Masterful by Logospilgrim

Masterful:  Severus Snape, A Jar of Cockroaches, and Me by Logospilgrim, published January 28, 2020.  Order from Lulu.com, $18.50.  Also available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.


Stories change according to who’s doing the reading.

The character of Snape is certainly not for everybody.  Is he irredeemable?  Brave?  Irrelevant?  A source of strength?

As Logospilgrim says in her new book, Masterful, “Those who approach him will interpret his story based on how they’re writing and interpreting their own story.”

Logospilgrim is not trying to persuade anybody to see Snape differently.  In this searing meditation, she is only demonstrating how this process worked for her:  how recognizing the self in a fictional character can anchor people through traumatic upheavals.  As Logospilgrim notes, Snape was able to leave behind his father, who shouted at his mother, as well as fight the influence of a later father figure, Voldemort, who killed another mother.  Identifying with the character of Snape strengthened Logospilgrim as she freed herself from the influences of a violent father and repressive religions.

When we first meet Snape in Sorcerer’s Stone, we are told that his eyes “made you think of dark tunnels.”

Logospilgrim asks:

Who knows what drives Severus Snape, the man who doesn’t wear his heart upon his sleeve, and at the same time, does?

Those who have gone through dark tunnels.

We know what’s on the other side, the uneven side, the third side.

We are the third side.

The third side is home to those who have known or caused damage and then, taking a second chance, consciously fought the damage and walked away changed.

Snape is on the third side.  He betrayed the Potters to Voldemort and then changed allegiance, and after that, he was able to reverse Dark Magic.

Dumbledore is on the third side.  He colluded with fascism and then fought it, and after that, he was able to reverse Dark Magic.

Harry is on the third side.  He cast Unforgivables, he gave his life for others, and he returned for others, giving him mastery of the Elder Wand.

Draco, too, is on the third side.  He passed through the barrier that required a Dark Mark with intent to kill Dumbledore, and under Snape’s guidance, he passed back out through that barrier again, giving him, too, mastery of the Elder Wand.

Most people won’t ever need to be on the third side.  Not everyone has occasion to know damage so intimately, and of those, not everyone is able to become a changed person and walk away.  It’s not necessarily better to have this knowledge; life is certainly less traumatic if you’ve never been in a position to need it.  But those who haven’t been through it may not know to trust those who have.

In Half-Blood Prince, after overhearing Dumbledore charging Harry with the task of getting a guilty memory from Slughorn that has caused enormous damage, the portrait of Phineas Nigellus Black says:

“I can’t see why the boy should be able to do it better than you, Dumbledore.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to, Phineas,” replied Dumbledore, and Fawkes gave another low, musical cry.

The cry of the phoenix heralds second chances.  Dumbledore is acknowledging that Phineas Nigellus Black doesn’t understand because he has never caused and then regretted as much damage as Dumbledore has.

Logospilgrim, noting the lack of trust that many feel toward Snape, observes, “The one who changes is immoral.”  Snape would have been easier to comprehend if he’d remained either for or against the Death Eaters, rather than both and then neither.  Dumbledore, too, comes in for a great deal of mistrust from readers because his changes make him difficult to know.

Harry, though, knew and trusted both, once he returned to life and joined the third side himself.  He honored this knowledge when he named a child after Albus and Severus.

Logospilgrim says of Snape, “Who else would have the strength to withstand the hatred that would rain down on him” after Dumbledore trusted Snape to kill him?  If you have ever endured hatred while fighting to protect yourself or others, Snape might be a useful character for you.  You might recognize yourself in Logospilgrim’s book.

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women: In praise of genre fiction

Warning:  Spoilers for the film.

Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women speaks from the exact moment that some of us are in, American female-identified writers 150 years after Louisa May Alcott struck it rich with this book. With a deliberate hand, Gerwig amplifies or inserts elements she considers important, and outright changes what does not serve her vision.

To understand this version, it works best to know that, like Jo March, Louisa May Alcott wrote pseudonymous thrillers to support her parents and sisters.  These lurid “sensation stories” are well-crafted, fun, and readable, even today.  They were basically genre fiction, unrepentantly trashy, and would have been considered low-status for that reason, even if written by a man.  As a woman writer, Alcott kept them her secret in a way that feels a bit similar to contemporary fandom writers putting their expertly written dark or kinky fic on Archive of Our Own, heavily tagged and protected by a pseudonym from judgmental employers or family.

Unlike fanfic, though, Alcott’s stories were written for money.  Her Transcendentalist father, Bronson Alcott, was worse than useless at providing for his wife and daughters.  The stories were an outlet for Alcott’s preferred style of writing, adventurous rather than moralizing.  Possibly, the need to compensate for her father’s failures helped to overcome whatever qualms Alcott may have felt about writing unladylike pulp that would certainly not have appealed to family friends such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne.

In the book Little Women, Jo’s friend Professor Bhaer disapproves of her stories, she stops writing them, and she feels more wholesome after, grateful for his moral guidance.  In this film, Jo also stops writing, but she rejects Bhaer’s disapproval — an original change by Gerwig.  The film shows that Jo had made the stories “spicier” at the urging of her publisher, who maintained that “spice” would sell:  she was writing to market.  At the end of the film, when Jo brings her manuscript of Little Women to the same publisher, he tells her that the heroine must marry because romance sells, and “the right ending is the one that sells.”  But he’s reluctant to publish her story for young readers in the first place; he wants more sensation stories, believing that’s what sells.

The joke ends up being on him:  Little Women becomes, of course, a titanic bestseller.

Famously, Alcott didn’t enjoy writing Little Women or other stories for girls and resented being pushed into writing sequels by a clamoring public.  She didn’t mask this sentiment, either; at the end of her sequel Jo’s Boys, she demolished the fourth wall with an earthquake in which she declared that the ground opened up and swallowed all the characters.  Then, with a resigned tone, she amended that ending to tell the reader that every character knew perfect happiness for the rest of their lives.  That was the ending that would sell.  The whole purpose was to sell.

Greta Gerwig’s film is arguing that for Louisa May Alcott, who didn’t want to marry off Jo or write books for girls at all, Little Women was exactly the kind of mercenary, morally suspect commercial fiction that Professor Bhaer judged Jo March for writing.

This is not to put down Alcott’s classic, which conveys simple truths with undeniably good writing.  This is to elevate sensational commercial and genre fiction to the same level as Little Women.  And, even more delightfully, to grant to the genre of YA, young adult fiction, the same respect in the publishing world as thrillers written for men.  After all, it sells.

I didn’t like, at first, that Gerwig’s Professor Bhaer is youngish and good-looking instead of older, clumsy, and rumpled, as he is in the book.  But when I understood where the movie was going with this character, I appreciated the change:  he looks the part of the romantic interest to everyone but Jo, who is confused when everyone expects her to be swooning for him.  Then, as writer Jo compromises with her publisher and agrees to write a romantic ending for her heroine, the film dramatizes her proposed edit with an imagined, sped-up lovers’ scene between Jo and Professor Bhaer that hits all the romantic tropes — and here, again, the movie does something I didn’t expect.  It refuses to mock this contrived ending.  The swelling romantic music never tips over into irony.  The movie lets you enjoy the romance.  If you wanted this ending for Jo, the movie will not shame you.

Gerwig’s Laurie breaks with tradition in a different way:  at last, a film Laurie as real as the book original.  Mercurial, beautiful and odd-looking at once, charming to balance his irresponsible streak.  In perhaps the most of-the-moment decision of all, this film simultaneously introduces no hint that Jo might be a lesbian and leaves the path completely clear for viewers inclined to take that direction.  She wants to marry Meg, but that’s not new; that’s canon.  When she rejects her adored Laurie as a lover, she cries out that she can’t make herself feel that way and she doesn’t know why.  In the ensuing beat of silence, I could imagine the succinct judgments of countless queer people I know:  “Gay.”  If this resonates with you, check out Malinda Lo’s take on gay Jo.

In this and many other ways, Gerwig’s film reminds us:  Little Women is fiction.  It was fiction based on what the author thought would sell at the time.  If we want to, we can change it; Alcott would, if she were alive, so she could sell us the story again.  The right ending is the one that sells.  So if your Amy was in love with Laurie from the beginning, let it be so.  If your Marmee can tell Papa she is angry with him to his face, well, it’s back in style for women to acknowledge anger aloud.  If love-starved Laurie entering the March home looks like Harry Potter’s first trip to the Burrow, go ahead and write that crossover.

Jo March got the idea to write sensation stories after seeing some by a “Mrs. S.L.A.N.G. Northbury.”  What a fantastic name for a muse and foremother.  If you, too, are someone who writes both YA and scandalous stories published under pseudonyms, give a cheer for Northbury, Jo March, and Louisa May Alcott, and may your writing sell as well as theirs.

Watching Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Broadway

My 14-year-old child and I were fortunate enough to get tickets to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Broadway on Wednesday, August 15, 2018.  Several members of the original London cast performed, including Anthony Boyle’s career-making turn as Scorpius Malfoy and Noma Dumezweni as the first, but not the last, black Hermione.

The cast’s chemistry and timing were exceptional.  Many viewers have reported preferring the experience of watching the stage play over reading the script, since the story is made to be shown onstage rather than read and imagined.  I agreed with this take in several instances:  Ron, who comes off as a buffoon on the page, was more grounded onstage.  The tenderness between Ron and Hermione was more evident.  I could see some chemistry between Scorpius and Rose, whereas on the page, it feels flat to me.  Hermione’s towering ill temper as the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher is a home run.

The visuals are stunning.  The dementors are beautiful, even if frightening.  The classic gold and black glow of Dumbledore’s portrait evokes just the right majesty.  And if any costume makers feel like making me a version of Hermione’s costume with that lustrous purple pleated skirt, I’m all for it.

I may be remembering this wrong, but I think when I saw the play in London last August, Scorpius and Albus faced away from the audience when catching their first glimpse of Hogwarts from the forest, so that we shared their perspective.  On Wednesday, I found it striking when Scorpius and Albus faced forward while struck speechless by Hogwarts, unable to deny its beauty even though they had both suffered there.  They looked into the audience and marveled.  We were Hogwarts.  They were looking at us.  All of us watching them, rapt:  we were the magic.  That gave me chills.

My favorite revelation was watching Scorpius, Albus, and Delphi turn themselves into Harry, Ron, and Hermione for the scene with the bookcase.  It had been a thrilling scene to read in the script, but watching it onstage confronted me powerfully with just how badly Albus must have wanted to know how it felt to be his father.  Nothing in Albus’s life has the glamour or daring of the tales of his father’s adolescence, and he and Scorpius think of themselves as losers who mess things up.  But if they pretend to be Harry and friends, they can magic themselves into different people who are accustomed to nonstop adventures and quests.  There’s so much longing in their Polyjuice transformation.

Is it worth the trouble and expense to see Cursed Child?  If you’re a Harry Potter fan, yes.  Even if you hate the script or the plot.  The magic works.  You’ll feel it.