What is a heterotopia?

heterotopia

I have previously written about utopias, snail under the leaf settings, idylls and dystopias. I thought I had -topias covered. Then I came across the word heterotopia. What’s that, now?

Foucault uses the term “heterotopia” to describe spaces that have more layers of meaning or relationships to other places than immediately meet the eye. In general, a heterotopia is a physical representation or approximation of a utopia, or a parallel space (such as a prison) that contains undesirable bodies to make a real utopian space possible.

thanks, Wikipedia.

That last clause makes zero sense to me. The article gets more impenetrable from there.

After taking a close look at what the concept means, I’m reminded of when I was teaching. Teachers would refer to ‘the real world’ as if it were somewhere else. In ‘the real world’ people don’t get 12 weeks of holiday. In ‘the real world’ you don’t get a fixed but safe salary every two weeks. Like some sort of wild creature taking risks real world people have to run their own businesses or something. But then I had a job with public service. I noticed that people who work for the public service also talk about everyone else is if everyone else is ‘the real world’. Council workers do it, too. I now realise that teaching, like few other jobs, really is ‘the real world’. In a school you’re dealing with whatever (delight and) trouble comes through the door — family issues, medical issues, car crashes, rape, imprisonment and physical assault on top of the day-to-day actual teaching and paperwork. This feeling that everyone else is ‘the real world’ and you yourself are living in some sort of insulated bubble is quite widespread, and I wonder if any group of professionals do in fact consider themselves The Real World. I suspect even emergency department nurses are prone to this feeling, working at night when everyone else is perceived to be asleep, and on the side of the bed where you are expected to be calm and helpful rather than show your human side.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE WORD HETEROTOPIA

Heterotopia is based on the concept of utopia.

  • The Greek ‘u’  bit at the beginning of utopia means ‘not’.
  • The ‘topia’ part means ‘place’.

So if utopia means a place that is not — a place which doesn’t actually exist — heterotopia means a place that is different. Whereas the word ‘utopia’ has been around since 1516 thanks to Thomas More. The word ‘utopia’ is a bit confusing, actually, because it was based on a Greek pun. Of course, the pun got totally lost in translation. So in Thomas More’s pun, utopia meant both ‘place that is not’ and ‘good place’. (ou-topos vs. eu-topos). In modern everyday English, when we say ‘utopia’ we’re generally referring to the good place.

Heterotopias differ from these ‘good’ utopias because they allow for the inherently unpredictable nature of human contexts to disrupt this space.

The word heterotopia has only been around since 1967, thanks to Michel Foucault, who was giving a lecture to students of architecture at the time.

The sorry truth is, Foucault made this word up, explained it a bit, and then left it alone. At least he wasn’t making any puns. Maybe he confused his own self as he was explaining it. BUT he said just enough to make a lot of us want to know more, and others have said a lot since. Some have picked up the word and ran with it.

Let’s look at the concept of heterotopia from a perspective I can sink my teeth into  — children’s literature.

WHY WAS HETEROTOPIA INVENTED IN THE 20TH CENTURY?

Heterotopia is a 20th century concept because it best describes 20th century life and beyond.

In the Middle Ages there was a hierarchic ensemble of places when it came to humans here on Earth:

  1. sacred places and profane places
  2. protected places and open, exposed places
  3. urban places and rural places.

In cosmological theory, there were:

  1. the super-celestial places (as opposed to the celestial)
  2. the celestial place was in its turn opposed to the terrestrial place.

(Galileo put an end to that. Galieo’s new theories made people realise the universe was way bigger than they’d thought. They also separated ‘time’ from ‘the sacred’, but that still hasn’t happened entirely with the concept of ‘space’.)

HETEROTOPIA IN A NUTSHELL

  • Heterotopia is a ‘real world utopia’. A utopia has no real place. A utopia is a ‘perfect version’ of a real place — a society turned upside down. But heterotopias are fundamentally unreal.
  • The mirror is a kind of utopia. (It is a placeless place.) The mirror is also a kind of heterotopia as well as a utopia. The mirror does exist in the reality of your bathroom. But while the person you see in the mirror is real, but the image in the mirror is unreal. The mirror is the ultimate link between the real and the unreal. That’s why mirrors are so fictionally interesting.
  • A heterotopia, similar to a utopia, is a kind of ‘unreal’ space.
  • Time works differently in a heterotopia.
  • Heterotopias have a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable. In general, the heterotopic site is not freely accessible like a public place. Either the entry is compulsory, as in the case of entering a barracks or a prison, or else the individual has to submit to rites and purifications.
  • A heterotopia is a place that represents society, but in a distorted way which calls to mind particular idealised aspects of the culture.
  • Heterotopias attempt to encourage transition from a space of chaotic governance and leadership to a mapped, organised one.

EXAMPLES OF REAL WORLD HETEROTOPIAS AND ANALOGUES FROM CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Every culture has the concept of a heterotopia: privileged, sacred and forbidden places reserved for certain people.

Crisis Heterotopias

There are ‘crisis hetereotopias’, where you find adolescents, menstruating women (See Menstruation In Fiction), pregnant women, women in general, the elderly. We have fewer of these ‘crisis heterotopias’ in modern society. It’s considered not-nice to lock people away when we don’t want to deal with them.

retirement village heterotopia of Ponyo
The retirement village of Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo soon turns into a genuine utopia where all the old people regain use of their bodies.

We still have boarding schools and many countries have the military service for young people.

Boarding Schools

Hogwarts is a well-known example. Harry Potter’s boarding school is a heterotopia because it is both separate from but also intimately connected to the world beyond its walls. Zooming in on more specific spaces within the Harry Potter universe we have some even better examples of heterotopias:

  1. 12 Grimmauld Place, the ancestral home of the Black family, located in the Borough of Islington, London, in a Muggle neighbourhood
  2. The tent that Harry, Ron and Hermione share in book seven
  3. The Room of Requirement is a space within the place of the school proper.  Itonly appears when a person is in great need of it. The room is thought to have some degree of sentience, because it transforms itself into whatever the witch or wizard needs it to be at that moment in time, although there are some limitations. For example, it cannot create food, as that is one of the five Principal Exceptions to Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration. It is believed that the room is Unplottable, as it does not appear on the Marauder’s Map, nor do its occupants, although this could simply be because James Potter, Remus Lupin, Sirius Black, and Peter Pettigrew never found the room.

Those two spaces exist in the margins of safety and danger. There are shifts from order to disorder, from safety to danger. The idea J.K. Rowling is pushing forth is that young adults can be powerful when it comes to opposing the abuses that permeate the spaces in our own world. What the trio does in Hogwarts does not stay in Hogwarts. The teenagers go against authority, learning the limits of their own power. For this they need to operate in a fictional space which is part fantasy, part real-world.

Train And Steamships

Many children’s stories still feature steam trains even though most modern kids have never ridden one in their lives. The steam train, or the ship (offered as an example by Foucault himself) are especially good as heterotopias because they operate like alternative worlds. They are kind of like a portal in a portal fantasy, One obvious reason to linger in a portal is to give an audience the enjoyment of being transported to another world. Another reason is to make sure the audience doesn’t zone out for a moment and lose track of where they are. But there are other reasons.

See also: The Symbolism of Trains

When the fantasy portal is something like a train or a ship, this gives the writer some space and time to:

  1. Establish the logic of this new universe
  2. To subvert it
  3. To have it clash with the logic of the existing, real world universe.

(In the real world, the ship which inspired the film Pirate Radio (2009) existed in a kind of heterotopia, able to broadcast non-classical music due to floating outside the reach of the rule makers.)

steam ship heterotopia in The Arrival by Shaun Tan

Anne With An E, the Netflix miniseries based on Anne of Green Gables, also features a steamship during the episode when Anne is sent away from Prince Edward Island.

The boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea and that, from port to port, from tack to tack, from brothel to brothel, it goes as far as the colonies in search of the most precious treasures they conceal in their gardens, you will understand why the boat has not only been for our civilization, from the sixteenth century until the present, the great instrument of economic development… but has been simultaneously the greatest reserve of the imagination. The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.

— Foucault

Pirate stories set on ships are likewise heterotopic.

Honeymoon Destinations

In the past the ‘honeymoon trip’ had the purpose of removing a young woman from society so that she could lose her virginity elsewhere (out of sight, out of mind — because everyone’s always been scared of young female sexuality). So the honeymoon destination is a kind of heterotopia, without geographical markers.

The honeymoon destination is the closest real world analogue I can think of for the portal fantasy that takes a character (and her sidekick) away to a fun and fabulous land where children can eat as much as they like of whatever they like and get up to other carnivalesque mischief. After all, in children’s literature food is basically sex.

Libraries and Museums

A 20th century heterotopia. Time works differently here because in these places time never stops ‘building up and topping its own summit’.

A lot of children’s books feature libraries — probably because children’s authors are huge fans of books. For instance, A Series of Unfortunate Events contains memorable libraries.

Cinemas and Theatres

Juxtaposition is very important when it comes to the importance of a heterotopia. Cinemas and theatres are heterotopic because they are capable of juxtaposing “in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible”. There’s the audience, sitting comfortably in their chairs, juxtaposed with whatever mayhem’s going on on the screen or stage.

These are sites of temporary relaxation.

The theater brings onto the rectangle of the stage, one after the other, a whole series of places that are foreign to one another; thus it is that the cinema is a very odd rectangular room, at the end of which, on a two-dimensional screen, one sees the projection of a three-dimensional space.

Foucault

Drag queen cabarets are especially good examples of heterotopias because the men dressed as ‘women’ are not mimicking real women at all, but a particular kind of ideal woman, with exaggeratedly feminine attributes. They caricature feminine traits. What is the raison d’etre of kikis and drag queen cabarets? The kinder interpretation: Drag queens highlight the ways in which femininity is a performance. And through a misogynistic lens: by highlighting that femininity is a performance, women are seen to be performative, duplicitous and basically liars when we put on ‘masks‘ such as make-up, and dress to make our legs look longer and so on.

In children’s books there are few (if any) drag queen cabarets — this is considered adult entertainment. But we do often get a form of cross-dressing. This is most often done to disempower boys by comparing them to girls, long considered a lesser gender. This is not a form of heterotopia but a kind of gag. There is a drag performance in the movie version of Coraline — not a gender transgressive one but one performed by the two women who live together next door. (Are Miriam Forcible and April Spink cis women? I like to think they are not.)

Forcible and Spink from Coraline

Whenever a character in a story visits the cinema or the theatre and watches fiction on the stage, this might (or might not) be metafictional, depending on whether the author calls attention to the fact that, Hey, look, this character is watching a play and you’re reading a book about them watching a play.

Gardens

Perhaps the oldest example of these heterotopias that take the form of contradictory sites is the garden. We must not forget that in the Orient the garden, an astonishing creation that is now a thousand years old, had very deep and seemingly superimposed meanings. The traditional garden of the Persians was a sacred space that was supposed to bring together inside its rectangle four parts representing the four parts of the world, with a space still more sacred than the others that were like an umbilicus, the navel of the world at its center (the basin and water fountain were there); and all the vegetation of the garden was supposed to come together in this space, in this sort of microcosm. As for carpets, they were originally reproductions of gardens (the garden is a rug onto which the whole world comes to enact its symbolic perfection, and the rug is a sort of garden that can move across space). The garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world. The garden has been a sort of happy, universalizing heterotopia since the beginnings of antiquity (our modern zoological gardens spring from that source).

— — Foucault

Since heterotopias represent a society’s idealised version of reality, each culture has its own raison d’etre. Japanese gardens are all about balance, because balance is important to Japanese people. French gardens are made of straight lines whereas English gardens mimic the irregularity of nature (with the emphasis on ‘mimic’). Gardens are attempts to recreate an ideal, utopian nature.

Heterotopia is also about the side-by-side, the near and far, and simultaneity.

Botanical gardens in particular are driven by the desire to reconstitute the whole world in a walled enclosure.

The golf club is a kind of massive, over-manicured garden — another example of heterotopia. Malcolm Gladwell did an excellent podcast on American golf clubs, and how taxpayers are all paying for them even though they are accessible by very few.

Cemeteries

A cemetery is a heterotopia because the tombs form a sort of ideal town for the deceased, each placed and displayed according to social rank. Our local graveyard divides people according to religion — we have protestants on one side, Catholics on the other. The odd atheist (I assume) is over by the fence, as far as possible away from the religious folk. This represents some sort of idealised town, in which people of different/no faiths don’t have to deal with each other.

Also, a cemetery gives the illusion to its visitors that their departed relatives still have an existence and status, symbolised by the stone of their tomb. This is a simulated utopia of life after death, but it is also a representation of the real world, where things like your religion and status — as described briefly on your tombstone — actually matter.

Take the strange heterotopia of the cemetery. The cemetery is certainly a place unlike ordinary cultural spaces. It is a space that is however connected with all the sites of the city, state or society or village, etc., since each individual, each family has relatives in the cemetery. In western culture the cemetery has practically always existed. But it has undergone important changes. Until the end of the eighteenth century, the cemetery was placed at the heart of the city, next to the church. In it there was a hierarchy of possible tombs. There was the charnel house in which bodies lost the last traces of individuality, there were a few individual tombs and then there were the tombs inside the church. These latter tombs were themselves of two types, either simply tombstones with an inscription, or mausoleums with statues. This cemetery housed inside the sacred space of the church has taken on a quite different cast in modern civilizations, and curiously, it is in a time when civilization has become ‘atheistic,’ as one says very crudely, that western culture has established what is termed the cult of the dead.

Basically it was quite natural that, in a time of real belief in the resurrection of bodies and the immortality of the soul, overriding importance was not accorded to the body’s remains. On the contrary, from the moment when people are no longer sure that they have a soul or that the body will regain life, it is perhaps necessary to give much more attention to the dead body, which is ultimately the only trace of our existence in the world and in language. In any case, it is from the beginning of the nineteenth century that everyone has a right to her or his own little box for her or his own little personal decay, but on the other hand, it is only from that start of the nineteenth century that cemeteries began to be located at the outside border of cities. In correlation with the individualization of death and the bourgeois appropriation of the cemetery, there arises an obsession with death as an ‘illness.’ The dead, it is supposed, bring illnesses to the living, and it is the presence and proximity of the dead right beside the houses, next to the church, almost in the middle of the street, it is this proximity that propagates death itself. This major theme of illness spread by the contagion in the cemeteries persisted until the end of the eighteenth century, until, during the nineteenth century, the shift of cemeteries toward the suburbs was initiated. The cemeteries then came to constitute, no longer the sacred and immortal heart of the city, but the other city, where each family possesses its dark resting place.

Foucault

Cemeteries are a good example of how time is different in a heterotopia. In a cemetery humans have met with broken time — starting at the time of death.

graveyard heterotopia children literature

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Fairgrounds
[Fairgrounds are] marvelous empty sites on the outskirts of cities that teem once or twice a year with stands, displays, heteroclite objects, wrestlers, snakewomen, fortune-tellers, and so forth.

Foucault

Disney World is the ultimate real world heterotopia. The characters are really nice to visitors not because Donald Duck is best friends with every visitor but because friendliness and photo opportunities are the service parents have paid for. The place is open only to those with enough money to enter — poverty and beggars are absent. The ‘city’ itself is a miniaturised version of an idealised world. For more on Disney World as the ultimate heterotopia see this article.

Madeline and the Gypsies heterotopia of the circus
In this carnivalesque story Madeline gets stuck at the top of a ferris wheel at the heterotopia of a ferris wheel.
Malls

Although this describes Disney World it applies equally to malls:

Stephen Fjellman explains in Vinyl Leaves that the ‘magic’ of Disney World is actually a cognitive overload associated with decontextualization. ‘Cognitive overload’ simply means that the visitors’ senses are constantly overloaded by stimuli: music, stories, animatronics, cute characters, pretty buildings, rides, simulations and more. The visitor is overwhelmed and loses part of his capacity to discriminate information or think.

Philosophy Now

In  our local mall we have:

  • Booths in the middle of the ‘street’ with salespeople trying to sell you mobile phone plans, insurance and do your taxes, depending on the time of year
  • The sub-heterotopia of a children’s entertainment arena, again different depending on the time of year. Before Christmas you can pay for the simulated intimacy of a photo with Santa. During school holidays you can be tied up to bungee ropes and jump and flip up as high as the third level of the mall. For younger kids we have mechanical horses which ‘run’ if you rock them the right way.
  • Music which is different depending on the store
  • Smells — some unintended, like the chemicals coming out of the nail salon; others intentional, such as the smell of baking coming out of the gourmet bakery.
  • Lighting which highlights some features over others
  • Massive advertisements, often of semi-naked women, always young and either smiling or seductive.
  • A help desk which supposedly caters to your every need, including telling you where to find things and dealing with misplaced items, like a patient mother
  • Tiny cars with flags on the top, so toddlers can imagine the mall is a city
  • Balloons with ‘Westfield’ written on them, simulating a party atmosphere
  • Mechanical animals, which take you to an imaginary other world if you put two dollars in the slot.

While malls are the ultimate shopping heterotopia, individual shops do their best to emulate the exclusivity of their stores — the very definition of ‘brand’.

Vacation Villages

Quite recently, a new kind of temporal heterotopia has been invented: vacation villages, such as those Polynesian villages that offer a compact three weeks of primitive and eternal nudity to the inhabitants of the cities. You see, moreover, that through the two forms of heterotopias that come together here, the heterotopia of the festival and that of the eternity of accumulating time, the huts of Djerba are in a sense relatives of libraries and museums. for the rediscovery of Polynesian life abolishes time; yet the experience is just as much the,, rediscovery of time, it is as if the entire history of humanity reaching back to its origin were accessible in a sort of immediate knowledge.

Foucault

Gated Communities

Like a permanent vacation village, the gated community is a phenomenon of the 21st century. In America, the same companies running prisons are guarding gated communities.

The ‘trailer park’ or the ‘mobile home community’ is a compulsory form of gated community — made compulsory due to poverty.

Rapunzel lives in the ultimate gated community. Rapunzel is the ur-Story of any overprotected girl who has lost freedom to move around her environment due to real or perceived danger.

Harlen Coben’s novel Safe was adapted for TV, starring Michael C. Hall, Michael C. Hall’s mish-mashed, weird-ass British accent, and a gated community which may not be so safe after all.

Harlen Coben Safe gated community
Religious Spaces

There are even heterotopias that are entirely consecrated to these activities of purification -purification that is partly religious and partly hygienic, such as the hammin of the Moslems, or else purification that appears to be purely hygienic, as in Scandinavian saunas.

Foucault

In a children’s book the tree house can function as a kind of religious space, letting in only those who perform the ritual of a password (e.g. Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven). In The Three Investigators the boys have a caravan in one of their uncles’ scrapyard.

Religious Communities

The first wave of colonization in the seventeenth century, of the Puritan societies that the English had founded in America and that were absolutely perfect other places.

Jesuit colonies that were founded in South America: marvelous, absolutely regulated colonies in which human perfection was effectively achieved. The Jesuits of Paraguay established colonies in which existence was regulated at every turn. The village was laid out according to a rigorous plan around a rectangular place at the foot of which was the church; on one side, there was the school; on the other, the cemetery-, and then, in front of the church, an avenue set out that another crossed at fight angles; each family had its little cabin along these two axes and thus the sign of Christ was exactly reproduced. Christianity marked the space and geography of the American world with its fundamental sign.

The daily life of individuals was regulated, not by the whistle, but by the bell. Everyone was awakened at the same time, everyone began work at the same time; meals were at noon and five o’clock-, then came bedtime, and at midnight came what was called the marital wake-up, that is, at the chime of the churchbell, each person carried out her/his duty.

young adult novel cult as heterotopia

Thirteen-year-old Kyra has grown up in an isolated community without questioning the fact that her father has three wives and she has twenty brothers and sisters, with two more on the way. That is, without questioning them much—-if you don’t count her secret visits to the Mobile Library on Wheels to read forbidden books, or her meetings with Joshua, the boy she hopes to choose for herself instead of having a man chosen for her.

But when the Prophet decrees that she must marry her sixty-year-old uncle—-who already has six wives—-Kyra must make a desperate choice in the face of violence and her own fears of losing her family forever.

Brothels

Brothels and colonies are two extreme types of heterotopia.

Foucault

In YA fiction featuring the heterotopias of brothels we have Naked by Stacey Trombley, Dime by E.R. Frank and Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys, among others.

‘Love’ Hotels

There are others, on the contrary, that seem to be pure and simple openings, but that generally hide curious exclusions. Everyone can enter into these heterotopic sites, but in fact that is only an illusion—we think we enter where we are, by the very fact that we enter, excluded. I am thinking for example, of the famous bedrooms that existed on the great farms of Brazil and elsewhere in South America. The entry door did not lead into the central room where the family lived, and every individual or traveler who came by had the right to open this door, to enter into the bedroom and to sleep there for a night. Now these bedrooms were such that the individual who went into them never had access to the family’s quarter the visitor was absolutely the guest in transit, was not really the invited guest. This type of heterotopia, which has practically disappeared from our civilizations, could perhaps be found in the famous American motel rooms where a man goes with his car and his mistress and where illicit sex is both absolutely sheltered and absolutely hidden, kept isolated without however being allowed out in the open.

For children, a hotel doesn’t have to be a sex destination in order for it to function as a getaway.

BEAUTY PAGEANTS

I would include the world of beauty pageantry as a heterotopia. This world is explored in films such as Little Miss Sunshine, Whip It! and Dumplin.

IS HETEROTOPIA A USEFUL CONCEPT FOR TALKING ABOUT CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?

The word is probably more useful for architects than for students of literature, because it describes the function of a real world fictional place such as a Spanish garden or a games room. The truth is, every story with elements of realism features a heterotopia. Some sort of closed arena is a requirement for a story, after all.

The word is still useful for students of literature and here’s why:

[Disneyland] is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyper-real and of simulation.

—Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations (1981)

Certain kinds of stories, including many children’s stories, are likewise presented as imaginary in order to make us believe the rest is real. Yet the very existence of these stories draws attention to the fact that the ‘real world’ is pretty fucking far from ‘real’. We’re actually living in a simulcrum of reality. I’m wearing a graduation gift that is a $300 dress ring, and it looks like it might be a lot more expensive than it is. Outside I have planted natives which I hope will look like they’re self-sown, if I can get them to establish.

When The Tiger Who Came To Tea leaves the house, the young reader’s attention is drawn to the fact that their real life is bound by certain rules and expectations. Foucault considered heterotopias escapes from authoritarianism, much like the carnivalesque settings in picture books. Subsequent thinkers have expanded his original meaning. Hetereotopias can also be dystopias, in fiction as in real life.

Children’s literature in general is very concerned with truth. Middle grade fiction in particular is read at a time when children are learning not only to lie, but when it is okay to lie. The concept of heterotopia is useful when considering the difference between reality and a shiny veneer which is not genuine at all. Is this expensive boarding school your parents have sent you to really all that great? Does this teacher in charge of your welfare really have your best interests at heart? Do the ‘popular’ kids in your class have real friends, or does popularity really mean ‘social status’? Is this world created for you by adults anything like the world you’ll be thrown into once you enter adulthood?

All children — at least, all well-cared-for children — live in a heterotopia, where they are protected from certain news stories, from the full spectrum of adult sexuality, from toxic food choices and their own bad decisions. The best coming-of-age stories — not the ones solely concerned with losing one’s virginity — are at their base about a young person realising the extent to which they’ve been living inside a heterotopia, and how much they’re willing to come out of it.

Heterotopia is also a useful concept when talking about the ‘Disneyfication‘ of children’s stories. This has been going on for more than half a century, and is an interesting look into how the West thinks of childhood.

It is also useful for getting a handle on your own personal philosophy of children’s literature. To what extent are you comfortable with people/children living in multiple levels of reality? Do you think that when children read magical stories like Harry Potter this affects their real-world understanding of science? At what age should children be exposed to what? If we allow privileged child readers to remain in the heterotopia we have created for them will this affect how they identify with people less privileged than themselves?

Also, the words used to describe “non-realistic” narratives have not been specific enough. Academics were overlapping different words and using them interchangeably. This was no good. Take the word ‘fantasy’ itself. Different scholars call it a ‘genre’, a ‘style’, a ‘mode’, or a ‘narrative technique’.  Believe it or not, people have big arguments about this. When describing children’s literature in particular, anything that’s not realistic is generally called either ‘fantasy’ (for long works) or ‘fairy tale’ (for short ones). This distinction is pretty useless really. Fairy tales and fantasy may seem related at a surface level, fairy tales came out of myth and have roots in archaic society. But fantasy is definitely a product of modern times. Heterotopia can be useful when talking about concepts related to modern fantasy stories, especially those with no portal. Portal fantasy most often has just the two distinct worlds — the ‘real world’ and the ‘fantasy world’ through the looking glass or whatever. But modern fantasy often involves a multitude of ‘secondary’ worlds. Traditional fantasy is all about simplicity, stability and optimism, whereas modern fantasy can explore reality in a much more complex fashion, emphasising uncertainty and ambiguity. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is a good example of this kind of fantasy.

Perhaps it might be especially useful for talking about fabulism,  magical realism, and especially the typical modern child’s relationship with computer games. The word ‘spaces’ is often used to describe the imaginary worlds of computer games but we might use ‘heterotopia’ to be more specific.

ISLANDS

Islands in children’s literature are often considered a heterotopia — both a fantasy portal and a fantasy destination rolled into one.

PRISONS/JAILS

From a distance the prison might be an out-of-town shopping mall, Texas Homecare, Do It All and Toys ‘R’ Us. There’s a creche at the gate and a Visitors’ Centre, as it might be for Fountains Abbey or Stonehenge. Reasoning that I am a visitor myself, I big struggle across the windswept car park but when I put my head inside I find it full of visitors of a different sort, the wives and mothers (and very much the children) of the inmates, Birds of a Feather territory, I suppose. At the gate proper I’m frisked, X-rayed, my handprints taken, and am then taken through a series of barred gates and sliding doors every bit as intimidating as the institution in Silence of the Lambs.

– Alan Bennett from Untold Stories

MORE

Heterotopian Studies, an entire website

A Brief Taxonomy Of Book Titles

Here’s a secret: many, many, many titles are changed once a publisher gets hold of them. In fact, every single one of my book titles has changed, if you can believe it.

from Alison Winn Scotch, writer

Well, I will admit to thinking that if Marketing truly had their way, the title for every book would be an artless string of words broadcasting its selling appeal. The Hunger Games would be called ACTION PACKED DYSTOPIAN LOVE TRIANGLE.

– from Boxcars, Books and a Blog

taxonomy book title

Here’s what Robert McKee has to say on the subject of film titles:

To anticipate the anticipations of the audience you must master your genre and its conventions. If a film has been properly promoted, the audience arrives filled with expectancy. In the jargon of marketing pros, it’s been “positioned”. “Positioning the audience” means this: We don’t want people coming to our work cold and vague, not knowing what to expect, forcing us to spend the first twenty minutes of screentime clueing them toward the necessary story attitude. We want them to settle into their seats, warm and focused with an appetite we intend to satisfy.

Positioning of the audience is nothing new. Shakespeare didn’t call his play Hamlet; he called it The Tragedy of Hamlet. Prince of Denmark. He gave comedies titles such as Much Ado About Nothing and All’s Well That Ends Well, so that each afternoon at the Globe Theater his Elizabethan audience was psychologically set to laugh or cry

– Story

McKee then writes about the 1980s film Mikes Murder as an example of bad positioning, because the audience expected a crime plot when what they got was a coming-of-age story with Debra Winger. Although this was a good coming-of-age story, word spread that it wasn’t very good. It attracted the wrong audience.

 

HOW DO YOU CHOOSE YOUR TITLES?

We’re all choosing titles all the time. Whether it’s a blog post or a short story, for an app or an essay, or a folder for your family photos, a label for a drop file, or for making a playlist on iTunes, choosing titles is, most of the time, a non-event.

When I’m writing a short story, I usually have an outstandingly crappy title until I’ve finished. Then I put the ‘writing part’ of my brain to rest and think really, really hard only about the title. I try to see the story from a global point of view – its themes and message. For me, titles usually don’t happen ‘organically’. I really need to focus my mind and I agree with Miss Snark when she says:

It seems to me that titling is a separate skill [from writing itself].

Miss Snark

Of course, it’s easier to start with what not to do!

Writers: If you want to give your MC a certain name just so your title can be a pun using that name, don’t do it.

– @sarahlapolla

Relatedthe discomfiting trend of publishers relying on puns or clichés in book titles. And I’m sure there are plenty more oddly specific tips to be had if you’re an editor and you’ve seen them all.

Taking a random sample of books which I ‘saw’ people buy on Book Depository (no, that’s not so creepy – it’s a widget on their site), here are a few titles which must have jumped out at me at some stage. Others come from my own bookshelf and Best Of lists from last year.

TITLES WHICH INCLUDE WORDS YOU MIGHT FIND ON THE COVER OF A SUPERMARKET MAGAZINE

This kind of title promises some sort of mystery to follow, a secret shared, or implies some sort of pact between author and reader.

  • Notes On A Scandal by Zoe Heller
  • The Outcast by Sadie Jones
  • The True Story of Butterfish by Nick Hornby
Although none of those books is the slightest bit reminiscent of a women’s mag, I would imagine the words ‘scandal’, ‘outcast’ and ‘true story’ have a similar psychological effect on a consumer: salaciousness and schadenfreude.

AMBIGUOUS

  • Stranger Magic by Marina Warner
By ‘ambiguous’ I mean: contains homophones. ‘Stranger’ has two meanings here, and I haven’t read that book, but ideally I suppose the book is about both senses of the word. This title jumped out at me because the title of one of my own short stories is ‘How To Leave A Stranger’. In that case, ‘leave’ has a double meaning: ‘How to get away from someone you don’t know very well’ and ‘How to meet with a stranger for a limited period of time and yet fail to get to know them at all’.
There are also titles with metaphorical double meanings, like most episodes of Mad Men, for instance, which are inclined to refer both to something literal in the episode and to something figurative in the characters’ arcs. I like titles that can achieve more than one task at once like that; the title then becomes a sort of easter egg, in that you don’t fully understand it until you’ve read the story or seen the episode, thus creating a ‘them’ and ‘us’ division between those who know the story and those who don’t. Those who don’t know are forever locked out… Okay, now I’m probably turning this whole title thing into a conspiracy theory.

TARGETED AT A SPECIFIC AUDIENCE

  • Adverbs (I’m sure I wouldn’t have picked up Daniel Handler’s short story collection if I weren’t interested in language. I’d say short story writers have more leeway for creativity and ambiguity and all sorts in titles, because it seems to be so that only the most avid of readers pick up short stories in the first place.)
  • Lipstick Jungle (How many blokes picked this one up?)

PROVOCATIVE

  • Stupid White Men by Michael Moore
As a white man himself, Michael Moore gets away with this title (insofar as he gets away with anything), but I can see how it would be easy to put your foot in it.

THE LANGUAGE OF ADVERTISING

  • 10 Short Stories You Must Read This Year
  • Get Ahead! Medicine 
  • Praise! Our Songs And Hymns
  • Think And Grow Rich
  • Change Your Thinking
  • The Secrets Of The Superglue Sisters

Actually I’ve heard a number of people moan about the title of this series, which comes out annually in Australia as part of National Reading Month (or whatever it’s called). There’s this rebel in all of us which makes us avoid doing what we’re told to do, or what we know we’re meant to do, so when I’m told I ‘must’ read these stories, I feel like I’m back at school, preparing for an English exam.

Here’s another similar but worse example: Stop What You’re Doing And Read This! with a response from author Sally Zigmond (who sings its praises but bemoans its bossy title).

WACKY

Wacky titles make me want to pick up the book to see what on earth it’s about. Sometimes I’m thinking, ‘How could someone write a whole book about that?’

  • The Never-Ending Days Of Being Dead by Marcus Chown
  • Visible Panty Line by Gretel Killeen

Remember when Prince changed his name & no one knew what to call him because no one could say it out loud? Don’t do that to your book.

– @sarahlapolla

I suppose it might be a useful exercise — when completely stuck — to brainstorm a title which fits into each of these categories (which I have completely made up) and see if any seem appropriate.

21 Ridiculous Books That Will Have You Shaking Your Head from Buzzfeed

THE PREDICTABLE

Sometimes it’s best if titles aren’t fancy at all, especially when the author name alone can sell a book.

  • The Collected Stories (Grace Paley)
  • The Best of John Wyndham
  • New Australian Stories 2

THE MATTER-OF-FACT TITLE

I notice that a title consisting of two words tends to sound matter-of-fact, whereas a longer one can sound wacky/pretentious/intriguing (depending, of course on what those words are!)

  • Larry’s Party by Carol Shields
  • Mad Meg by Sally Morrison
  • The Beach by Alex Garland
  • The Birds by Daphne du Maurier
  • The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

MATTER-OF-FACT BUT SLIGHTLY RIDICULOUS

  • Hippopotamus by Stephen Fry

THE JUXTAPOSED TITLE, OR DOESN’T QUITE MAKE SENSE GRAMMATICALLY

  • A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler
  • The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock
  • Ordinary Dogs by Eileen Battersby
  • People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry
  • The Wine of Solitude by Irène Némirovsky
  • The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
  • The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje
  • The Beautiful Indifference by Sarah Hall
  • The Quality of Mercy by Barry Unsworth
  • The Disenchantments
  • Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg
  • Because You Love To Hate Me, various authors
This sort of title seems particularly prevalent right now, or perhaps is more indicative of the sorts of books to end up on ‘Best Of’ lists. Some of these titles remind me of Stephen Pinker’s famous: ‘Colorless green ideas sleep furiously’.

ALLITERATIVE

  • The Broken Bridge by Philip Pullman
  • Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck

RETRO

  • The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl by Melissa Keil

 

FAUX-INSTRUCTIONAL

  • How To Be Good by Nick Hornby
  • How to Disappear by Duncan Fallowell

 

BACK-TO-FRONT

  • Kid Normal by James and Smith

MIGHT BE NON-FICTION BUT ISN’T

These titles often require: ‘a novel’ somewhere on the cover

  • The Marriage Plot: a novel, by Jeffrey Eugenides
  • The Outlaw Album is a collection of stories by Daniel Woodrell
  • Salmon Fishing In The Yemen by Paul Today
  • A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman by Margaret Drabble
  • The Perks Of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

OMINOUS

  • Call For The Dead by John Le Carre
  • The Church Of Dead Girls by Stephen Dobyn
  • After the Apocalypse by Maureen McHugh
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

GRANDIOSE

  • How Fiction Works by James Wood
  • Canada by Richard Ford
  • A Brief History Of Everything by Bill Bryson

WHAT ON EARTH IS THIS ABOUT?

  • State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
  • There But For The: a novel by Ali Smith
  • Little Altars Everywhere by Rebecca Wells
  • The Same Stuff As Stars by Katherine Paterson
There but for the is a brilliant title for a brilliant novel. Ali Smith invents new forms of fiction in the interstices between parts of a sentence – commenting “but the thing I particularly like about the word but … is that it always takes you off to the side …” 
Which is proof that your title doesn’t actually have to make sense… as long as your book is brilliant, otherwise it probably just looks stupid.

MAIN CHARACTER(S) AS TITLE

This one is really common.

  • Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • Girl With The Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  • Fluff and Billy by Nicola Killen
  • The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
  • Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li
  • The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead
  • The One And Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

SETTING IN THE TITLE

  • Morgan’s Run by Colleen McCullough
  • Dublin by Edward Rutherford
  • Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
  • Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg

SOCIAL GROUP AS TITLE

  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
  • The Owl Service by Alan Garner
  • A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

 

ACTION IN THE TITLE

  • Calling The Gods by Jack Lasenby
  • Fat Kid Rules The World

ENTIRE SENTENCES

  • One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina
  • I Don’t Want to be a Pea! by Ann Bonwill
  • I’m A Big Brother
  • Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House by Meghan Daum

 SINGLE WORDS

  • Next by James Hynes
  • Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
  • Pure by Andrew Miller
  • Wish by Peter Goldsworthy
  • Prey by Michael Crichton
  • Smut by Alan Bennett
  • Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
  • Wonder by R.J. Palacio
One possible problem with single word titles is that there is no context whatsoever. I recently recommended Michael Crichton’s Prey to a friend who also enjoys thrillers. She responded with, “It’s um… it’s not a religious novel, is it?” So if you have a one word title, you may benefit from an explanatory subtitle.

SNOWCLONES

For a definition of a snowclone, see here.
  • Colour Me English by Caryl Phillips
  • Cookie Craft
  • We Need To Talk About Kelvin by Marcus Chown
  • Gay Men Don’t Get Fat by Simon Doonan
Of course, those last three snowclones both came from other hugely successful books of similar titles: Child Craft, We Need To Talk About Kevin and French Women Don’t Get Fat. So now we even have French Children Don’t Throw Food: Parenting Secrets From Paris, by Pamela Druckerman.

MODIFIED CLICHES (METALEPSIS)

  • A Match Made In High School by Kristin Walker
  • Farewell Tour Of A Terminal Optimist by John Young (because we more naturally think of ‘eternal optimist’)

MADE UP WORDS

  • Atrocitology by Matthew White
  • Affluenza by Oliver James
  • Retromania by Simon Reynolds
  • Mindfulness by Ellen J. Langer
  • Robopocalypse by
  • The Etymologicon by
  • Catwitch by Una Woodruff
Some titles are so successful that the neologisms become part of the common language. The good thing about these is that they’re easy for potential customers can find via a search. The bad thing about some of these is that they’re not that easy to spell.

IMPERATIVE

  • Please Ignore Vera Dietz
  • Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver

INTERROGATIVE

  • How Musical Is Man? by John Blacking
  • Who Cooked The Last Supper? The Women’s History Of The World by Rosalind Miles

RELATED

  1.  Four Writers Tell About Their Titles
  2. A list of books which changed titles between manuscript and publication
  3.  Criteria for a Killer Title
  4. Book Titles In The Form Of Questions from The Guardian
  5. Picking Your Perfect Title from Daily Writing Tips
  6. Book Title Formulas from BookEnds, LLC
  7. Finding (and losing) Book Titles from Beyond The Margins
  8. Oddest Book Title Of The Year from Marginal Revolution, and here at Beatties Book Blog
  9. 12 Book Titles That Came From Poems, From Huffington Post
  10. The 40 Worst Book Covers And Titles Of All Time, collected by Smashing Hub
  11. How to find the right title: a brainstorming exercise, from Roz Morris
  12. 17 Overly Optimistic Book Titles from Mental Floss
  13. You can judge a book by its title, from Salon
  14. What’s In A Title? An Editorial Perspective from the Albert Whitman blog

SORT OF RELATED

  1. How 50 Big Companies Got Their Titles
  2. The 8 Principles Of Product Naming
  3. 7 Words That Only Bad Movies Have In Their Titles
  4. The Best Recent TV Show Titles from Toronto Sun
  5. How 13 Classic Video Games Got Their Names from Mental Floss
  6. The Grammar Of Clickbait Titles from The American Reader

What is the meaning of hermeneutics?

The theory about interpretation of texts is called hermeneutics. The word alludes to the name of the Greek god Hermes who was the messenger between gods. Hermeneutics thus emphasizes that a message needs someone to carry it, someone to explicate, to elucidate, to interpret. A hermeneutic analysis involves pointing out and explaining how what we read or otherwise perceive embodies a meaning. The main premise of hermeneutics is that in extracting a meaning from a piece of art we alternate between the whole and the details.

For instance, when we look at a painting, we can start by perceiving it as a whole, noting the general composition, theme, color scheme, and so on. Provided that we are interested enough in learning more about the painting, we may then study the details, for instance each depicted object, figure, or shape; the foreground and the background; the particulars of hues and saturation; the individual brushstrokes (or other technique); and so on. However, if we stop at this stage, our perception of the word will be fragmentary. Therefore we must go back to studying the whole, this time with a better preconception, since we know more about the constituent parts of the whole.

In studying a literary text, we also usually begin with the whole: the storyline, the central characters, and their role in the story. When reading for pleasure, we often stop at that. Working with the text professionally, as critics or teachers, we will most probably go on to study the details: composition, characterisation, narrative perspective, style and underlying messages. We may go still further into particulars, for instance, and only examine metaphors, or only concentrate on direct speech, or only investigate how female characters are portrayed. Such a detailed study is, however, only fruitful if we afterward go back to the whole, and hopefully we will then have a better understanding of the text.

Aesthetic Approaches to Children’s Literature: An Introduction, by Maria Nikolajeva

hermeneutics is from Hermes

THE HERMENEUTIC CIRCLE OF READING

Why do children read the same book over and over? No, it’s not to torture parents and teachers! Here are some pedagogical and developmental reasons why. It’s to do with what’s known as ‘hermaneutic reading’.

cat-reading

1. COMFORT

There is great comfort in the predictable, especially before bed or when other things in life are changing.

2. TO GAIN BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF THE TEXT

At some point many readers must realise that there are far too many books in the world to continue reading the same ones over and over (although I do know middle-aged Tolkien enthusiasts who read Lord Of The Rings every single year). Children who ask for the same story over and over are often getting more out of it each time. This experience is especially valuable with adult input during some of the readings. Story book apps with auto-narration are especially useful in this process, because adults have a smaller tolerance for repetition than their children.

The Hermeneutic Circle

Camp vs Kitsch

camp kitsch

What is the difference between ‘camp’ and ‘kitsch’?

CAMP: A PREFERENCE FOR REVERSAL AND REJECTION OF SINCERITY

I was listening to a podcast recently — I think it was one of the 99% podcasts — when someone in interview started talking about something being ‘camp’ and I realised I have no idea what the word actually means. I thought it described the behaviour of stereotypically gay men, in relaxed, social mode. But no. I still had no idea what it meant, even after listening to a lengthy discussion about it in relation to architecture.

But then, a few weeks later, I came across ‘camp’ again in an essay about David Bowie:

Camp is notoriously hard to define, but in most conceptions it involves both a sense of doubleness — things are not merely what they seem to the naive viewer — and a preference for reversal — the very bad now reinterpreted as good. Camp makes most sense not as an aesthetic style — like classicism or modernism — but as a mode of apprehension or a hermeneutic. It is a way of understanding or interpreting the world. Historically, camp emerges in gay subculture where it functions as a kind of passive resistance to the straight world, much of the cynical humor of the Russians was a form of passive resistance to Stalinism…. Transvestitism for obvious reasons lends itself to camp interpretation, and the embrace of artifice over nature is a convention of camp taste… camp interpretation requires a lack of seriousness and the rejections of sincerity.

from Goth: Undead Subculture

(Hermeneutic is another word which I keep having to look up.)

This is probably the best description of camp that I have seen, because it describes how it relates to gay culture, while explaining in clear terms the wider context.

Camp David cover, camp vs. kitsch

In her book about fairies, Troublesome Things, Diane Purkiss describes the practice of purchasing fairy items and jewellery for little girls: “The parents I know justify the purchase of this lavishly doubtful product by using the phrases ‘camp’ and ‘tongue-in-cheek’ a lot, by which they mean that the violation of taste canons is so glaring as to be no threat.

In children’s literature we don’t tend to use the word camp to describe this ‘reversal’ of the established order; we use the term carnivalesque. Though they are slightly different, I now consider them very much related as concepts.

Hetereosexual Camp Things In Modern Culture from The Toast

KITSCH: CRAP THAT PEOPLE UNACCOUNTABLY LIKE

Another word I have trouble defining — apart from ‘I know it when I see it sense’ is kitsch.

From io9:

Fantasy has a problem – it is inherently kitsch. What do I mean by kitsch? Crap that people unaccountably like. The dictionary defines kitsch as tawdry, vulgarised or pretentious art usually with popular or sentimental appeal. Unicorns, wizards, put upon young wretches who come to be great mages, haughty princesses, riders in dark cloaks – Robert Jordan, if you want it summed up in two words.

There is an inherent snobbishness in the word kitsch. Worse than snobbishness, perhaps:

Critics’ widespread distaste toward kitsch springs from an unwillingness to tolerate any kind of emotion that is seen as too sentimental or “sweet.” 

The Problem of Kitsch by Maranda Bennett (who argues against this idea)

So what’s the opposite of kitsch?

In going the other way, in trying too hard to be ‘realistic’, honest, gritty or meaningful we end up over-reaching ourselves and the monster eats us anyway.

There. Now I have a definition for ‘gritty’. I’m just going to say it’s the ‘opposite of kitsch’ and be done with it.

The Celebrate Doilies exhibit at the Spellman Museum, Forney, Texas
The Celebrate Doilies exhibit at the Spellman Museum, Forney, Texas

RELATED

Cute and kitsch – Laurie Taylor asks why objects and phenomenon which come under these headings have such a hold and a fascination, from BBC4