This collection of more than twenty-five critical essays, speeches, and biographical pieces chosen by Diana Wynne Jones before her death in 2011 is essential reading for the author’s many fans and for students and teachers of the fantasy genre and creative writing in general. The volume includes insightful literary criticism alongside autobiographical anecdotes, revelations about the origins of the author’s books, and reflections about the life of an author and the value of writing for young people.
I find it regrettable that I hadn’t read more of Diana Wynne Jones’ novels before reading Reflections: On the Magic of Writing. I’m a fan of hers, but perhaps not that good at being one. I’ve read Howl’s Moving Castle twice — which I find superior to the Studio Ghibli film — and about half of the sequel Castle in the Air, which I did not finish for reasons separate from the book itself. I’m also familiar with her book The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land, which I love for its jabs against the clichés and overused tropes found in the Fantasy genre. It’s a small amount of her work, but her writing always drew me in and I got a good sense of her style. This is what inspired me to pick up this collection, which I came across in a Dollar Tree of all places.
Going in I didn’t fully realize or appreciate just how big her bibliography is. There are a number of books she repeatedly references in her various speeches and essays, such as Eight Days of Luke and Fire and Hemlock, that I wish I had more intimate knowledge of to appreciate the points being made. Despite this, she still does a good job of contextualizing each reference, so by no means was I ever lost. You could go into this book without having read any of her novels and still find value in it.
The collection brings together writings from throughout her life, as a speaker, presenter, and contributor to publications. Some entries are essays that are many pages long, while others are letters or articles that span only a couple. There is a raw quality to this, in that we get these more or less as they were presented/published, rather than cultivated specifically for this book. This did have its drawbacks, however, as there are numerous personal anecdotes and examples that are repeatedly brought up in different essays and speeches that made the reading too repetitive at times. For what it’s worth this also cemented these facts into my brain, but it got tiresome as familiar ground got tread upon a number of times. It made getting through this book more of a chore than I would have liked.
Her insight into the experience of writing, understanding her audience, responsibility, and the workings of the genre are nothing short of sagely and valuable, despite my complaints. Her essays are full of insight, but not lacking a strong personality and conversational tone. Her sense of responsibility toward the craft and her audience is respectable as well. She wrote primarily for children, after all, and while still particular about their needs, she gave them far more credit as a reading audience than even the industry did during much of her time. I come away from it having learned a little more about the craft and for that I am grateful.
Aside from her talking about writing and storytelling, there are also some entries about herself and her life, such as experiences she had on speaking tours, a rather brief yet captivating autobiographical section, or a story from her distant childhood. The short autobiography is the one exception where her reiteration on points did not feel at all repetitive. Funnily enough this was the last point many of them were brought up, yet strung all together in greater detail in this context did make them enjoyable to read over again.
Reflections: On the Magic of Writing is not a guide on how to write, per se, but contains many great insights into her experience writing, storytelling structure, world building, and peppered throughout with direct pieces of advice for young writers wanting to get started. More than this, however, it is an insight into the mind of the author, her life, quirks, and beliefs as a writer in both the creative and professional spheres. If you’re a fan of hers in anyway you owe yourself a read. Otherwise, there is still plenty of value to be found, even if, like me, you find the format of the collection more tiresome than you’d like.