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Thanks everyone who attended and contributed to my recent lecture on teaching creative writing at Natur och Kultur publishers. Upwards of fifty teachers attended in person, while a dozen or so watched and chatted online from elsewhere in the country. Natur och Kultur themselves had about six people on hand –– working late to help students around the country by helping their teachers get new ideas.

My long-term goal is to improve the quality of English education in Sweden; working with creative structures is a vital part of that improvement.  If you were (or weren’t) in attendance and have questions or comments, please feel free to contact me at: kfrato@yahoo.com.

Besides trying to write better stories for young people, one of my goals here in Sweden is to improve young people’s lives through reading and writing in the classroom.  Literature was one of the main things that made my life bearable as a teenager, and luckily I had teachers who understood and encouraged that.  But I don’t see reading and writing prioritized in Swedish high schools, at least not in English classes –– often the texts are too short, the books too boring, and the teachers afraid to let their students write or share their work. Also teachers don’t understand how much English students already know.  Social media and online gaming put young people into direct contact with the language for hours a day.  They’re quite simply capable of far more than we give them credit for, and their capabilities are going to waste while we drag them through rudimentary exercises.

Over the years I’ve surveyed my students on whether –– and if so, what –– they read outside the classroom.  One trend has remained consistent: fantasy.  While I was boring them with The Great Gatsby, they were busy at home ploughing through The Lord of the Rings.  After writing a master’s thesis on the developmental function of fantasy, I finally realized that we don’t have to beat Fitzgerald into our students –– we can join them in studying Tolkien, both his literature and literary theories.

I’ll be holding a seminar on Tolkien’s literary theories for English teachers at the publishers Natur och Kultur on Karlavägen, Stockholm April 22nd at 5:00 pm. I’ll also be presenting examples of student work which use his theories to analyze other fantasy tales.

Det fiffiga med noveller är just att de är så korta och behändiga; samtidigt är kortheten novellformens nackdel. Vem orkar sätta sig in i nya karaktärer och platser, tidsepoker och idéer, när vi vet att illusionen bara kommer att vara i några få sidor? Om jag ska lägga ner det arbetet som krävs för att komma in i berättelsens värld vill jag gärna få valuta för pengar, berättelse för tankekraft. Läsning är enligt mig teater som vi med textens hjälp spelar upp i fantasin; då ska det löna sig att bygga upp pjäsens scenografi, kostymer, språkmönster, psykologi, m.m.

Därför brottas novellsamlingar med ett alldeles eget problem: att de erbjuder den lata läsaren (eller den hopplöst långsamma, som jag) flera tillfällen att sluta mitt i, och ändå känna att vi fått kläm på boken. För mig, till exempel, krävs det utomordentligt skickliga noveller om jag ska sträckläsa en samling.

Det gör jag just nu med Selene Hellströms Våra händer stickande, kliande från Lejd förlag (2011). Noveller är inte perfekta, fler känns oavslutade eller ofärdiga, andra känns opåbörjade. Som om författaren glömt berätta för sina karaktärer att det är dags att dra igång nu, och i brist på vägledning gör de precis ingenting – förutom det de alltid gjort, vilket allt som oftast räcker. Det som är perfekt är Selene Hellström sätt att leka med och utforskar perspektiv, hon använder novellformen som ett elektronmikroskop för att studerar sina berättare. Nu när jag kommit halvvägs känns det jobbigt att ha fastnat – jag hade kanske hellre läst 157 sidor av en roman i stället för dessa 20 litterära munsbitar.

Men kanske inte. Jag har själv gett ut en hel del kort-korta noveller de senast åren. Kanske just därför uppskattar jag Hellströms fina hantverk.

One of my literary heroes is George MacDonald, often credited with writing the first fantasy novel, Phantastes: A Fairie Romance for Young Men and Women (1858).  Phantastes was MacDonald’s first novel, and it’s a mess as far as novels go –– he’s crammed enough material for a whole authorship into one slim volume, has no clue about pacing, and writes in an archaic, highly poetic manner that makes for occasionally impenetrable prose.  But it’s still a masterwork of psychological exploration.

Phantastes is there-and-back or low fantasy, and employs what Tolkien what later term eucatastrophe –– the main character Anodos undergoes a beneficial death at the end of the novel, in order to return to our world.  One oddity of this proto-fantasy novel, inspired by Novalis and HC Andersen, is that the fantasy world The Fairy Land cannot be mapped.  Instead it seems to be created by Anodos himself, according to his moods and subconscious needs, as he wanders through it.

The novel also contains one of the clearest descriptions I’ve read of the mental process involved in reading fiction (also the topic of my master’s thesis from 2007).

In Chapter 11 of Phantastes, Anodos spends a few days in an abandoned library, and describes his reading experiences: “If the book was one of travels, I found myself the traveller. New lands, fresh experiences, novel customs, rose around me. I walked, I discovered, I fought, I suffered, I rejoiced in my success. Was it a history? I was the chief actor therein. I suffered my own blame; I was glad in my own praise. With a fiction it was the same. Mine was the whole story. For I took the place of the character who was most like myself, and his story was mine; until, grown weary with the life of years condensed in an hour, or arrived at my deathbed, or the end of the volume, I would awake, with a sudden bewilderment, to the consciousness of my present life, recognising the walls and roof around me, and finding I joyed or sorrowed only in a book. If the book was a poem, the words disappeared, or took the subordinate position of an accompaniment to the succession of forms and images that rose and vanished with a soundless rhythm, and a hidden rime.”

Fiction functions differently than non-fiction.  Non-fiction requires questioning; fiction requires acquiescence. We give ourselves up to the story, and disappear into it. We act it out in our minds, playing mental theater, building the stage and props ourselves. And fantasy requires us to work harder, because we can’t borrow the ones around us.