Mirrors or Windows

Which would you choose in your entertainment? When you open a book, are you hoping to see your own reflection, or would you rather have a window open up on a strange new world, through which you can watch adventures unfold?

I know what I’d want. And that’s why I write what I write. I don’t particularly want to be a gigantic orc with a penchant for cookies and mommy issues. I feel some connections in life with the woman who has to balance her blasted talent with her career, but I don’t want to be her. I don’t even want to be a wildlife biologist kidnapped to serve a life as a fairy princess. I will admit to a sneaking desire to be a starship captain, but I lack the skills for that, although I could be it’s gardener.

Mostly, though, I’m not trying to write the Real Worldtm because I don’t particularly enjoy reading long, dragging books where very little happens, and when it does, it’s ambiguous and messy and difficult. Because I want to escape from the uncertainties of all of that into a place where actions matter, conclusions can be had, and most of all, dreams are fulfilled. Not that I don’t have those in life, but it takes time. Books give me a window to stare out of a daydream while I’m waiting on the action to happen in real life. They give me a way to climb through to Elsewhere if I’m sick or hurting. A refuge.

You can’t take refuge in a mirror. You are stuck with yourself. I don’t know about most other readers, but me? I don’t think of myself as heroic. I’m bumbling through life trying to make the right decisions, looking ahead into misty futures-that-could-be and setting my steps into paths that might take me to my goals. Books give me models of heroic people who do, and who win through, and that helps me have hope that perhaps I can use their examples. We do learn from books, and I don’t mean message fiction. We can learn how to human, from books that don’t even have any human characters. If you hold up a mirror? You’re only reinforcing your own pattern. Look through a window with observant eyes?

“Literature has the potential of fostering emotional intelligence by providing vicarious emotional experiences that can help the students to gain insight into human behaviour.”

(page 239, Tashkenova)

Reading can, I believe, offer things that other forms of storytelling cannot. Which is not to say that the fine art of oral tales is not also important, because a gifted speaker (I do not mean eloquent, here. I have in mind someone who is very talented at the oral style of telling Tall Tales, and it’s a gift to be able to hear one in person.) can render a short saga in the best of ways. In the times before books, and movies, that was all you had, and we still have remnants of those days in written-down form with much of the color and lustre of them rubbed off in the process. The audience was always limited, though. Books? Can be passed down and from person to person and are in their way a deeply intimate solo experience for most readers. Save the rare ones who read aloud, but that’s another post I think.

Movies? Designed for the masses. So are books, or at least, they were. Now? Books can appeal to the most niche of audiences. From a house with few windows, we have moved into a time when there are more windows than we can possibly look through. Why would you want to stand still, staring in a mirror?

I know why. Personally, that’s not my cuppa tea. I want to learn, to grow, and mostly? Get away from myself a bit and gain some perspective while I’m escaping reality for a short while.

10 comments

  1. I don’t think it’s exactly an either/or question. I was just thinking about two Fantasy novels that had a huge impact on how I write: Half Magic by Edward Eager and The Magic Tollbooth by Norton Juster.

    Neither of them is a mirror in the sense you use above. Milo is, in some ways, similar to me, but I’d hardly say he was just like me.

    In another sense, though, the children in those stories are very much like me, because they are all very human. They are fallible, absorbed with their own concerns, not really paying attention to the things around them until something extraordinary happens. And despite the fact that both novels were published before I was born, I can relate to their struggles to understand and cope with a world that has suddenly become much stranger and more complicated.

    And I think that children today would relate to them in the same way.

    To my way of thinking, the choice isn’t between windows and mirrors, but a question of what to mirror, and what to bring in from outside. I think the most powerful fiction transports the familiar into the strange. From Half Magic I learned that actions have consequences and that power has a price, and while I never had a magic coin that grants wishes (even halfway) I have had to deal with careless choices coming back to haunt me. I’ve never been to Digitopolis or Dictionopolis, but the lesson of the universal applicability of reason that Milo learned has served me well in my more mundane travels.

    The problem that I have with “representation” in fiction is that it focuses on externalities, and very shallow ones at that. One doesn’t have to be from Kansas to feel for Dorothy, and one doesn’t have to live in the moon to admire Manuel Davis O’Kelly.

    1. The problem that I have with “representation” in fiction is that it focuses on externalities, and very shallow ones at that.

      Plus, such “representation” often show a very distorted view of what’s being represented.

      For example, minorities are always being oppressed by the “whites”. 😦

      1. I sort of flipped that on its ear with my nonhumans… the losers in the (most recent) civil war were also the previous oppressors, and their immediate heirs (who are still a nuisance). They could pass for the underdogs, til you get to know them better.

  2. Books are the closest we’ll ever come to telepathy. They’re the taste of someone else’s thoughts.
    Which is why I don’t read some books because I don’t care for the pornography of violence or being told that some groups of people are mere NPC’s and so have no right to their own hopes and dreams. I have a low enough opinion of humanity as it is.
    I want a door to somewhere wonderful and different, but also something that’s grounded in possibility.
    That is, if I walk around the corner the *right* way, I’ll be someplace else. A good story lets me do that.

  3. Most functional human beings don’t want to read books that are about people exactly like them (at least partially because they’re aware of their character flaws, and know what kind of problems they can cause.)
    However, they also don’t want to read books where people like them, especially in terms of their values and culture, are spit upon by the author, or where they can’t relate at all to any of the characters.

    Fortunately, there’s a lot of space between these extremes, and lots of different kinds of people.

  4. When I’m reading fiction, I want to see interesting and intelligent people confronting a challenge, which gets resolved. To say it’s a mirror would mean claiming to be interesting and intelligent enough to solve the issue — and I don’t see making that claim. Although I will certainly claim to know interesting and intelligent people, and can, perhaps, see some of their characteristics in the characters. But, particularly in SFF fiction, there exists one or more elements that I could not have seen in a mirror — because they’re the elements involved in making something genre fiction in the first place.

    So I’d say it’s a part-silvered window. I can see things that I have never seen before, happening to people I’ve never met. But the story still reflects pieces of people I know in a world I know — even if they’re different in many ways.

    And they all show me what it is to be human — even if they aren’t. The author, in order to make the characters speak to me, needs a thread of humanity that I can see, and study.

    (It’s harder when the author is working with transcendence — a Mentor of Arisia, or an Elrond, must be both something I can somehow understand some aspect of, and something I can’t ever understand. It’s hard to do well, and easy to fail.)

  5. I want to go for a walk with someone. I think that’s not a mirror or window but more like the door Teresa above mentioned. I tried reading Mill on the Floss because it was a Harvard Classic but after a bit it was so dreadful to spend any time with the characters that I read the end and was glad the heroine was dead. The book wasn’t a mirror or door for me and if it was a window I want to keep it shut!

  6. Windows and escapism. There are books I reread because the good and evil is clear and I am looking for clear and refreshing in the middle of grey and muddled and complex. I like to think I would act/react as do the heroes and heroines in books. I also tend to put myself in the story and daydream conversations I’d have with the characters. So, yeah. Totally escapism.

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