The Magic of Reading Harry Potter, or Just the Magic of Reading?

If you have been following the recent Internet buzz around Harry Potter, you are probably aware that studies suggest reading the novels will make you a better person. I’m sure it’s true. I’m never one to argue that reading will help you become more empathetic, more compassionate, and result in you becoming more aware of marginalized groups. However, much of the buzz around this study fails to acknowledge the long-standing connection between reading and empathy, quite apart from the Harry Potter books and their effect on young readers.
The study in question is “The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice,” which appeared in The Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2015. You can find the study yourself, if you have access to a university library data base. This group of researchers tested three groups of young people. They set out to test if positive identification with the main character of a particular fantasy series—that being Harry Potter—would result in higher levels of sympathy towards marginalized groups, such as immigrants, refugees, and members of the LGBTQ community. Surprise surprise—the researchers discovered that young people who positively identified with Harry felt more empathy towards stigmatized groups.
The study undeniably makes a point about three select groups of young people who read Harry Potter. And yet, I don’t entirely know what to do with it. Perhaps that’s because I’m not a social scientist. As someone who teaches literature, and someone who teaches Harry Potter on a regular basis, I’m unsurprised by the results, but I am surprised by people’s reaction. A life time of reading has shown me how reading can expand my sense of the world, particularly of people I know nothing about. More important are the interactions that can emerge out of reading-in the classroom or with other readers. Talking to one another about the books we love fosters a dialogue that can become the vehicle for marked and radical change.
Studies on the positive effects of reading are plentiful. Just Google “reading and empathy” and you will see what I mean. Does this take away from the research on Harry Potter? Not necessarily. But it does suggest some perspective is in order.
A piece in Scientific American from 2013, for example, comments on a study examining the benefits of reading literary fiction, while a 2016 article in The Atlantic discusses studies on reading and the theory of mind, which suggest reading, while beneficial, will not give you super powers.
All this to say, reading Harry Potter will help make you a better person, but so will reading C. S. Lewis, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, Alice Walker, Elizabeth Smart, rohinton Mistry, as well as a thousand others. While social media has expanded people’s spheres of contact in astonishing ways, nothing takes the place of reading, then telling someone close to you about the book that just blew your mind. As the holidays approach and you stock up on books to get you through to the New Year. Remember to come out of your quiet corner now and then to tell somebody about what you’ve discovered. Happy reading!

A Love Letter to the Rejected Writer

Dear Writer:

You’ve had another story rejected. You’ve lost track of how many times you’ve submitted this particular piece, and you’re wondering if you should bother doing it again. I’ve asked myself the same question a hundred times.
Submitting to literary journals is a disheartening process. You spend time in your room, at your kitchen table, or in coffee shops—writing, writing, writing—then you wind up your courage and fire off your submission to a journal. Days, weeks, then months pass. You try to keep yourself from obsessively checking the status of your submission online. Finally, you get an email. It’s a rejection. Then you rage, cry, or just get depressed. And you do it all over again.
The writing process is difficult enough, but the submission process comes with its own constellation of negative spirals and rabbit-holes. If you are like me, you use Submittable for most submissions to literary journals. I love Submittable. It keeps my submissions in order, and I can download a list of everything I submitted and to where. As of this month, I’ve made more than a hundred submissions since January of 2016. I haven’t submitted a hundred separate stories or essays—that would be crazy. Neither have I published a hundred pieces since I started using Submittable. However, I’ve submitted individual pieces as many as ten times to different journals.
This last September, Penmen Review, which comes out of Southern New Hampshire University, published “My sister Maddie,” a piece I wrote nearly a decade ago. Before Penmen Review picked up the story, it had been rejected by nine other journals. Often, it’s a question of the fit between the story and a particular issue or journal. Editors tell me this repeatedly. It still doesn’t help with processing a stream of rejections, especially when that piece has cost you more time and emotional energy than you give to many of your relationships.
As a rule, the rejections that find me—usually at awkward moments on the bus or in the mall—are form letters that say the same thing.

Dear William Thompson:

Thank you for submitting to our journal. We receive many submissions for each issue, but unfortunately we can’t publish everything…

I understand the point of the form letter. Editors don’t have time to comment on individual submissions. However, now and then I will get a comment from an editor that is thoughtful, encouraging, or offers a snippet of helpful feedback. I’m always grateful for such comments.

“This is quite well written, with strong atmospheric details.”
“The story is very powerful, relating the protagonist’s situation to his mother’s is very impactful. I suggest giving the protagonist a name and more description. It will make the story more visceral.”
“I found parts of this fascinating, but all the pieces didn’t fit together in a way that felt unified to me.”

Feedback is always good. You don’t have to like it; it just needs to make you think about your work from someone else’s point of view. Difficult, I realize. And rejections always carry a particular sting, no matter how many you’ve received.
I remind myself regularly that submitting as part of my work as a writer—in the way that writing this blog is part of that same work. Researching journals that might be a good fit for a particular story or essay takes time. I also try to read something a journal has published before I submit, which isn’t always possible, depending on whether or not the journal has sample pieces available on their website. I set a goal—say, eight or ten submissions a month. I keep a folder of pieces that are in circulation, and I work on pieces I can add to the circulation folder. I happen to be good at compartmentalizing my life—not such a fabulous quality in some ways, but it makes this particular process easier.
Rejection doesn’t mean your work is bad, or that no one likes it, or that you should give up any thoughts of being a writer and take a job somewhere that never reminds you of your love for the written word. Rejection means you are out there—for good or ill. No one can reject something you’ve written if you don’t submit it. And no one can accept it either. Writing is a process, but so is submitting. And both require you to put a little iron in your soul, first for the sake of finishing that story you have to write, then getting it out into the world.

Yours in Fellowship,
Bill

Dreaming of Snow

Winter arrived here in Edmonton on November 1. It does that here—one day it’s fall, cool but lovely, and the next day it’s winter, snowy and cold. Even the geese who stop here on their way south were caught unawares by the sudden change.
This happens every year, and every year many are taken by surprise at the abrupt start to the winter. People scramble to find their winter-clothes; they line up to have winter tires put back on their cars. For this season, which is sometimes fully half the calendar year, it takes longer to get ready to leave the house, and it takes longer to get anywhere. This longest season of the year has an inevitable effect on the way people think and the way they interact with their world. If you live here, you simply can’t ignore what’s happening outside your window.
A few years ago, I wrote a flash fiction piece about snow and about winter. I’ve never tried submitting the story, mostly because I didn’t think it would mean much to anyone living south of the fifty-third parallel. Nonetheless, here’s the story, Dreaming of Snow. Enjoy!

***

He dreamed. All day the snow fell heavily and deliberately, dropping down in great white flakes that gathered themselves into clinging crystalline faces that vanished as they kissed the ground. The air was thick and alive with falling snow.
He sat on the couch and watched the gathering whiteness through the window. The snow fell and fell. It obliterated the green of pines and the brown of branches. It swirled and settled, leveling the ground to an implacable plain of whiteness that steadily rose and rose.
Once, he opened the front-door. It smelled sharp and clean and cold, and the snow hissed and sighed as it jostled its way down, filling the air with its crystalline whisper and clogging coldness. He closed the door.
Back at the window, he watched as the level of whiteness crept up the side of the house. He knew he was drowning, drowning in snow and cold. It would rise to the level of the window, then it would rise even higher, and it would bury the house—and keep falling and falling. Sooner or later, he would be entombed in snow.
Eventually, he would suffocate, or perhaps the inexorable weight of the falling snow would simply crush the house with him inside. Watching the white wall creep up the window, he knew he could do nothing. There was nothing to do save remember the dream of summer that had fled forever. And as he remembered sun and leaves and the song of birds, he could see individual snowflakes pressed against the glass, flakes that formed patterns and frozen faces, faces that peered in and took no account of the heat that for now still ran throbbing through his veins in a rhythmic pulse of denial.