legolas laments that,

“No other folk make such a trampling…. It seems their delight to slash and beat down growing things that are not even in their way.”

And it is Treebeard the Ent who divines what Saruman’s real purpose is:

“I think that I now understand what he is up to. He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment. And now it is clear that he is a black traitor.”

Saruman is a traitor because he has turned from a caretaker of creation to its overlord. In the end, all the industry of Man cannot withstand the equilibrium of the nature he intends to bend to his will. It is not merely magic and cunning and the force of men that tips the balance of the war on two fronts in The Two Towers. It is nature taking up the battle that changes everything.

It is a lesson that we might do well to remember.

Posted in Fictional Worlds, Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

C.S. Lewis’ 1st SciFi Fan Letters, from Evelyn Underhill and Roger Lancelyn Green

As part of an occasional feature I call “Throwback Thursday,” I want to roll back the calendar almost six years, to my early days as a blogger. “Throwback Thursday” is where I find a blog post from the past–raiding either my own vault or someone else’s–and throw it back out into the digital world. This might be an idea or book that is now relevant again, or a concept I’d like to think about more, or even “an oldie but a goodie” that I think needs a bit of spin time.

I am reprinting this piece, in part, for self-abuse. I have lost fewer pounds and published fewer globe-shattering pieces than I would have wished in the years between. But I think this piece, though humorous, has a kind of nice point worth repeating. I have had “fan letters” since then, I suppose. I’ve also had trolls and salesmen and, at least once, what must have been a late-night drunk text from a reader. Not everything leads to a life change, but there may be a serendipity of correspondence beyond what our immediate eyes can see.

being-fat-and-runningI have received two fan letters in my writing life thus far (in 2013). I know! Impressive, isn’t it?

I had published a little piece called “On Being Fat and Running” in Geez, a socially-engaged Christian magazine in the tradition of Adbusters. Within a few months, the article got picked up by the Utne Reader, so that my awkward reflections were no longer in the niche Geez market, but were now available to the hundreds of thousands Utne readers. I hit the big time, though I wish it had happened with a less personal, more impressive piece.

The piece caught people’s attention, which was great. I often get personal notes on my writing–the “good job!” kind of digital pat on the back. But this time I got two letters from complete strangers. I’ve got fans! Two of them.

The first fan effused over my work, how personal and well-written and courageous it was. Then she asked me how I got my start in writing and what she might do to further her own writing career. I read the email, and then laughed out loud. What was I supposed to say to her? It was a fluke! I wrote this piece, sent it out on a whim, and then it spun out. What could I tell her?

I told her the truth, and we began a great email discussion about writing resources. She taught me more than I taught her, I am sure.

That was fan #1. Fan #2 told me how great my work was, how courageous I was, and then told me about an absolutely free program on how I can lose weight in only three months.

Well, that’s it, isn’t it?

The fan letters took me by surprise (moreso the first one than the second). I wasn’t expecting any real response, and have come to hate email so much that I certainly didn’t expect anything good to pop out of that inbox.

But fan letters can lead to great things. C.S. out of the silent planet by c.s. lewis 2003Lewis wrote one to Charles Williams over his book, The Place of the Lion, just as Williams was writing to Lewis to congratulate him for his Allegory of Love. The mutual fan letters nearly crossed in the mail and began a lifelong friendship of ideas and stories.

In 1938, Lewis shifted dramatically in his career track. He published a short Science Fiction book, Out of the Silent Planet. As I argue elsewhere, this simple, creative space fantasy is quite a complex theological fiction–a philosophical novel that became widely read and widely reviewed.

As it turns out, most of the reviewers missed the theological or philosophical elements. In response to a fan letter by Sr. Penelope–an Anglican nun who becomes important to Lewis’ career and spiritual life–Lewis jokes that out of sixty reviews, only two picked up some of the key elements which he laced within the pages.

The fan letters from Sr. Penelope and Charles Williams were not the only influential ones. Quickly after he published Out of the Silent Planet, he received two important fan letters.

The first is from Evelyn Underhill, an important British religious writer, whose 1911 book, Mysticism, was phenomenally popular. She read Out of the Silent Planet and sent Lewis a note of thanks, part of which Walter Hooper records in The Collected Letters, vol. 2:

‘May I thank you for the very great pleasure which your remarkable book “Out of the Silent Planet” has given me? It is so seldom that one comes across a writer of sufficient imaginative power to give one a new slant on reality: & this is just what you seem to me to have achieved. And what is more, you have not done it in a solemn & oppressive way but with a delightful combination of beauty, humour & deep seriousness. I enjoyed every bit of it, in spite of starting with a decided prejudice against “voyages to Mars”. I wish you had felt able to report the conversation in which Ransom explained the Christian mysteries to the eldil, but I suppose that would be too much to ask. We should be content with the fact that you have turned “empty space” into heaven!’ (Bodleian Library, MS. Eng. c. 6825, fol. 68)

Lewis was evidently pleased by the letter:

Oct 29th 1938
Dear Madam
Your letter is one of the most surprising and, in a way, alarming honours I have ever had. I have not been for very long a believer and have hitherto regarded the great mystical writers as a man in the foothills regards the glaciers and precipices: to find myself noticed from regions which I scarcely feel qualified to notice is really quite overwhelming. In trying to thank you, I find myself regretting that we have given such an ugly meaning to the word ‘Condescension’ which ought to have remained a beautiful name for a beautiful action.
I am glad you mentioned the substitution of heaven for space as that is my favourite idea in the book. Unhappily I have since learned that it is also the idea which most betrays my scientific ignorance: I have since learned that the rays in interplanetary space, so far from being beneficial, would be mortal to us. However, that, no doubt, is true of Heaven in other senses as well!
Again thanking you very much,
Yours very truly,
C.S. Lewis

This correspondence would be long remembered by Lewis. In response to a later letter by Underhill (Jan 16th, 1941), Lewis wrote:

“Your kind letter about the Silent Planet has not been forgotten and is not likely to be. It was one of the high lights of my literary life.”

Roger Lancelyn Green Robin HoodAnother lifelong friend was made through a fan letter, though the writer was a student at Oxford and sat in Lewis’ lectures. The letter-writer, Roger Lancelyn Green, had some good knowledge about SciFi lit, and sent Lewis a note looking for more background to Out of the Silent Planet. I do not have the young student’s letter, but Lewis’ response makes it easy to read the basics of what Green was asking:

Dec. 28th 1938
Thanks for kind letter. I don’t think letters to authors in praise of their works really require apology for they always give pleasure.
You are obviously much better informed than I about this type of literature and the only one I can add to your list is Voyage to Arcturus by David Lyndsay (Methuen) wh. is out of print but a good bookseller will prob. get you a copy for about 5 to 6 shillings. It is entirely on the imaginative and not at all on the scientific wing.
What immediately spurred me to write was Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (Penguin Libr.) and an essay in J. B. S. Haldane’s Possible Worlds both of wh. seemed to take the idea of such travel seriously and to have the desperately immoral outlook wh. I try to pillory in Weston. I like the whole interplanetary idea as a mythology and simply wished to conquer for my own (Christian) pt. of view what has always hitherto been used by the opposite side. I think Wells’ 1st Men in the Moon the best of the sort I have read. I once tried a Burroughs in a magazine and disliked it. The more astronomy we know the less likely it seems that other planets are inhabited: even Mars has practically no oxygen.
I guessed who you were as soon as you mentioned the lecture. I did mention in it, I think, Kircher’s Iter Celestre, but there is no translation, and it is not v. interesting. There’s also Voltaire’s Micromégas but purely satiric.
C. S. Lewis

Roger Lancelyn Green King ArthurWe see in these letters Lewis’ increasing humility on the real physics of astronomy. But this letter was important to Lewis for deeper reasons, both literary and personal. Roger Lancelyn Green went on to be an important writer, both as a biographer of important authors–I just found on a friend’s reading table a copy of his Teller of Tales–and as a reteller of great legends like Robin Hood and King Arthur. Green did two biographies of C.S. Lewis, and was perhaps a part of the Inklings gathering at Oxford on occasion.

This letter not only initiated this literary relationship, but began a personal friendship that grew throughout the years. Green was with Lewis near the end of his life. Green and his wife vacationed in Greece with Lewis and Joy Davidman, who had married Lewis as she was dying of cancer. It is a fan letter begun well, and ended in a journey no one could have expected.

It is hard to know what I am recommending to the reader–if anything! But it is, perhaps, a hint of what a fan letter can do in an author’s life. Meanwhile, I have to send my credit card number to that free weight loss program. He is a discerning reader, after all.

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Joe Hoffman on Statistical Analysis, and the Future of the Humanities

Last week I wrote about “Some Follow-up on the Statistical Analysis of C.S. Lewis’ Letters.” I posted it as a preliminary, a placeholder one might say, as I can’t dive deep into the spreadsheet-lined offices of the large complex of research rooms I have in my mind. I’m just too busy.

As often happens, though, there was some follow-up by readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia. One of these is Joe Hoffman, our local neighbourhood physicist, fencing-expert, gardening, blogging, IT expert. Joe’s thoughts often cut to the bone, and his work can expand that of others (like mine here in “That Hideous Graph”). As we are thinking about digital humanities work, we often hit limitations, as he talks about here. Joe notes that:

When scientists think of a question that we don’t have enough information to answer, the next step is to figure out an experiment that will give us the other things we need to know. In humanities, going and getting more information is a lot less likely.

I wanted readers to see this follow-up because, frankly, even with the limitations of data, we could be better at thinking about experiments to consider proposals about history, biography, and the worlds of letters and literature.

But there is more. Joe’s confidence for the 20th century is, of course, higher than the 12th. But he makes an intriguing prediction about the 21st century, where data mining will make digital humanities land on a far more scientific basis.

It is a great point–and one that I was limiting myself by. It has taken me years to read all of C.S. Lewis’ archives, even though most of it is lost. Imagine if it was all on a hard drive somewhere: Every email he wrote, every draft, all his bills, all his syllabi and outlines and false-starts. Social media posts and tax forms. To do lists and editorials he chose not to send. Spotify lists and eyeglass prescriptions and instructions for growing sprouts in the window. A letter of complaint to the inventor of the catheter. And so on. The data possibilities are massive, huge.

Joe is right that there would be great data analysis possibilities, but the job of historian and biographer could become nearly impossible in the fullest sense of the task. When I ask myself, “what will the humanities be about in the future?”, I include digital humanities. But do our lives as digital natives actually negate the future of what would be the normal carrying on of the humanities tradition? Does the “data sample” of a figure’s life become so big we can no longer tell a story? Intriguing questions.

I guess I know why Terry Pratchett destroyed all his files! And yet, I have a sense of deep loss. I would love to know more.

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Some Follow-up on the Statistical Analysis of C.S. Lewis’ Letters

A few years ago I published “A Statistical Look at C.S. Lewis’ Letter Writing,” which is exactly what it sounds like. When I am not setting up lunch dates with Taylor Swift and hitting the books, I like to do a little nerd-number work. I just love spreadsheets, frankly. Besides the dizzying columns of numbers and the unlimited charts they (not me) can produce, I come to discern the truth about history or words or people in the numbers. I am not a magician when it comes to this data analysis. I have a friend who can look at a financial spreadsheet that is pages in length and immediately discern all the hidden secrets of a company. Me, the columns and graphics simply help me “see” my work in new ways.

This work–the cool kids are calling it Digital Humanities–has helped me in my work with C.S. Lewis to get a deeper understanding of his history and writing project, and works as a stable line when I want to suggest an experiment where we challenge what scholars assume (like here, where I want us to rethink the Narnia creation story). As C.S. Lewis is a pretty dynamic figure of the past, and as he wrote in a huge diversity of ways and about many different things, I want us to be pretty demanding about the evidence for thinking about him in new ways. Some data work can help with that.

Hence the statistical analyses of letters. I did that work pretty quickly, and admitted back when I published this in the heady of 2013 that it was provisional. It didn’t change the world According to blog stats more people commented upon the piece than actually read it. But I still have the charts I made on my wall to give me visual clues about the periods of Lewis’ life.

Recently, two pieces have emerged that works as a correction of my stats work in Lewis letters.

The first comes from a blogger named “klai.” I think “klai” is Dr. Samuli Kaislaniemi of the University of Helsinki, based on this previously unpublished letter by J.R.R. Tolkien to Arthur Ransome, which is pretty cool. A pingback popped up in my feed this week and I followed it back to this very intriguing blog-response to my work: “Counting correspondence, listing letters.” There kali spends a few lines offering a critique of my approach to letter counting. This is not a slam piece, but kali simply wants to use my work (which he is appreciative of) to test out our theory about these sorts of things. In particular, in offering an analysis of the 3,274 letters in three-volume letter collection by Walter Hooper, I am not giving a full picture. Instead, what I am looking at could be:

  1. the actual number of letters written by a writer during their lifetime; or
  2. a subset of (1), being the number of letters which survive; or
  3. a subset of (2), being the number of letters which we (or the editors, rather) know about.

I do warn the reader that I am only doing #3, but kali just puts this so much better. I’m not sure that #1 or #2 is ever possible in historical studies, so we are always dealing with #3. But it is worth noting for kali wants to know to what extent the extant letters in the collection represent the original letter-writing project of Lewis. Dr. kali then goes on to do some work with Tolkien’s letter collection. This blog is actually four years old, and I’m surprised I never saw it before, so I’m linking it now.

The second piece of work is by Henry Hyunsuk Kim, Associate Professor of Sociology at Wheaton College. Dr. Kim has recently produced an article in VII: Journal of the Marion E. Wade Center,C.S. Lewis: An Exploration through His Letters.” Though the article title is unremarkable, the work is worthy of note. Here is his abstract:

The impact of C.S. Lewis on literature, media, and theology has reached unparalleled status within certain Christian circles. Yet, how does one actually measure “influence” or “friendship”? It is problematic, not only in trying to operationalize “influence” and “friendship” but also because Lewis was a very private person, despite his public persona. Given these challenges, this paper explores Lewis’s “influence” and “friendship” through a series of specific questions. Rather than regurgitate the vast amount of extant works concerning Lewis this paper attempts to analyze Lewis’s letters via social network analysis or SNA. This is significant because to the best of my knowledge a respective study does not exist.

SNA, or Social Network Analysis, is super cool, and the editors of VII have chosen to link the paper for free even to nonsubscribers. Dr. Kim’s thesis is pretty intriguing, and this is a data-heavy piece. He does not connect back to my work at all, but suggests that I have over-counted the letters, basing his analysis on 3,218 letters.

I don’t have time to dialogue with either of these researchers as I am busy trying to pass a PhD. I need to recount the letters, rewrite my article to include the conclusions of kali and Dr. Kim, and see if I need to adjust my mental picture of Lewis’ work. That will have to wait, but I didn’t want you to have to wait. Enjoy these pieces and have fun in the digi-nerd-word-world.



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The First Cut is the Deepest: Thoughts about Editing, the Morning After #writingwednesdays

I have just come out of a marathon editing session. I am a fairly prolific writer. This is my 890th post on A Pilgrim in Narnia, which is conservatively around 500,000 words, perhaps as much as 750,000. When I am in the mood to remind myself about my place in the universe, I remember that’s about as long as J.R.R. Tolkien‘s The Lord of the Rings, or the uncut version of Stephen King‘s The Stand, or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. To be fair, that’s also as long as Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, so that reminds me that there are worse ways to spend a half-million words than blogging.

But that’s not all. I have published at least 40 or 50 articles or book chapters, written hundreds of lectures, sermons, and devotionals, and filled a few volumes of journals. I have seven book manuscripts mouldering on my hard drive, and who knows how many false starts, shorts stories, and poems with an audience of one. I’m pretty good at creating content. I love writing.

But it is starting to dawn on me that I don’t love editing.

I always thought I was okay with this critical aspect of writing. Writing is editing, as the old truism goes. Stephen King‘s On Writing was pretty influential to me. King’s goal in editing is to cut 10% on the second draft, and I have worked on that principle for the last decade or so.

It is also a principle I try to get my students to see, and I often design a project for my grad students that is incredibly–almost impossibly–concise. I am reasonably good at producing drafts that are (mostly) error-free (except homonyms–altar/alter, peek/peak, extent/extant–and my tendency to use commas as if I am speaking; I am a public speaker, after all).  I have a decent facility or logic and a good sense of rhythm, so my writing is usually clear and sometimes evocative.

But I have had a couple of experiences that have made me think I am probably self-deluded.

The first is the nature of the feedback that I’ve gotten from the one middle-grade novel that has gotten some attention from publishers, published authors, agents, and beta readers. I’m lucky that I have gotten pretty solid feedback on a piece and have worked on it for a few years. But last summer when I dug out the feedback from various sources, I noticed a trend. While all the advice and criticism is contradictory, it has a twinned theme: I have not balanced simplicity and creativity in such a way as to let my great characters be the front of the story. Really, unnecessary obscurity and a couple of plot holes have fatally tripped up my characters.

Well and good, I can attend to that. But my lesson for editing is this: Though I have gone through that novel draft a dozen times with a red pen, I don’t think I have ever really torn the draft apart. I was always revising, and not really rewriting.

My second lesson has come in my recent gruelling PhD thesis session. I have been working on this project since 2011, registering for the PhD in 2013. This is it, really. I am near the end. But I am at the point where my “prolific” writing has put me in a terrifying position. I have been writing for years, producing perhaps 200,000 words just for this project. But a thesis is a very peculiar thing. It is like writing a book, but a book written for a handful of people–supervisors and external examiners. While you are writing with a view to the book that will follow, you have to demonstrate a certain skillset as a PhD student that is subtly different than what a general public would want to see.

In writing a PhD, you have to demonstrate, essentially, that you have engaged with the college of scholars in your field to produce a coherent, credible, and original work of scholarship that demonstrates that you are among the world’s leading thinkers in your area and that your research advances the field of knowledge.

And you have to do it in a very concise form. In my case, the word count limit is 100,000 words, including footnotes. That means I have had to cut my work in half as I moved toward my first full draft.

Some of this was relatively easy to cut. I wrote what was essentially a “Prolegomena” to the study of C.S. Lewis’ thought, including the way that he approached texts, writing, and theology. That hit the trash bin first. I have spent the last few years working pretty hard on Lewis’ chronology a writer, so in my writing, I have always contextualized Lewis’ work. Those sorts of nuances had to fall out, as well as most of the biographical content.

Two other cuts were harder for me. The first was that my work was originally framed for a certain context, so that I was setting Lewis up as an aid to evangelical self-critique, to help us reshape our thought to root it more deeply in theology, scripture, and Christian practice. That might make a good book down the road, but it didn’t make a good PhD thesis (for me). I had also begun writing in such a way that my own life and experience was part of the “data” for study. This is a credible way to do research in my field (theology and literature), but I was not able to make it work in the constraints of the project.

Moving this material out–as I was constantly writing new material to respond to my supervisor’s concerns and the need of the project–left me a draft of about 135,000 words, without a conclusion. Still pretty long. In March, I added about 14,000 new words as I was cutting. As I had an April 8th draft deadline, I woke up early on April 1st for a serious 8-day writing and editing marathon. My goal was to cut 28,000 words by April 8th to provide my reader a reasonable draft for critique. I have a writing spreadsheet where I tally my word counts, but I decided to build it for this period as a word-cut tool. I gave myself word-cut goals and then tracked my progress (digress?).

I’m pleased to say that I was successful. I met almost all my daily targets and brought my draft to 108,128 words when I submitted it Monday night (technically Tuesday morning). Goodness, though, this was tough. I am exhausted as I drift back into the normal pattern of life (marking this week, back to the draft next week). I don’t really have words to describe how hard that was.

My first lesson in editing was that I am often revising rather than rewriting. My second lesson is that I am far too precious about my work, too close to it. We all know we should “kill our darlings,” but I think my attachment to my work is far deeper than this. I’m not sure I very often come to the point of seeing my work critically, as an outsider. In working on my thesis editing, where I need not just to revise but to cut whole sections and reconfigure the project to communicate a single argument where all things serve that argument, I have had to change my perspective. Word count is the limitation but not the vision of my work.

In the pressure of my current moment, I have changed from “how do I make this shorter and better?” to stepping outside and asking this question: “How could I help this thinker communicate his central thesis more concisely in a way that honours the organic connection between his prose and his propositions?” It isn’t an elegant vision statement for editing, but it is working for me. Anticipating that my readers will suggest a few pages of additions, I still have to cut the thesis by 10%, as it stands. This is my new goal for the next draft, thinking of myself not as a writer editing his work but as an editor trying to make an author shine.

I made fun of myself for blogging above, but it has probably been the most critical factor in my improvement as a writer up until the last year or so. I think that I am seeing another evolution in my writing. I hope this shift in perspective will help address the two lacunae in my writing, which are the connected realities that I tend to revise instead of rewrite and that I am too close to my work. This is not so much a technique as an entire shift in the way that I work.

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Fools of April, with Best Wishes to Netflix, Taylor Swift, and Friends of Narnia

Yes, well, it was just a joke. Monday’s “EXCLUSIVE PILGRIM IN NARNIA RELEASE” was a total farce. I am not an academic consultant to the Netflix miniseries (though I hope someone is). As far as I know, pop sensation Taylor Swift is not in talks with eOne entertainment to play Jadis, Empress of Charn and pretender to the Narnian throne. And, despite the quality that comes out of Hollywood’s adaptation sandbox from time to time, I hope there is no producer as inept as Karol Rakestraw (by the way, Lewis had an interesting media problem with another Rakestraw).

It was all a bit of April Fool’s Day fun.

The various images of Taylor Swift as the White Witch and the Narnian posters are screenshots from Swift’s video, “Out of the Woods”–which I referenced subtly in the piece. I quite like Swift as a songwriter, though I don’t love the genre she works in. She is clever as a public figure, and no doubt both compelling and cinematic. I suspect she would have chuckled if she saw the joke, but I chose not to hashtag or loop her in because, frankly, I couldn’t take the time to pacify her fans when they inevitably discovered that I had lied to them.

Taylor Swift as Queen Jadis Summons the Frost Magic

It was all a bit of fun, but I must admit that I had a bit of a serious point behind my parody. I am worried about the Netflix film series.

Unlike most readers, I am pretty comfortable with an adaptation like the Anne With an E retelling of L.M. Montgomery‘s classic. It combines a recovery of certain elements of Anne of Green Gables with an interpretation very much of the present. It is not what I would do–and certainly I would not do it with Narnia–but I can appreciate the art of the adaptation in that style.

I’m also not terribly worried that they will sex up the series–making it “cinematic” as I joked about yesterday. There will be an element of that, no doubt, and I trust the characters will be Hollywood beautiful. But I doubt that Netflix-eOne will go the boy-meets-girl route.

The Cursed Winter Rolls into Narnia

What I am worried about really comes down to four things.

First, will it be terrible? See the Prince Caspian and Voyage of the Dawn Treader films from a decade ago. And the terrible Eregon adaptation basically sunk that series.

Second, will they jump the shark, over-producing the series like mad to bend it into a particular frame? See the Hobbit films by Peter Jackson.

Third, will they attempt to understand the worldview of the author (C.S. Lewis, in case we forgot)? This is clearly not the situation with the Anne With an E series, though a case may be made that they have followed a trajectory of Montgomery’s thought into the present. As appreciative as I am of Peter Jackson’s work with The Lord of the Rings, he does not understand Tolkien at the very core of his being. It is also my worry for the new Tolkien biopic. The recent adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’A Wrinkle in Time shows how utterly they ignored the author’s worldview, though it is no doubt a beautiful film at points. But I do think they understood Virginia Woolf in The Hours and Ernest Hemingway in Hemingway and Gellhorn (two films featuring compelling work by Nicole Kidman). I wonder if there is a lesson here for Hollywood to learn about listening to voices it doesn’t understand.

Finally, I am worried that the series will be too violent for children. The Hobbit films are a good example, but you can see the adultization in adaptations like Ender’s Game. Narnia has WWII as a background and is full of violence. On a parent’s lap, in a comfy chair in a sunny room, or read by a teacher in a classroom–that’s all one kind of effect. On screen it is something quite different.

So my fun yesterday has a bit of an edge to it and my jocular interview shows the worries I have about a Narnia adaptation. Still, I think that Netflix is finally the genre that could bring us a great, full-bodied adaptation of the whole Narniad. It is not constrained by the conventions of film and could become something great.

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