Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Cutting the Author’s Throat

The classroom went silent when Dr. Talbot staggered through the door and collapsed into the chair behind his desk. Before that first day of "Intro to Philosophy," few of us knew that he had broken his back at the age of thirteen, reducing his gait to an agonized lurch. Sweat streaming down his face, he surveyed us for a moment and then said, “You think you know how to read. You don’t. I’m going to teach you.”

He did. He took us line by line and word by word through Plato, Descartes and Hume, an intense, detailed kind of reading that I had never known before. We mapped paragraphs for section breaks, searching for transitions that indicated a shift in thought. And, in doing so, he made sure we never forgot the author, who was the wellspring of the text, the place from which it flowed. Meaning, in Dr. Talbot’s view, piggybacked on words, which piggybacked on the author. The three were inextricably linked.

Today, most in higher education would sneer Dr. Talbot’s views, and that distain seems to have filtered down into the populace at large. Consider a recent paean to eisegesis by Bryn Neuenschwander (who goes under the pseudonym Marie Brennan). Excerpts:

I was talking about this recently with some friends, in the context of the type of story with an element that might or might not be fantasy. Me? I say screw the hedging and the ambiguity; I read that type of story as fantasy, and I do so willfully. If the end of the story comes down on the side of reality, making that fantastical element psychological or symbolic or whatever . . . thanks, but I’ll stick with my own interpretation.

It happens with other things, too. I willfully read strength into characters (especially women) that aren’t given any, or sympathy into characters the story wants me to demonize. And I choose that phrase for it because this isn’t something I think is in the story at all; I’m adding it wholesale, entirely against any reasonable interpretation that would pass muster with a decent literature professor. … It’s like I’m building my own story in my head, related to but not the same as the story on the page.
Read the whole thing at Science Fiction & Fantasy Novelists. Brennan obviously has skill with a pen, as evidenced by the multiple books and stories under her belt. That makes her viewpoint even more baffling. Make no mistake: Such an approach not only severs author from meaning, it cuts his throat and leaves him to bleed out in the gutter. It subverts every single thing he has labored hour after bleary-eyed hour to achieve. It’s an unabashed rebellion against the humility needed to submit oneself to the author's vision, a submission once quaintly called sound interpretation. The desire to craft new people, places and things is commendable. But if that's your aim, shouldn’t you be writing rather than reading?

(Picture: CC 2008 by


Chestertonian Rambler said...

A couple of complications, though:

1) She IS a writer, even if she isn't doing that at the moment. I wonder how different this is from the way Lewis (or was it Tolkien) said he had started reading contemporary books--not so much for their own sake as for material. In that case, criticizing her reading is a bit mean-spirited; she isn't (and admits that she isn't) a professional, or even a good reader. But she's the type of reader who makes for a good author.

2) The thing is, fiction is a special subset of writings. There's always been a sense, among most of the best authors, that no single "moral" or "meaning" attaches to their writings--they spring words together the way that feels right and forms a story, but they are only the first among many readers. (Tolkien, for instance, described LotR as "Christian and specifically Catholic, subconsciously at first and then intentionally in the later drafts." The point being not that he changed what he was writing but he found a deeper thread of meaning beyond his original intent and pulled that out in the rewrite.)

Derek Webb had a similar comment about the line "I'm not standing up for nothing." He was asked if that meant:
a) He's refusing to stand up for ideas that are empty.
b) He isn't standing up for anything (using the idiomatic double-negative)
c) He is standing up, and the thing he's standing up for is "not nothing"

His reply was either "yes" or "you choose" (I forget which.) The point being that the song serves as a touchstone between his experiences and the reader's life; his job is, in fact, to make those connections and therefore avoid sounding like a teenage livejournaler. But I think he also accurately realized that if one strives to either create or reflect life in one's fiction, the meaning must be recreated in the reader's brain for it to work the way it is designed. The reason Derek Webb sells lots of CD's is that lots of readers feel that the confusion of interpretation helps to make sense of their own lives. What Derek Webb thinks it means may be helpful (he's often an insightful reader), but certainly isn't critical to enjoying and being moved or inspired by his songs. And I think any reader worth his salt can name one author who misunderstood his own talent.

Loren Eaton said...


Yikes! Well, I certainly don't want to seem mean-spirited. Perhaps I didn't communicate my intent very well. (grin) Truth be told, I think Brennan's pretty impressive. Her fourth novel will be published this year. On her worst day, she has better writing chops than me on my best. But I also truly believe that her approach damages the very act of writing.

A couple of clarifying points. First, Brennan isn't talking about reader-response theory, which she makes clear in the first paragraph. She also isn't talking about mining for writing material. Instead, she advocates readings that blatantly run contra to both author and text. Can we call this anything but an act of violence against the author's connection to his own work? Why would an author urge others to approach narratives in this way? It would pervert her own work. I don't get it.

Second, Webb's view doesn't necessarily conflict with a healthy respect for the original intent. Sometimes authors use ambiguity to communicate multiple intended meanings. You see it most in poetry. Consider George Herbert's "The Collar." He likely intended the title to be a pun. ("Collar" sounds like "choler," which matches the speaker's emotional state.) I assume that's what Webb means. It's a rich technique.

An aside: Are you in an MFA program right now? I was wondering that the other day.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Regarding the aside: I'm actually in a PhD in literature program right now (but I study poetics, and therefore take clases with poets). Fiction is purely a hobby (though one that I hope will end up read by and impacting others). I'm too intimidated about the process (and, truth be told, too unsure about what sort of "author" positions are possible) to go the creative writer track. I don't mind earning my living methodically studying others' writings (esp. the old stuff), but I really don't want to have to worry about writing only the sort of stuff that earns my living.

I still have a healthy respect for those who do, mind you. It's not like I consider it intellectual prostitution or anything. It's just...I know the type of stuff that I write, and my natural bent for weird eclecticism. If I could be another Neil Gaiman, writing a Wodehouse-esque story of the African trickster god Anansi one day and rewriting Paradise Lost the next, that might be different. But very few can. And the last thing I want is to put a desire to "be an author" over my more natural desire to exercise my talents (however feeble) for story-making.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Back to the topic:

Thinking it over more, my knee-jerk response probably comes from being a medievalist. Roland Barthes' polemical essay "The Death of the Author" may be (from an intellectual perspective) needlessly polemic, but it does make an interesting point when it claims The Author began to develop in the Renaissance.

In the Middle Ages, many critics theorize, being an "auctor" meant having other people re-work your stuff in commentary and quotation, not standing alone as an authority. It means, in a sense, being Linus Torvalds and not Bill Gates--the guy whose brilliance starts something new, not the guy who innovates so that his users don't have to.

Geoffrey of Monmouth told a "history" about this guy named Arthur; from a literary perspective there isn't a lot to it. But it became immensely popular, because people read INTO it all sorts of meanings; eventually he had a wife Guinivere who loved Lancelot, was served by such notables as Gawain and Percival, &c.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a text beloved to Lewis and Tolkien, similarly reads against the author of previous texts. Arthur is "somewhat childlike" in G&GK, whereas elsewhere he's either dignified, passive, or the indomitable leader. Gawain is normally a womanizing bloke who easily makes friends or gets into trouble; here he's the serious-minded representation of the complete virtues of Christian Knighthood.

I guess that, as an author, I wouldn't mind being either Geoffrey or the earlier Arthurian authors. If the final story isn't mine, so what--I still helped create something beautiful and meaningful.

It's also worth noting that Bryn doesn't do this to any stories she understands to be good--it's her method for rehabilitating movies she otherwise wouldn't enjoy. In that case, the author (in her mind) is already dead--he hasn't gotten through to her in the first place. Her style of reading doesn't kill the author, it just lets her have a fun and productive time in the graveyard.

Unknown said...

Chestertonian Rambler said:
> Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a text beloved to Lewis and Tolkien, similarly reads against the author of previous texts. Arthur is "somewhat childlike" in G&GK, whereas elsewhere he's either dignified, passive, or the indomitable leader.

Interesting discussion. There's a difference between doing your own riff on someone else's work and ignoring the author's intent. The former: "I wish Arthur weren't so childlike in G&GK. I'll write a tale where he's different." The latter: "Aurthur in G&GK is mature and heroic. I choose to see him that way."


Loren Eaton said...


Ah, there we go. I figured it was something literary from the essays on The Winding Road. Well, I'm probably in over my head discussing critical theory with you then, eh?

I'll agree that there are times in history where the idea of an author becomes less important to people. The Middle Ages probably counts, as does the time around third-century A.D. Look at how Augustine and Origen interpreted things: Author, begone! But I'm not willing to reduce it to historical development or conflate it with reading. At the most basic level, people write to communicate something and other people read to discover it. There's a lot to play around with there, but we shouldn't get too far away from those fundamentals. And I should probably dust off some Bowers and Tanselle, as well as Fish and Derrida, before I blog about it again!

Okay, my anniversary's tomorrow, and I've got to go get some flowers for my wife ...

Loren Eaton said...


If Sir Gaiwan goes into a biker bar and leaves with a pickelhaub but the only people to know it are potted motorcycle enthusiasts with spotty legal records, did it really happen?

Chestertonian Rambler said...

"And I should probably dust off some Bowers and Tanselle, as well as Fish and Derrida, before I blog about it again!"

Don't bother (unless you want); the whole point of blogging is to think publicly, then respond to semi-random critiques and perspectives.

And I have to realize the real root of my problem probably stems from childhood--when I realized that George Lucas's Return of the Jedi simply wasn't as true to Star Wars as Timothy Zahn's novels.

After that, the idea that "reading against" an author can, in certain circumstances, be productive, makes sense to me. The folks at the hillarious Darth's and Droids ( prove that thrice a week, turning Lucas's worst Star Wars movies into hilarious and far less annoying narratives. Since reading their Episode I stuff, I've found I actually enjoy the movie much more.

Of course, Darths & Droids would be illegal if they strove to make any profit from it. Which I think, maybe, is one of the least productive aspects of our society's worship of authorship.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Also, have a great anniversary!


ollwen said...

Linguistically speaking, if words mean anything then authorial intent should be very important. If we disregard what a person means to say, then language falls apart, like in The Bald Soprano. I don't think that has anything to do with Medieval concepts of authorship or the lack thereof, or the intellectual property debate. I think it has more to do with whether or not words mean anything, and whether or not an actual story can be actually communicated. If readers contentiously inject their own 'interpretations' into things as a norm, then the answer to that is "no."

Now that's not to say, that a particular piece of a song or work of fiction might take on a particular personal meaning for someone, regardless of authorial intent. That consideration is existential though, and not linguistic.

Maybe it's because I feel unqualified to go toe-to-toe with CR that I think he's bringing too much historical and philosophical depth to what seems to me like a surface level confession about reading habits. (I have to agree about Star Wars.)

At worst this is an injection of philosophical relativism into the very act of enjoying fiction. Maybe because she is a writer she feels licensed to read arrogantly?
At best, it sounds like she is treating works of fiction as toys; just not taking very much of it all that seriously. I have to agree with Loren that it does seem like a strange confession for an author to make.

Loren Eaton said...

Yeah, I don’t really want to debate CR either, mostly because he’s much smarter than I am and also because he’s a nice guy. Never like arguing with nice people. Still, I’m more and more convinced by E.D. Hirsch, who said something to the effect that if the author isn’t the determiner of meaning then the reader will be.

Maybe I should write a post about how George Lucas cut his own throat with the Star Wars’ prequels. I think we all could agree about that.

Chestertonian Rambler said...


Though Anakin's lines are an example of some sort of inverse brilliance. The mind boggles in awe that there exists a mind so independent, so liberated from the linguistic and erotic conventions of our culture, that it is able to compose the line with a straight face:
"No, [your beauty] is only because I'm in love with you."

And then have the audacity to make an actor say it, and make his co-lead pretend that it is some sort of compliment.

Not all spectacular achievements, it turns out, are good.

Loren Eaton said...

Couldn't we just chalk it up to hubris and head trauma?

ollwen said...

Haha! "Not all spectacular achievements are good." Well said. People do love a good spectacle though.

I was just in Japan, and visited the Ghibli Museum, where Hayao Miyazaki's work was on display. The art was amazing, and good. One of the features was a ticket to a movie theater in the museum where a short film was played. It was in Japanese, with Japanese subtitles, but I don't think English subtitles would have helped me explain what it was about to my wife though. Like most of Miyazaki's work, it was largely about the visual spectacle. The spectacle was the point.
I think the problem with Lucas, was that he became editor-proof a long time ago, a phenomenon Loren mentions in an earlier post. Though I think Lucas takes it further than that. He's so convinced of his own genius, he will not even edit himself.