The Author dies, the world yawns, and writers keep scribbling

This originated as an e-mail, but then I realized it was actually a blog post and edited it accordingly.

Roland Barthes begins The Death of the Author thus:

‘This was woman herself, with her sudden fears, her irrational whims, her instinctive worries, her impetuous boldness, her fussings, and her delicious sensibility.’ Who is speaking thus? Is it the hero of the story bent on remaining ignorant of the castrato hidden beneath the woman? Is it Balzac the individual, furnished by his personal experience with a philosophy of Woman? Is it Balzac the author professing ‘literary’ ideas on femininity? Is it universal wisdom? Romantic psychology? We shall never know, for the good reason that writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.

It’s a powerful and irritating introduction: powerful because it contains some truth—the speaker is, indeed, ambiguous—but irritating because it stretches that ambiguity beyond its bound. Absent other information, either an omniscient speaker is narrating or free indirect speech is allowing another character to narrate. Either way, choices like “universal wisdom” or “Romantic psychology” seem more like fanciful projections that come from the critic rather than the text. Not being familial with Balzac, I’m not sure who speaks, but someone or something does, and not every voice is destroyed. To be sure, at times we might not be sure of who speaks, but so what? Teasing out the logical bounds of who could be speaking is one of the novel’s pleasures, and James Wood shows how such literary techniques work in How Fiction Works. On page 8 of my edition, he writes:

So-called omniscience is almost impossible. AS soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking. A novelist’s omniscience soon enough becomes a kind of secret sharing; this is called free-indirect style, a term novelists have lots of different nicknames for – ‘close third person’, or ‘going into character.’

(Italics in original.)

From there Wood goes on to define by example what he means by free-indirect speech via example. He says he admires Barthes on the first page of How Fiction Works, and it’s worth noting that in this admiration, Wood in part refutes him—or, rather, if not refutes, then goes on a different and more productive tangent: to attempt a partial explanation of realism, rather than to try and deny its existence altogether. He says that How Fiction Works “asks a critic’s questions and offers a writer’s answers,” in contrast to critics like Barthes and Shklovsky, who “thought like writers alienated from the creative instinct.” (For another example of someone who magnificently asks critics’ questions and gives writers’ answers, see John Barth’s The Friday Book.) The description of Barthes and Shklovsky is apt: reading Barthes is frustrating because he so often seems right and then oversteps the conclusion that his premises will support.

At the start of The Rise Of The Novel: Studies In Defoe, Richardson And Fielding, Ian Watt writes:

There are still no wholly satisfactory answers to many of the general questions which anyone interested in the early eighteenth-century novelists and their works is likely to ask: Is the novel a new literary form? And if we assume, as is commonly done, that it is, and that it was begun by Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, how does it differ from the prose fiction of the past, from that of Greece, for example, or that of the Middle Ages, or of seventeenth-century France?

Although Barthes and Watt wrote decades ago, they still seem relevant in part because the issues of perspective and representation are unlikely to ever leave us in art. We perpetually expand what it means to be real or not real or how we should see the world, but that expansion can never encompass all possibilities, or all stories. Hence the continual reshaping of not only what we read and find valuable, but also who we are.

This debate about authorship is intensified by blogs and other electronic media, where copying is easier than ever and links can, if used well, show the tentacles of other thinkers reaching into one’s own thinking. You can see aspects of the online debate in innumerable places; a small recent sampling from my own links might include Mourning Old Media’s Decline, If you’re online, are you really reading?, book blogs over search engines, and Twilight of the Books. Personally, I’m not all that worried about blogs and other forms of online media; technological innovation helped produce the novel by making reproduction of written relatively inexpensive, and the Internet is doing the same only moreso. A change in orders of magnitude in the dissemination of information will probably lead to eventual changes we haven’t even pondered yet, and I assume that change will ultimately expand the possibility of how we communicate, just as the novel helped expand the way we see consciousness. Besides, as Andrew Sullivan argues in “Why I Blog” (published in The Atlantic):

Every writer since the printing press has longed for a means to publish himself and reach—instantly—any reader on Earth. Every professional writer has paid some dues waiting for an editor’s nod, or enduring a publisher’s incompetence, or being ground to literary dust by a legion of fact-checkers and copy editors. If you added up the time a writer once had to spend finding an outlet, impressing editors, sucking up to proprietors, and proofreading edits, you’d find another lifetime buried in the interstices. But with one click of the Publish Now button, all these troubles evaporated.

“Why I Blog” rambles even more than this post, but it’s one of the more coherent explanations of blogging I’ve seen—perhaps because it doesn’t come in the form of a blog post. Most writers since before the printing press have probably also dreamed of getting paid for their writing, and it’s not obvious how that’s going to happen online. It’s an important question and one that hasn’t been answered satisfactorily: despite all the talk about the death of print, authors, and various other “traditional” or “old” forms and whatever, I’m still interesting in writing fiction and long nonfiction that’ll be published in print with my name on it, chiefly because that’s the only way to get paid for it in a real sense of the word, and it’s the best way to get professional editing (bonus points to commenters who observe typos in this post). Granted, blogs pay in non-monetary forms like social status and satisfaction. But status doesn’t cover rent or put food on the table, so it’s an imperfect system, and what kind of payment method writers will devise in the future isn’t obvious to me. Writing as a form of advertising or display mechanism for other skills is one possibility, as that’s (a small) part of what Grant Writing Confidential does, even as it provides other benefits, like increasing overall knowledge of how to write proposals, deal with bureaucracies/bureaucrats, make individuals aware of funding opportunities, and the like.

Still, blogs seem here to stay, and authors are likely to continue writing, whether their writing destroys the point of origin—whatever that means. One reason I write blog posts is because the marginal amount of extra effort is just that: marginal. I obviously spend a lot of time reading already, and I do so chiefly because I enjoy it. If I spent 5 to 25 hours on a book, spending another 1 to 3 on a post isn’t difficult, especially if the book is powerful enough to keep me thinking when I’m not reading it. And when I write, I often find that ideas emerge that I didn’t realize I had previously—which is not an experience unique to blogging, I realize, but sometimes the immediacy of the experience can help me bring them out.

As stated above, this post began as an e-mail, and I decided that I’d written enough to create a post on what I originally thought would be on authorship in the Internet age, although it’s turned out somewhat differently than I conceived it. Still, much of the idea and expression work was already done, both on my own (through the e-mail composition process) and through the writing of others (Foucault, Barthes, Wood). The question becomes, why not do the marginal amount of extra work and make whatever thoughts I have available to the rest of the world? And hence, blogging. Maybe it is a useless activity, but if so, I doubt it’s any more useless than the numerous other activities we engage in. And in writing, I realize that I had more thoughts on the subject of blogging, authorship, and incentives than I realized before I started, when I thought I was just going to dash off a quick note about the connection between a conversation in class and reading more generally. Now I’m 1,000 words in before I realize it that letters were to Keats and others might be what blog posts and e-mails are to the great writers of today whose names we don’t yet know.

I say “might” because predicting the future has always been a fool’s game, and the increasing rate of technological change only makes it moreso. But the past does offer a guide, however limited, to the future, and my betting is on cultural production changing around the nature of technology and how we use it. I doubt that will make the novel as such obsolete—perhaps the form will become still more important as a haven of deep thought amid the swells and chatter of blogging—but it might change it, and our conception of who the author is. I don’t think the change, when or as it occurs, will be as profound as some suspect.

To return to the beginning of this essay, maybe the book as an object will survive, and maybe writing fiction and criticism, like all forms of art, is naturally a self-referential activity that causes its practitioners to, in the act of creating, to speculate on why and how they do what they do. In that vein, maybe Barthes is so obsessed with the author and with realism because he cannot escape either or their perpetual pull on the novel. As such, he attacks them out of love and out of love and frustration, the latter because try as he might he can’t escape realism and still be in the novel. So he thrashes about, like someone holding his breath and thinking that doing so for as long as possible proves that one can live without oxygen, while writers (whether of blogs, books, or scholarly detritus, or whatever) continue producing the stories, just as people do to define themselves. We cannot separate the content of the stories from how we tell them or draw a perfect line between the authors we read and the text we produce, causing the endless debates about the nature of writing and expression. At times, the participants fail to see the larger, paradoxical picture of the infinite literary firmament, which is, as I said earlier, greater than any attempts to capture it.

The Wonderful Past

I’ve mentioned Grant Writing Confidential several times recently and will do so once more again, this time because I wrote a post that my father and co-writer there, Isaac Seliger, suggested would be well-suited here as well. He saw the many literary references in The Wonderful Past—to The Name of the Rose, My Name is Red, Plato, and traditional Romance. To be sure, the post focuses on grant writing, but it also illustrates a tendency in literature and culture: idealizing the past or recalling a golden time that may or may not have ever been. Novels like The Name of the Rose wink at this, especially because Adso of Melk lived in 1321 and “wrote” from the perspective of sometime around 1380 – 1400, and the eras he recalled appear ridiculous to modern readers and are distorted by the limits of knowledge then. Nonetheless, this theme is developed seriously in many novels, it’s one that The Lord of the Rings deals with explicitly: the passing of the Elves and their works of great beauty at the end of the Third Age are a time of necessary sorrow. There are many references to fading, passing, and parting, as much of what was fair is subject to one of those fates, but the strength of The Lord of the Rings comes from its mingled sense of hopefulness, necessity, and remembrance, which keep it from becoming morose or sentimental. Its tone is tempered and balanced, with hope present even as the past fades.

Perhaps the most obvious example of an entire book devoted to idealizing the past, especially in comparison to a lessened future, is John Banville in The Sea. I began my commentary on it by noting: “It is not clear what we should take from The Sea.” Almost a year later I’m still not sure what we should take, but its sense of wistfulness over the past is the primary feeling I’ve taken away. As such, I have no good explanation about it, though for a novel that I didn’t love it is often in my thoughts, and I perceive similar themes to lesser or, rarely, greater degrees in so many novels. Yet any explanation I give for it will, I feel, be uncertain or overly speculative at best, but such thoughts about the past remain, and remain noticeable.

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