Allow me a brief indulgence- in the spring of 1999, an eager eight-year-old me sits on the scratchy carpet of a small countryside primary school. Year 4. Cross-legged and crammed in between classmates and friends, we all lean forward and wait expectantly for the delivery of this Friday afternoon joy. Mrs Shobe, smiling, asks a question: “Where did we leave off last time?” Immediately, a dozen hands spring into the air, mine included. Of course, we remember, how could we forget- the magical row of shops hidden behind an unassuming brick wall. A giant, an umbrella and a boy…
Telling that story prior to May 2020, and indeed writing this article prior to that date, I may have been met with some derision from my colleagues as to the predictability of my topic. There may have been some good natured jokes made at my expense about being a cliche English teacher. However, I would have told that story with nothing but nostalgic joy. It would have been a pure, untouched memory, an engagement with a younger self who read wider and more voraciously from that point on. However, telling that story in late 2022, there is a hesitancy, and an understanding that for some members of our shared literary community, hearing positive stories related to that successful franchise brings up a deep well of pain and a feeling of exclusion. The nostalgia for me is definitely tinged with sadness- for others it’s a broken link to the past and perhaps one of their only escape routes bricked over. I don’t intend in this article to re-open the debate about this author’s comments and their intentions. Instead, I want to examine the idea of ownership that comes from a feeling of nostalgia and the inherent problems that come with this notion.
When researching for this paper, I trawled through lists of top literary works that evoked a feeling of nostalgia. There were a few recurring titles that I expected to see and some that shocked me. The Very Hungry Caterpillar for example, conjures childhood memories for almost every English speaking student, countries over. A deserving high scorer on many lists. Twilight by Stephanie Meyer was one I was not expecting to see. The public outpouring of emotion and hysteria from self-proclaimed ‘Twi-hards’ when Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart breaking up was akin to a state funeral. The power of Meyer to create a deeply relatable love story in an entirely unrelatable world was extraordinary.
Debates about Team Jacob and Team Edward pervaded even every day conversation and the release of Breaking Dawn hailed sales of 6 million copies and broke its publisher’s first day sales record. However, the ownership of the teen/vampire relationship that the fans felt bled into real life and blurred the lines between fact and fiction. Stewart received death threats and fans took to the internet in droves with threats of violence against her and her new partner. The ‘pain’ felt by the fans was being painted in a way as though they were the ones being betrayed because it had irrevocably altered and tainted the perception of Bella and Edward as soulmates that they had taken from the novel.
If we think of Literature as an escape from the everyday, especially the fantasy genre, then it is clear to see that some of this pain may have come from unresolved trauma that the readers were escaping from. The perceived ‘safe space’ of a couple destined to be together through various trials and physical boundaries, but ultimately succeeding may have given hope to a readership in need of it. Of course, this is all conjecture, but if we take this to be true for at least some of the readership then we can better understand the way in which our brains work with regards to nostalgia and ownership. The text becomes a part of our past, potentially an emotional crutch, or maybe just a happy distraction. Regardless, it becomes important and unique to each reader. For someone to then alter that story, perhaps by delving back in and making events canon that you don’t like or agree with or by an author sharing views or opinions that bring up uncomfortable questions about a text you consumed with a degree of innocence, it is reasonable to see why nostalgia can be an uncomfortable place to sit.
This leads me into another text that sits on many lists of nostalgic greatest hits: The Great Gatsby. The protagonist- Gatsby is a walking smack of nostalgia himself. Desperately trying to ‘repeat the past’ and do things right. Gatsby treats life like a video game: down to his last life before having to restart with no save point, he pursues the past in the hopes that he can drag it into his present and ultimately his future. This creates quite a neat metaphor for the re-reader. I read books to recapture not just old stories, but moments in my life where I first encountered a particular story. Within the first few pages I am not wholly in the present, but drawn back into the past. Like Eckel’s in Bradbury’s Sound of Thunder, I am treading a prescribed path in the past, never straying from the course marked out, but nevertheless tempting fate by re-visiting. However, this is the fragility of nostalgia. We think we own those memories and those emotions, but they are playing out every time we re-visit. If we have used literature as an escape, then we haven’t really dealt with what was happening before we slipped between the pages of a book. Like Eckel’s we might step off the path, or more likely be forced off the path to confront things we really wish we didn’t have to. To bring this back to Gatsby, this desperate revision of the past could be a potential minefield for the 2022 reader. Having just come out of a global pandemic, in which books were one of the few methods of travel, should we approach with caution a re-read? Or avoid altogether? There is a risk that we will be, as Nick puts it: ‘drawn back ceaselessly into the past’ and for some, this will not be a happy walk down memory lane.
I will try to end this article on a positive note. Examining the evidence above, I think it isn’t wild to suggest a revisit of Death of the Author criticism. To accept that we all ‘own’ a narrative in some way or another and that if warm feelings of nostalgia are attached, that it isn’t a crime to want that protected space for our past selves to remain just that. Protected. The official narrative may change and be perceived differently by readers now and yet to come, but this doesn’t have to have any bearing on your feelings, memories or thoughts. In short: the Hogwarts that you know, will and should always be there to welcome you home.
Written by Andrea Moon (English Teacher), NLCS Singapore