Thursday, January 12, 2012

My Misconception of Mary Shelley

I had an incident of misconception yesterday. In the morning while I was riding the bus to work and reading Frankenstein, I happened to glance at the back cover of the book to discover that Shelley was apparently 18 years old when she wrote the book.

I hate to admit it, but as soon as I read this, I started to like Frankenstein less. I thought to myself, "Well, it is an excellent premise, but is the writing really that good? It's just the idea that's brilliant." And I continued to read a few more pages pointing out to myself where the writing wasn't that good. It couldn't be good, because, after all, Shelley was only 18 when she wrote it!

You know what, though? I couldn't really convince myself. The more I read the more I saw how wonderfully written it was. I enjoyed the language, the pacing, the emotions, the set up, the fear. Really, it's a good book!

The lesson reminded me that I constantly have to fight the problem of judging the writing based on the writer. If I know that someone has been writing for 20 years, I tend to go in to a story expecting it to be good. On the other hand, if I read someone's first book or first story, I'm more judgmental. Really, it's bad of me. It's a bias I wish I didn't have. Often, I'm reading something, and I actually pretend it's written by someone else just to see if it makes me feel differently about the writing. Sometimes, unfortunately, it does. (Which is why, incidentally, I really have to judge our contest entries without knowing who wrote what.)

18 comments:

  1. Wow, I had no idea she was only 18. That's good though, that you recognize what you're doing. Better that than to go through works without that realization. I don't know how we can combat that other than to just be objective all the time (which isn't always that easy). Despite knowing our own habits, we fall back into them easily if we're unwary. Great post, Davin.

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  2. Interesting point Davin. I visit YouTube and I'm schooled by some of the kids who play their instruments better as teens than I ever did. Google Hiromi (although she's much older now) and you'll see what I mean.

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  3. Interesting... But have you ever read diaries or leters written by the Average Joe back then? As a whole, I think people were much more advanced literally at a much younger age. I love reading letters written by soldiers and such. They're generally beautiful!

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  4. I also prefer not to know who (biographically) wrote a story while I'm reading it. For instance, if it's a woman writing first person as a man or vice versa, it throws me off. (One reason why I use gender neutral J.B. Chicoine when I write.)

    And I have to admit that I too scrutinize writing differently if I know it's a first book or best-selling author, but that's only in the past few years, now that I know a little more about writing than I did as simply a reader.

    In a way, I liked reading better back when I didn't know writerly stuff. How bad is that!

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  6. JB, I agree with enjoying reading more before I attempted writing. Now, I can't help but notice how authors approach dialogue, or set up that scene. Maybe, I need to read books from writers that make the tricks completely invisible.

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  7. Wow, I haven't read Frankenstein, but that's incredible that a woman so young, especially in the time she wrote it, could write something that carries forth in the way that book did. A literary landmark.

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  8. Charlie, I think what drives me even more nuts is accomplished writers who get away with all the stuff I've been told not to do! And they still pull it off! (that's just me still sorting though Rules vs Guidelines)

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  9. More and more I'm impressed by young people these days. Go young people! And I do agree that people probably made better use of the English language in general in the 1800s. What's the deal with that?

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  10. Davin: Better schooling in the olden days. Or, more precisely, there was an emphasis on classical education that's gone away.

    In my world, Dr Malasarn, you are one of the Young People. So go, you!

    I try not to learn too much about the people who write the books I read. I find that it colors the reading, and I just want the book without the author. I'm reading Chekhov's letters while reading his short stories and sometimes I read a letter he wrote and think, gosh he's a dope. But then I read a story and think, gosh he's a genius.

    When I was 18 I was a total idiot. I'm still an idiot, but not as much of one.

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  11. Not only was there no television...but Mary Shelley was also raised in a very, very literate household. Her father, Godwin, was a center for intellectuals and writers. People like Samuel Taylor Coleridge showed up for tea and stuff. It was also through her dad that she met Percy Bysshe Shelley and embarked on a life of elopement, Byron, and stuff.

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  12. Think I said 'and stuff' enough? Ah well...

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  13. It's tough to lose bias and preconceptions. Davin, you are very brave for admitting to yours, and for trying to distance yourself from them.

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  14. I am reminded of a story told by a young man who was doing consulting work. The project was a huge success and made a lot of money. To celebrate, the company owner (a middle-aged man) took the young man to lunch. During conversation, the consultant's age was divulged. The next day, the consulting contract was cancelled because the company owner did not believe a person so young could possibly do consulting work, even though the young man had just made him a fortune. From then on, the young man never let his age be known. When asked, he would say, "I will be 31 on January 12th, but he would not say in what year.

    I am in a similar situation, only at the other extreme. I say, "I was 39" (like Jack Benny), but I do not say in what year, or what century.

    Concerning judging a book based upon the gender or age of the writer, I am not aware of doing that. I think I read the story at face value, but I will pay more attention to discover if I am guilty of those types of biased thoughts.

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  15. You are able to admit it therefore you are able to change it. I didn't know she was only 18! I enjoyed that book. I usually read a book with the author's gender in mind but sometimes that biases me toward the writing. I'll have to stop doing that.

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  16. Hey, you're all just damned kids as far as I'm concerned. And I use that "I'm 39" deal, too. But I usually include what anniversary of that particular birthday I'm celebrating. (Twenty sixth, if you're interested)

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  17. Davin, I adore that book, as you very well know. I knew she was 18 because I've read a biography about her (which is quite fascinating, and I highly recommend reading more about her life!). I do the same thing as you - judge writing based on the writer. However, I've been floored many times as I've critiqued manuscripts. I often know it's a first book, or that the writer has only been writing for a short while, but I've managed to keep my mind open enough to allow for the possibility of being floored. And many times, I have been. It's always a fun experience. :)

    I really need to get on those entries!

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  18. That's such an interesting observation - and its made me think more about my own bias's. I myself actually enjoy knowing who wrote what I'm reading, because I like to analyse the book against the writer in how it resembles their personality/life/experiences and such... but it doesn't affect my opinion of the writing.
    However, my bias is in the authors gender. I always prefer to stick to female authors without even noticing - I see a cover that catches my eye, read an enticing title even, and am interested by the blurb.... and then put it down if it's by a man. This isn't always the case, but I've noticed its pretty common :(

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