Reading Roald Dahl’s Matilda as a queer classic

Welcome to Vox’s weekly book link roundup, a curated selection of the internet’s best writing on books and related subjects. Here’s the best the web has to offer for the week of September 30, 2018.

For writers, there is no “us” and there is no “them”. There are only human beings with stories and silences. The job of a writer is to rehumanise those who have been dehumanised. As many who have lived through horrors have told us, including the Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel, the opposite of love, kindness or peace is not necessarily hatred and war. The opposite of love is numbness. It is indifference.

  • Also at the New Statesman, Louis Staples reads Roald Dahl’s Matilda as a queer classic:

From an early age, she is neglected by her parents, who can’t even remember how old she is and show no interest in her. Her brother is accepted, whereas her considerable intellect is left unnoticed because she is a girl. LGBT+ people often flout gender norms from an early age, from boys like me who want to take ballet lessons, wear tutus and sing Spice Girls, to girls who aren’t interested in “girly” activities. Many of us can identify with Matilda’s gifts being unappreciated because they do not conform with traditional expectations of boys and girls.

  • Mystery writer Tana French has a new book out Tuesday. At Publishers Weekly, she offers five tips for writing, and I feel compelled to strongly endorse tip No. 5:

5. Don’t be scared of ‘said’. Writers sometimes go looking for alternatives because they worry that ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ will feel repetitive if they’re used all the time, but I swear, they won’t. ‘Said’ is the default dialogue tag; readers don’t even notice it, the eye just skims over it. Anything else, on the other hand, does stick out.

  • Netflix is developing The Chronicles of Narnia into both movies and a TV series, Variety reports. Personally, while I love Narnia, I’m a little skeptical that the series’ worldbuilding will lend itself to multiple expansive explorations — it’s so clearly designed for brief little allegories! — but time will tell on this one.
  • At the Atlantic, Brian Merchant investigates the computer that wrote a novel about its road trip adventures:

What had happened, essentially, was this: The clock registered the time, which sent the data into the LSTM neural network that Goodwin had trained on one of three corpora of literature. (Each was approximately 120 megabytes, or 20 million words; one was comprised mostly of poetry, one of science fiction, and one that Goodwin describes only as “bleak” literature. “Together, they represented the voice I wanted the book to be written in,” Goodwin tells me, “one that I thought would match the terrain of our journey, its historical and literary significance. I did not want to train on Kerouac or other American road-trip material directly, as that felt like it might be cheating in a way.” Goodwin could swap them out at will.) Letter by letter, the neural net, learning from its corpus, would eke out a new sentence.

These writers are sick — dizzy, in pain — and they write of being perceived as sick, not normal, not up to code. Yet in focusing on family, work, nature, and the challenges of living, these writers have created testaments to living well, even beautifully, if imperfectly, in a society obsessed with fixing itself.

This brilliant conceit, this destabilizing presence of an enigmatic stranger in the midst of the quotidian and familiar calls into question the constituency and meaning of “ordinary life” and “ordinary behavior.” It also encourages readers—well, it encouraged this reader—to consider how they might be strangers in and to their own lives. The outsider’s self-imprisonment—or should we think of it as a piece of performance art? Or an act of rebellion?—nudges both readers and characters towards the beginnings of self-reflection and complicated kinds of learning.


Meanwhile, here’s a rundown of the week in books at Vox:

As always, you can keep up with Vox’s book coverage by visiting vox.com/books. Happy reading!