Death by Writing
In 1967 Roland Barthes, a French literary critic, wrote an article titled “The Death of the Author”. His theory was that the writing and writer were to be regarded as separate entities, that literature should not be interpreted through the lens of knowledge of an author’s life. Therefore, to gain real readers, the author must disappear from the landscape or die a metaphorical death, allowing the work to stand on its own.
I like that idea. I like the idea that whatever fiction I write, it will stand or fall on its own merit. And I can go back in my corner and write some more. Blogging is a little different, but it’s easy to spot the writers who blog. Bill over at Pinklightsabre’s Blog is a storyteller. His narratives are personal and authentic, but I read them with a slight envy. There is a distance in his tales that lets the reader take it in, but not necessarily feel the need to engage. Tricky for a blogger, but when the writing’s the thing, the story, not the author, is what matters.
Personal narratives are fiction as well. It is the construct in our own minds – how we perceive our own lives and experiences. I have written about the domestic violence I grew up with. It elicited an emotional response from some readers, which sometimes made me feel awkward. It’s my story, but it’s about a person a long time ago, about issues that I’ve long since resolved in my own mind. I rarely write about things that are raw and unprocessed – a rough draft of disorganized memories and unfocused feelings is not skilled work. Writing is the art of giving shape and form to a story, whether it be personal essay or a work of fiction.
This idea of a work being able to stand on its own merit, with no knowledge of the biases or history of the writer, is a freedom we can give to readers. I saw an interview with the author Cormac McCarthy regarding punctuation. I’ll be damned if that did not entirely ruin reading his books for me. I could not stop noticing the lack of punctuation, spending the entire time arguing with myself about the merits of a comma. Had I not seen that interview, I would have read his work, liking or disliking it on its own merits.
Many years ago, I took a literature class that included Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Scholars took an opposite tact, divining aspects of Swift’s character from his writing. I find that notion scary and inaccurate. I didn’t take away a better understanding of satirical writing, but I will forever remember Swift as a scatophile and misogynist. That kind of description of an author’s character, derived from his or her writing, is enough to bring a writer’s creative license to a screeching halt.
Barthes’ article refers to the traditional telling of tales. There was the story and then the teller or shaman or mediator – the human bridge between a story, often of unknown origin, and its audience. Writers are exhorted to “find your voice” from workshops to the legions of writing advice books. There’s a note of narcissism – this sense that you are your own cult of personality. But that voice is an amalgam of experiences, conversations, sights – sources that may never be sorted and categorized. Who knows if a conversation I heard on the Metro eons ago has been recreated on a page. It’s not part of my conscious recollection.
Works of art, writing and music are often more admirable than the creators. It can be a work that transforms and inspires and moves you to tears. It’s better not to know that it was sung, written or painted by some drug-addled dilettante or wife beating anti-Semite. We need to stop lauding, judging or fawning over creators and start looking at the work. Karma will out if the human behind it has an agenda, a manufactured motivation. The work will not stand.
Writing is a marvelous human endeavor, but to try and suss out the actual human is an exercise in futility. It is a chronic issue today, when everyone feels the need to know everything about everyone else. We often know more about a writer or actor or musician than about their work and accomplishments. It denigrates the level of discourse and misses out on the real beauty of art – to appreciate it on its own merits and through our own eyes. It should be a personal journey, not a tour bus of flawed strangers whispering in our ears.
Here are some other blogging storytellers that I enjoy reading:
Tales of travel at Adventures in Wonderland
Clear-eyed narration of troubling stories at What’s Broken
A compelling tale at Bethany’s Story