Death by Writing

canstockphoto8137642In 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 favorite of mine – funny nature narratives and great pictures at theeffstop and her family tales at The King of Isabelle Avenue

A compelling tale at Bethany’s Story

24 Comments on “Death by Writing

  1. Wonderful piece. One of my new-found joys is choosing books without having been previously biased by reviews or profiles. Just the work. Sometimes it’s like discovering gold. “Scatophile” is an A-one word.

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    • Part of the reason for this post is that I’ve been reading work that I envy and I couldn’t figure out what the exact appeal was. Then I realized that I didn’t feel like anything was being asked of me. The writer was giving me a great story and then stepping out of the frame.

      I’d like to thank my world lit teacher for introducing “scatophile” into my vocabulary.

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  2. Gosh, I haven’t heard the name Roland Barthes since grad school. Yeah, it kind of ticks me off how too much of Plath’s life is read back into her poetry. It’s art, not an exact replication of her life. Artists even lie.

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    • I think it really impacts the reader’s experience and what you say about art is exactly right. It is a creation, not a clone and people spend far too much time making the connection between creators and their work. Rarely does knowing more about the creator enhance the reader’s experience and in most cases, actually detracts.

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      • You are right. And the piece ought to be able to stand on its own. I admit I’m curious and like to know more and more, but the art shouldn’t need interpretation through the artist’s life.

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  3. Michelle – thank you! I am indeed honoured. And so pleased that you enjoy my storytelling.
    I’ve been going through quite a bit lately about why I blog/write about our adventures and realised this -Like water finding its own level the blog will find its audience, and is already finding a following on the internet. It has all been such a tremendous learning process for me – to get to the deep knowing that it doesn’t matter if no one reads it, it’s the energy that I send it out with that matters. As best I can I send it into cyberspace as a blessing to the universe, and whether or not anyone reads it is not the point. This has been very freeing. I hope it imbues my work more and more – that there’s absolutely no ulterior motive but the sheer joy of doing it.

    I enjoyed this post very much, and agree with you it’s better not to know about the author so the work can stand on it’s own. I think it applies to any form of art. I’m a huge fan of figure skating and there is a skater Patrick Chan who in my opinion is the best skater the world has seen, even if he falls on his butt during his programs. I won’t go into all the technicalities (rolls eyes) of why he’s in a class of his own. He’s a 3 time world champion though his last 2 wins were controversial. The thing is he’s a loose cannon when he speaks to the media and has said many things he shouldn’t have said (not to the media anyway!) As a result many people who follow the sport hate him as a person. So it’s the same situation – they can’t see his skating, his athletic/artistic creation beyond the “egotistical idiot” they think he is. Shame.

    “Personal narratives are fiction as well. It is the construct in our own minds – how we perceive our own lives and experiences.” This is the part I like best, and I would also add – how we create our own lives and experiences – it’s all narrative. Arguments ensue when one is unable to hear a competing narrative.

    Wow. Sure have written a lot πŸ™‚

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    • I like that idea of reading without having a “competing narrative” and maybe that’s what makes reading so pleasurable – it’s you and the story. Three’s a crowd when the authorial presence or biography has already been firmly planted.

      There is always the question of financially supporting the work of someone who seems otherwise repugnant, but commerce and art appreciation must also be viewed separately.

      I enjoy reading about your travels, because you are able to convey observations without imposing judgment on what you see. That allows us to be travelers, too.

      In terms of blogging, I frequently have to remind myself that the writing is the thing and when I forget that, I post things I’m not particularly proud of or that strike me as too self-referential. You’re right, though, it is like water finding its own level and is definitely learned through experience.

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  4. Thank you for the observation that I write about what I see/experience without imposing judgement on it. I’d never thought about it in that way, but it is important to me. It’s not my place, or desire to judge others. People do the best they can.

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    • I think it’s a very difficult thing to learn initially, because even fiction requires that we let the characters and story take us where they want to go. Once you impose judgment and control, it’s easy to lose integrity in the writing.

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  5. Oh it took me years to learn, a lifetime really, and if someone was coming at me with a knife I might not be so non-judgemental, or towards the Steubenville guys or the infamous Indian rape/murderers. There’s limits, I see, to my being non-judgemental, and yet on some deeper level there is nothing but compassion.
    I’ve never written fiction, and don’t think I can. I’m full of enormous admiration for good fiction writers. How do they do it? But I do see how being judgemental and controlling could really get in the way. It sure gets in the way in real life.

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  6. Well after a day of getting checked and treated for head lice with a family of four, this is a nice thing to come home to. Makes me wish we could have the discussion in person, because of course you can only get about 5% of comprehension this way. But as a thanks for the lovely recognition and honor, I’ll share a passage from A Portrait of the Artist with you, to riff off this righteous riff…

    “The personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalises itself, so to speak. The esthetic image in the dramatic form is life purified in and reprojected from the human imagination. The mystery of esthetic like that of material creation is accomplished. The artist, like a God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” – James Joyce, 1916 (who, as I understand from my English prof was a coprophiliac) Thanks Michelle.

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    • I really like that phrase “refines itself out of existence” – beautiful! It should be a writer’s credo to edit themselves out of existence in a piece. I haven’t mastered it, but the more I think about the writing that appeals to me as a reader, the more I understand what kind of writer I wish to be – truly invisible in a literary sense.

      Thanks for the inspiration, by the way – and sorry about the head lice – we keep crossing our fingers that our elementary student does not bring home unwanted guests!

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  7. Michelle – thanks so much for the mention! I have been thinking about personal narrative and how it is really just my own point of view. I have been writing for the last few weeks and get myself caught in a spiral of trying to convey what I think is true in everyone’s mind – then it hit me – my story can only be true for me. I am the only one who saw it in this particular way. As you say it is a kind of fiction – because my story is not the story of my siblings or other family members. It’s interesting to me to see how connected I get to stories others write, because of how I identify with the writer’s point of view. It’s not my truth, but I see my truth in it somewhere – if that makes sense.

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    • I think personal narrative is a challenge, because as I mentioned to Luanne over at Writer Site, it has to be compelling to the reader, just as fiction does. Sometimes we get so focused on the details of truth, that the real truth is missed. What I like about your writing – especially in regards to your family memoir, is that regardless of your perspective or belief in what your truth is, much of it is observational. You let the reader go on the ride without prompting and leading.

      I wish I could explain it better and it may simply be my preference for writing style. I don’t hear Lorri speaking, I hear a good story being told. I think that’s compelling to me as a reader. Sometimes if the author’s presence is felt – through judgment or attitude, it creates a running dialogue. It’s like trying to hear one conversation in a room of too many people.

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      • That’s an interesting way to look at it – If I moved out of the way in my writing it was pure accident. πŸ™‚ Now that you mention it there are very few things I have read that stuck with me that had that overt presence you refer to. Hmmmm – you always give me something to ponder.

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        • That’s exactly a good way to put it – getting out of our own way in writing. I think at some point in my novel, I stopped trying to control everything and that’s when the story got interesting.

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  8. Art Transparency and Analysis! Great topics!!

    You touched on what has always bothered me about Art Analysis! How do you know?! “The artist refused to use much blue during this period, because he was lonely as a child in a bedroom with blue walls.” Yeah, okay, or maybe he was just low on blue paint that week.

    I trust, mostly, what is there in the work. And maybe what the artist says about their own work. And to a lesser degree, maybe what a genuine expert might have to say. But mostly just what’s there.

    That said, I do find that extra knowledge and context can be interesting and can enhance the appreciation. I do not have the experience you did of having it ruin the work. I don’t think it’s necessary, but for me it seems to always enhance.

    There is an interesting debate to be had about art that deliberately requires the consumer to know more, to bring something to the mix. TV shows with season-long (or series-long) arcs require that. And truly seeing some art is strongly dependent on knowing the context. Comedy can be strongly linked to current events.

    And how many people today know that Bugs Bunny and the carrot and the whole “What’s up doc?” business is a direct mirroring of Clark Gable in It Happened One Night? Audiences at the time understood the reference easily. Today it’s all but lost..

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    • I think I get distracted by biographical information, if I know it prior to seeing a performance or reading a book. Context and literary allusion are a little different. For instance, I’d obviously prefer to know more general information while reading things that use a lot of pop culture or biblical or historical references. It doesn’t help me to know that the actor or writer has been in and out of rehab or that the book was written on napkins. These are interesting after the fact, but cloud my own “discovery” process, which is one of the aspects of reading that I value.

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  9. Pingback: Performing My Life: Writing Memoir | Writer Site

  10. Great post, I totally agree with your point. I also find it frustrating when critics talk about what the writer or artist ‘intended’ with their work. Unless the author has said it themselves, no one can know what their intention was. And I want to see the story or painting for what I, as the reader or viewer, feel about it.

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  11. I made the error once of interviewing, in person, a female humor writer whose work I had adored for years. I was so excited to finally meet her! Oy. Humorless, rude, insecure — her first words to me were “Is this an assignment or are you writing on spec?” That was the end of that love affair.

    It is easy to forget (and sometimes better) that writers are real people behind their stories. I once gave a lousy review to a book by Michael Dorris (Louise Erdrich’s late husband) and he wrote to me personally, quite angry with me. He later committed suicide. You can imagine how that felt.

    I just read (astonishing stuff, highly recommended) the Patrick Melrose novels by British writer Edward St Aubyn…they are elegant but grim; the boy character we watch grow up is raped by his father when the boy is five and later becomes a heroin addict — both of which the author experienced. It made me a little queasy to learn that, but it also explains the astonishingly specific and moving details of both experiences he describes his character surviving. Knowing that he is the boy here (in many respects) actually made me admire him and his work even more. Many people would never have made it out, nor written about it with such power.

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    • Your wide range of experiences show that learning about the creator behind the work can be hit or miss – either detracting from or enhancing the work. I like to know credentials when reading nonfiction, but sometimes good fiction just blows me away and I do want to know the creator’s background. I have often been saddened to read something outstanding and to then find out the author is deceased.

      If I recall, Michael Dorris had a great many issues unrelated to bad reviews – the death of his oldest son, sexual and physical abuse allegations by his children, his divorce from Erdrich, alcohol abuse issues. The Star Tribune covered the story here, as Erdrich is a Minnesota native. Dorris’ public and private persona were two entirely different things, which begs another question: Do we appreciate art created by humans that behave beyond the pale?

      I’ve just started reading The Death and Return of the Author by Sean Burke and it has fueled my interest in the subject even further.

      Thanks, Caitlin for sharing your experiences. Someday I hope that you compile them into a memoir!

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