Friday, July 3, 2009

Authors Matter

The deadline had come, and I hustled over to the editor's desk with my piece in tow. I'd just reviewed Switchfoot's The Beautiful Letdown, unaware that it would become the San Diego band's breakthrough album and that top-40 radio would plug its singles into such heavy rotation that, in time, its songs would nearly make me physically ill. Bleary-eyed and riveted to his monitor, my editor grunted thanks. A little later, he called me back over. "Not bad," he said, rustling the page, "but let's lose this lyric here where it sounds like they're talking about reincarnation."

I examined the part he pointed at, two lines from the song
"Meant To Live": "Dreaming about Providence / And whether mice and men have second tries." Okay, I could see it. The "mice and men" part could refer to coming back as an animal in another life, and Providence had something to do with divinity. Hold on, though, the rodent bit sounded an awful lot like Robert Burns' famous aphorism. ("The best-laid plans of mice and men / Go oft awry.") And didn't Providence have a very specific meaning? (Webster would later reveal it to be "God conceived as the power sustaining and guiding human destiny.") Looking at the rest of the song, reincarnation seemed like a strange fit, particularly since the other verses referenced struggling with failure. A different interpretation began to emerge, one of wondering whether or not God, in His guiding of history, would be willing to give the world's screw ups another shot. In fact, it seemed like what the songwriter wanted me to get.

As I opened my mouth to respond, my editor said, "Okay, thanks," and thrust the review in amongst a stack of papers. I clacked my teeth together, turned and went back to my cubicle. We were looking at the same text, but our approaches were worlds apart, one of us building significance out of phrases and sentences, the other looking for the meaning that had put them there. Sure, the reader is important, as is the historical milieu in which a work was birthed and the form in which it's couched. But none of these are the primer mover, the word spoken into darkness, bringing order from chaos. That's the author. He has something to say. We should listen to him. He matters.

(Picture: CC 2007 by


Samuel D. Smith said...

Nice, Loren.

ollwen said...


Great post. Got me with the force of the flow of the thoughts, and not just in my usual, "Hm. . . I shall ponder and comment," sort of way.

The whole post-modern author/reader meaning debate is frustrating. I really like the force with which you thrust the issue back to the beginning of things, and show how important it is not just socially, but theologically. Pow!

B. Nagel said...

I remember when I got Legend of Chin and no one would listen to it. Then, years down the road, people are saying: "Have you ever heard of this Switchfoot band? They're awesome."

I think the lit-crit crowd gets off on forwarding their agenda in all the works they read. But I also see the value in deeper digging. You just can't lose sight of the work as a whole. Because the more you dig, the more you move from work to interpretation.

Loren Eaton said...

Sam (of the S.D. variety),

Thank you, sir! I appreciate it.

Loren Eaton said...

Sam (of the Ollwen variety),

Ha, ha! Quite funny!

One of the frustrating things about reader-response and deconstructionist criticism is that there's some truth in it. Every reader approaches a text in a personal way, and no author writes perfectly. But that doesn't mean we chuck the author in the dumpster and elevate subjectivism to certainty. It just means that both parties need to approach a text with (alternately) humility and skill.

Loren Eaton said...


I only picked up The Legend of Chin about a year ago and didn't like it so much. To me it sounded as though the band was still trying to find its sound -- which it definitely did on New Way to be Human. Of course, Jon Foreman (the lead singer) deserves props for writing a song a day for years. That's a good way to hone your chops.

There are varying merits in digging deeper into the social and historical and psychological aspects of works, I'll gladly grant that. But we can't lose sight of what the author wanted to do in the first place. Otherwise, we end up with Postmodern Pooh (which I still need to read).

B. Nagel said...

Legend of Chin was definitely a freshman album. But it was a neat album for where it was and where I was as a listener, sort of surf meets grunge meets pop. Surungop.

Loren Eaton said...

Surungop -- I like it. Better trademark it, ASAP.

Yeah, Switchfoot has a way (especially in their first three albums) of sounding like a really tight garage band. Their later stuff's a bit more produced, especially Nothing Is Sound.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Re. Switchfoot:

Sorry to hear that. I loved their first three albums (hit me at the right time), but it took hearing them live for me to really accept The Beautiful Letdown. Overproduced was my term of choice, then. I guess now I'm even less likely to pick up their later works.

Re. the Author:

I may actually agree with you, here. My main contestation is that, once an author tells you the story/poem/song, he does not "own" the story/poem/song in anything but a temporary commercial manner. That doesn't mean he has nothing to say; his is often a privileged perspective on a work (unless he's George Lucas). Again, in your case, resorting to the Author was unnecessary--without considering Switchfoot's assertions of Christianity, an even moderately close reading of the text and its literary precedents/social context/whatever shows exactly what you'd described. One reading works with the song; the other doesn't.

If I may continue to delve a slight bit further back into the CCM movement, though, I also have no objections with DC Talk's re-purposing of "Help!" as an introduction for the song "So Help Me God." This has nothing to do with a previously unseen theological bent in John Lennon and Paul McCartney. It has everything to do with the ability of songs to mean things not originally intended.

Loren Eaton said...

I think I mostly agree with that, CR (especially regarding Lucas, who only seems interested in the commercial nature of things now). A very small point, though: When I appeal to the author, I'm not drawing attention to biographical or cultural context of the author like Historicists do. I'm trying to say (in a somewhat clumsy manner) that when we're reading we should be looking for the author's intent at the time of composition. Like you alluded to at the end of your second paragraph, the reading that best incorporates all of the textual data is the one that most likely meshes with the author's intent.

Allusion is another matter. Using it, someone can appropriate the author's work for his own ends while still respecting the original idea. That someone can then introduce all sorts of riffs and ironies, stuff that's absolutely delicious to read.

B. Nagel said...

Historicists are just nosy.

Loren Eaton said...

They're better than gender critics, though.