I’ll be honest with you, guys, I’ve been stressing out again this week – amazingly, not about writing! That’s actually going pretty well. I’m piecing together bits of various drafts of Faustina/Venetian Masks and, aside from the 2000-word scene I wrote from scratch the other day and then cut almost immediately (WHY) it’s coming together pretty well at the moment. I think. What’s stressing me out is boring adult stuff, the kind that’s so dull it’s not worth blogging about. So I’m going to treat (!) you to some more of my ramblings about writing instead.
Those of you who have been sensible enough to avoid getting Literature degrees might not be aware of the concept of the “Death of the Author”. Wikipedia calls it “a 1967 essay by the French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes” and I see no reason to contradict it. That link will give you a more intelligent summary but basically what the essay argues is that texts (books, stories, poems etc) should be interpreted based only on what you, the reader, see in them, not on anything you might know or assume about the author.
For example, if you read The Chronicles of Narnia with an eye on the fact that C S Lewis was a Christian, you might interpret a lot of elements of it through a Christian lens: Aslan’s death and resurrection representing those of Jesus and so on. Or, if you think about the fact that Shakespeare (and his sources) were writing about Richard III under the regime Richard lost to, it might shed a particular light on Richard being presented as a villain. Those things are the context Barthes wants critics to ignore, in favour of concentrating on the text itself.
It’s okay, you can all stop taking notes now!
Over the last few years, I’ve been making an effort to forget about stuff like this and remember how to just read a book for fun like a normal person. But I still find “death of the author”, in particular, very interesting. I just think about it in terms of regular reading. That is, how much should what I know about an author and their intentions – i.e. what they think their work means – affect how I read their work?
There are a few sides to this. Firstly, there’s what you might know about an author as a person. For instance, if you knew an author had been convicted of violent murder, it might be difficult to enjoy their cosy, tea-and-cake-with-the-vicar mystery series. Or, a less alarming example: I always feel like I can’t be objective about anything someone close to me writes (even in my own head – obviously actually giving feedback is a whole potential minefield of its own!) because I’m not reading it in the same way I would read a book or story I came across randomly, I’m reading it as “something X has written”. Even without consciously meaning to, I’m looking for pieces of that person in the writing, thinking about how much it sounds like the way they talk, or doesn’t, or any characters or situations I recognise. I’m being nosy, basically. I know how much of me ends up in my writing and how much people could find out about me from it if they knew what they were looking for. To put it the way I would in an essay: I interpret the text within the frame of the person, not as an independent entity.
It’s the same reason I used to be very, very secretive about my writing around people I know, while blasting it all over the internet in the hope of feedback from strangers. I suppose I think I’m still a little evasive about it, compared to other writers-in-training that I’ve come across. I do tell people I write, but only a few people know what or where to find it. I want to know how it reads if you know nothing or next to nothing about me, because I’m making the assumption that when (haha) I’m a popular and widely-read author, the vast majority of readers won’t know me.
Of course, it won’t have escaped the eagle-eyed amongst you that you’re reading this on my blog, where you can both learn more about me and access my writing. And that’s what’s changing – authors aren’t the distant figures they used to be. Even a couple of decades ago, the most you were likely to find out about an author was that they lived in the South of France with a husband, two kids and a Jack Russell, as described on the dust jacket. But now, along with other creators like musicians and film stars, authors are increasingly expected to be available to their audience online.
What that means is that the internet is changing reading in much the same way that it’s changing writing. A book is no longer just what’s between two cardboard covers. The best example of this must be Harry Potter. JK Rowling famously releases new details about her wizarding world all the time, starting with answers to fan questions and building up into the extended universe stuff on Pottermore. These revelations range from details about the characters themselves (Dumbledore’s gay) to background information about the world, but they’re all things you wouldn’t know from reading the books themselves. Where once you would have had to fill in those details yourself, if you wanted them, now you can get them straight from the horse’s mouth.
I don’t think that’s a good or a bad thing, necessarily. I think there are things about it that are either good or bad depending on your point of view. I imagine that, for every Harry Potter fan who’s thrilled to learn something new about their favourite series, there’s always another one who’s disappointed to be “wrong” about something. (I actually used to ship Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall!)
But are they wrong? The “death of the author” argument is that, once an author releases their work into the wild, it’s up to the reader to interpret it. They can’t influence you – either directly, by saying “this means that”, or indirectly, just by having existed as a person with beliefs during a time period. I’ve always liked the idea that it’s actually the reader who does half the work, bringing their unique values and experiences to the text in order to create a reading of it that’s unique to them. So, while the geeky fangirl in me wants to keep picking up these little breadcrumbs of information that authors drop, I wonder what it means for reading. The pushy fellow fan who keeps telling you that your understanding of the text is wrong is out of line, even if they happen to be the author. Anything they needed you to understand should have been clear in the text already – anything open to interpretation is open to interpretation by anyone.
I can think of one really good reason why authorial will shouldn’t be absolute, and her name is EL James. I’ve seen passages from 50 Shades compared directly with definitions of rape and pamphlets about abuse and come out looking pretty gross. I read it as a story about a terrible relationship between a naïve young woman and a manipulative monster. Other people – including EL James – see it as a passionate love story. And that’s okay, at least on a “relationship between the text and the individual reader” level (I think a lot of harm has been done by the way it’s marketed, but other people have covered that way better than I could). The problem is that James’ sense of ownership over the text, of a right to control the way others interpret it, is so strong that she feels justified in attacking rape survivors who question her about it. No one really expects her to apologise profusely and donate her vast and growing fortune to a domestic violence charity, but quietly accepting the right of the reader to interpret the text based on what’s in it and their own worldview, without reference to the author’s intentions, is also an option.
Of course, Rowling and James (whom I would not lump together in many contexts!) can get away with doing pretty much whatever they want. Down at the shallower end of the popularity pool, authors who can’t let go are harming themselves as much as readers by responding angrily to reviews of their work. Sometimes they just bash the reviewers, but often they’re “correcting” misinterpretations. I’m not here to tell other people how to live (although, you know, I strongly suggest not doing that) but again, this sort of thing seems to miss what’s beautiful about reading as a medium: the opportunity to bend a story around yourself as a reader, even if you find things in it you don’t like while doing so. (You can all remind me of this when I’m devastated by a negative review of Venetian Masks, I guess!)
This is a difficult post to conclude. I’m not really trying to argue anything, I just have a lot of opinions about writing and these are some of them! But what about you? Do you think the internet is changing the way we read? Does an author have the right to tell readers how to read their work? I’d love to know what you think!