Textual Purity







I’m beginning with the assumption that before print, when few in Western Europe were literate, and most texts copied laboriously, there was a sense that texts were authoritative, or truth.

I’m also assuming that the access to cheap print helped erode that, especially with the Reformation coming hot on the heels of print books, and a brisk trade in forbidden books keeping printers afloat. I also wonder if the flood of translated texts inspired by Dante and the Reformation also helped erode that.

But I’m going to assume that enough of a sense of textual authority persisted that propagated the scholarly position, taught when I was in high school and college, that the text existed in isolation. That what the author said about the text might be interesting, sometimes was laughable, occasionally insightful, but always it was irrelevant: the text must stand alone. Its meaning existed outside of the authorial existence, surrounded by an intellectual cordon sanitaire.

We already know that publishing history has largely been in the hands of men, and quite naturally (believing themselves to be the sex designed for authority) they published authoritative texts about texts for one another.

Two hundred years ago, literary salons gave insiders access. The elite, socially involved on a daily basis with authors as well as the publishing process, gained authority. Social groups who met to discuss books were another way for readers to engage in discussion of text, and then along came the Net.

Now we have the interconnectedness of artist and viewer, writer and reader, maker and consumer. So actually, encountering a text in isolation can become a challenge, as everywhere people cry, “No spoilers!” in an effort to choke off the tumble of discussion until everyone has had a chance to read. As for textual authority . . . who has it now?

Writers and Readers

Watching authors and readers interact over a text in Netspace has been fascinating and occasionally unnerving, even disturbing. I think that the lack of physical space—the author on a podium, the readers below in chairs facing the podium—has reinforced the sense of equality, and also of anonymity. It’s so much easier to deliver drive-by criticism from behind a user nym.

Things I’ve seen recently:

*People angry with an author who talked about why she was making world-building choices for a book some time before it was published, carry their impressions of the discussion to the book, or decide that the book will not be read because of that discussion.

*Writers with sufficient personal charisma become Personalities on the Net, which creates a receptive audience for their texts . . . the text is popular before it even appears.

*A writer of a piece tells her fans what the text means (that it is great literature), though there is no sign of any of that meaning, power, or glory when I actually read the text. Should I lay the explained meaning over the piece in a mental palimpsest because I read the explanations? Is that what those adoring readers are doing, or do they really see something there that I do not see? How do you pin down meaning, when readers are going to bring emotion and experience to a text, however they came by it?

If the answer is no, I should separate the author’s pronouncements on her text from what I actually saw in the text, then I shouldn’t bring to a book the knowledge that this other writer over here is steeped in a certain type of history? Though my sense that some of the incidents in the book might be based on real experience added to my sense of enjoyment?

Our Affair with Text

Fanfiction exists beside its (canon? Interconnected? Utterly separate?) text, it engages with it, it flirts and teases and marries and has children.

The artistic conversation intrinsic to fanfiction has been talked about before. It’s been going on for centuries, for example the thousand year love affair that Western Europe has carried on with the Arthurian saga. Over those centuries, writers have enjoyed that story in every possible combination, permutation, degree. Like fanfiction writers now, those ancient writers usually didn’t make a cent off it, but the stories had to be told anyway.

What about a text that is a cultural icon, and depends on that gravitas for the joke when it’s changed? Like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Which raises another question, in these days of zombies attacking the quiet English countryside of Jane Austen’s novels, or real historical (or fictional) figures suddenly revealing a secret career as detectives, is there an ethical obligation in fictionalizing real people? Or in borrowing famous figures from other books?



Textual Purity — 13 Comments

  1. Well, history has always been fictionalized–often by the actors themselves, but I don’t think Miss Austen or Dickens, etc. have been well served by being turned into detectives. I didn’t care for the zombies, either.
    Technology has certainly made a difference. One sort of textual authority erodes; others take its place. My students take Wikipedia for gospel, for instance, but too many people believe if they read, no matter where they’ve read it.

  2. A lot of meaty questions and ideas, here.

    I do think that the idea of a sacrosanct text is one of those platonic ideals of a text that never really existed, although many people thought they would. Those monks in the monasteries copying older works made decisions on what they copied, and what got passed on. (Consider the books of the Bible). I think for the Western Tradition, the stories of King Arthur are an example of early fan fiction, authors borrowing from older stuff (de Troyes and the early versions) and remixing them to their like. Is the One and Future King really T.H. White’s attempt at Arthurian fan fiction?

    • The monks knew they were tweaking text (or clarifying) I think, though my medieval scholarship is hazy at best. But it seems from my distance that more authority was given text, in particular because so few read. I apprehend a sense of gravitas given the written word, as read. Though I could be wrong, of course.

      But oh yes–Arthuriana is, in my view, the grandest arc of fanfic of all, spreading over the entirety of Europe, and handed off from century to century.

      • Alfred the Great could add entire new books to works he translated. C. S. Lewis got an essay out of what Chaucer really did, reworking the story for his Troilus and Cressida. The Middle Ages had a loose attitude toward translation and retelling.

      • They weren’t always monks (by any means – there were professional scribes outside monasteries) and it was quite legitimate to do rather more than tweak a text. Some textual traditions didn’t even allow tweaking (the Torah) and some allowed significant retelling (the romans, the chanson de geste). Not all versions were even in the same language. The history of texts was just as complicated in the Middle Ages as it is now.

      • I wonder if some of the textual ownership issues stem from the idea of an individual as the owner of a creative work. In the case of Arthuriana, was there ever really a core definitive text that belonged to one writer? (Geoffrey of Monmouth, who I think is the earliest textual resource, is certainly citing oral tradition in his History…) The idea seems to me that the “text” (told or written) belonged to the community rather than the individual.

        With the advent of copyright (and us writers wanting to make a living telling stories), there’s a different sense of ownership when it comes to characters — legally, the intellectual property belongs to the person who created it (or the company that contracted with an author on a work-for-hire work…). Thus, readers have a sense of ownership because they love the world and the works, but they have no legal claim.

        Which means there’s an interesting parallel in ownership between oral storytelling and storytelling in the age of internet, when the readers can discuss their thoughts in communities, rather than in solitude or lit classes.

        Just some musing here. I’m not sure if I’ve just used your blog as a jumping off point or if I’m being relevant. 🙂

  3. There can be no purity (a fact I’m VERY GRATEFUL for)–every work builds on past works, directly or indirectly–at the very least works share language and metaphors, then images, common folk motifs. So long as there’s no deception going on, I’m of the anything-goes school. (Not to say I **like** everything, but just that if someone wants to mix peppermint and tomatoes, metaphorically speaking, they should go for it.)

    • I have been coming more and more to the conclusion that everything in literature is in conversation with everything else–across cultures and time as well as in-the-now.

  4. “A writer of a piece tells her fans what the text means (that it is great literature), though there is no sign of any of that meaning, power, or glory when I actually read the text.” You know, a cousin with this that I’ve seen is the Lucasarts habit of having things in related media that they expect to be able to argue from about the Star Wars movies. Sure they had a girl Jedi character in Episodes 1-3! That kid who didn’t have a speaking role–you should know her name and her back story, and the fact that she didn’t have a speaking role in the movies that were the main event shouldn’t matter, because she got explained in *related media*. So those of us who were crushed when Princess Leia didn’t get a light saber in “Return of the Jedi” and waited 15 years for that to be remedied should still feel fine about it, because it’s all there…sort of.

    And the thing is, I’m not prepared to argue that everything about a book (or movie, or comic, or song) needs to be explicitly present in the work. I don’t need Cory Doctorow to title his book _Little Brother Which Is A Reference To Big Brother From 1984 Written By George Orwell_. It’s that I think you need to be careful when you’re referring to *yourself*, and you particularly need to be careful when you’re referring to yourself in your *less popular work*. Right now my published work is all in short stories, but I know very well that short stories tend to have less circulation than novels–so if I do manage to get a novel sold, I can’t rely on saying to readers, “Oh, well, if you’d *read the short story*, you would *know*”–even though I’ve had a chance for short stories to come first. And I feel that most blogs are like that. Most magazine interviews are like that.

    Even when you’re referring to something much more famous than yourself, like Dickens or Shakespeare, it’s your job to get it across to the reader. If you don’t–it’s the same thing as if you don’t get across grandeur. Getting those things across is our job. Sometimes the particular reader is just not reading carefully. But sometimes we’re not writing carefully. And writing so that the reader would have to read a post-publication interview with us to get what we meant? Is very much not writing carefully.

    • That is an interesting thought. I wonder if Bulwer-Lytton was doing the self-reference. His introductions to the late, fancy edition of all his works (Pelham suitably bowdlerized to mitigate some of the insouciance) make it clear that he thought his work an important part of nineteenth century lit. (To which Trollope agreed, naming him among the greats when he talked about them in his autobiography.)

  5. In the long run, the text has to speak for itself, for the author will not be present to speak for it. That seems to me the reality around which all this discussion circles.

    Other than that, I have three contradictory thoughts:
    1. Is the idea of a sacrosanct text ultimately religious in origin? The idea that the words, and sometimes even the letters, themselves have power is a religious or magical notion. In Judaic custom, a Torah scroll is considered a living thing; when it is worn out, it is buried and the prayers for the dead are said over it.

    2. The idea of a “true” version of a text comes from a time when texts were scarce, not, as they are now, common as dirt. Contact with the author was not possible for most people at most times.

    3. Some texts are “true” because they reflect external realities. Mathematical formulas and physical data fall into this category; no-one wants to work with the wrong melting point for gold. Are there truths in fictional texts which might aspire to similar authority?

    A lot there, and none of it fits together. Um…

    Oh, well, chores to do.