For a long time one of my favorite books on writing has been Fay Weldon’s witty Letters to Alice on first reading Jane Austin. The Alice of the title is a fictional niece who has complained to her novelist aunt about being forced to read Pride and Prejudice for a college course. She just doesn’t get the point of spending time on that book–or any other, for that matter. What follows is a series of letters in which Weldon holds forth on literature, popular culture, and writing as she attempts to persuade her niece that reading is worth while. Published in 1984, the book’s cultural references are a bit dated, but Weldon’s ruminations still resonate with me. Here’s the metaphor I promised:
“For what novelists do (I have decided, for the purposes of your conversion) is to build Houses of the Imagination, and where houses cluster together there is a city. And what a city this one is, Alice! It is the nearest we poor mortals can get to the Celestial City: it glitters and glances with life, and gossip, and colour, and fantasy: it is brilliant, it is illuminated, by day by the sun of enthusiasm and by night by the moon of inspiration. It has its towers and pinnacles, its commanding heights and its swooning depths: it has public buildings and worthy ancient monuments, which some find boring and others magnificent. It has its central districts and its suburbs, some salubrious, some seedy, some safe, some frightening. Those who founded it, who built it, house by house, are the novelists, the writers, the poets. And it is to this city that the readers come, to admire, to learn, to marvel and explore.” (pp 15-16)
p class=”MsoNormal”>Aside from her use of colons, what I like about this passage is the idea that all books are part of this city. I imagine, too, that the entrance portals are framed by children’s books, portals with plenty of “towers and pinnacles,” as well as “swooning depths.” It is the rare reader who enters the city without passing through those gates.