Text, Us, and Authority

by Sherwood Smith

I go out bike riding most evenings, timing it for when the punishing Southern California sun is just about to sink. As the shadows deepen, lights pop on here and there, but windows are usually still open. So I was cruising along yesterday, and a light pops on, and there’s a man busy working at a desk. I only caught a glimpse. He was probably wearing a lightweight t-shirt, but the color was dun, it was loose, and fact that the man’s hair was thinning on top all coalesced to give me this odd sense of staring down the tunnel of time to a monk sitting by a window to catch the last light of day while working on recopying a Latin text.

The Purity of Text

In the monk’s day, when few in Western Europe were literate, and most texts copied (after all, it was a laborious process, from the making of the paper and ink to the careful decoration of holy words in the text, for those who could afford it) were authoritative, conveying down the years the sense that if it was written, it was Truth.

I’m sure the access to cheap print eroded 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 early Renaissance thinkers at one end of that period of vast change, and the Reformation thinkers at the other, also helped erode the sense of books = Truth, but of course that would only be for the literate. The vast majority of Europeans never saw a book, except maybe when they went to church or temple.

Here’s my guess. Enough of that sense of textual authority persisted, which I suspect helped evolve a once-cherished 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.

Because we were students, and what the professor said was akin to the Ten Commandments, (and because I was usually the slowest bozo on the bus), it didn’t occur to me for years that the professors were telling us that the text was surrounded by an intellectual cordon sanitaire. . . yet we were supposed to accept as gospel whatever the profs told us to think about the text, because most of them made it fairly clear by grading that there was only one way to interpret a text: the prof’s.

Eventually, even I figured out that what I think about a given text is as legitimate as what others think about it. Reading analysis and criticism after that ceased to be frustrating when I wasn’t trying to figure out who was an Authority and why. I began to love reading criticism from that time.

Back to text and authority. 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 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. University professors were largely men, so their tastes were reflected in what was considered good literature.

But we know that people have also managed to hand down their favorites, whether those had the sanction of university pundits or not. Book discussion groups and social circles were one way for readers to engage in discussion of text; at the end of the 2oth century, along came the Net. Here we’ve 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. And 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 in the last year or two:

*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?

The obvious answer is to do them well, that is, strive to make them as much like their originals as possible, though this answer diffuses when one considers situations where Mr. Darcy is turned into a vampire, or we get extensive descriptions of his sex life. There is as little textual support for either of these as there is for Jane Austen choosing to run off to London in order to commence a life as a sleuth. Yet there is a sizable audience paying good money to accept all three.

Some deplore this exploitation of works of art, others see it as a creative engagement. I wonder if this fashion is a reflection of our fragmented age, with its partial paradigms cracked by doubts, the fantastical refashioning of other times, often giving them a mellow overlay that didn’t actually exist for contemporary readers.

All we have of Jane Austen’s time are the wonderful books, and some of the beautiful furniture, drawings and art, houses both picturesque and grand. The pain of personal tragedies has long diminished into quiet cemeteries, and gone are the ‘dirty’ roads, the flies and the stinks. And so we weave stories around the things we have left, the pretty things, the comfortable things. We can escape the anxiety of not knowing our future by sinking into a past carefully constructed of the bits we like—bits recognizable enough to carry that gravitas—safe in the knowledge that “all that” is in the past. We know what is going to happen.

It’s probably another subject, but another thing that interests me is the shift from history to fiction, in other words, when real figures begin to show up in fiction, accruing details that never occurred in their real lives. We’ve been mythologizing once-living figures for a very long time; some are recognizable, like Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, or in Chinese history and mythology, Lady Sun (Sun Shangxiang), but others, like King Arthur, may or may not have been based on a living person. How these people become part of the stories we tell, and why, seems to tie into authority in a sideways manner. Or maybe that’s just in my head. What do you think?

Sherwood Smith is a member of Book View Cafe



Text, Us, and Authority — 27 Comments

  1. For a very long time it has seemed to me works stand on their own because, in the end, neither author nor commentator will be present when the work is read. Even if the author’s comments on the work are available as one reads, the comments aren’t part of the work. (Or else the work is a long stream that includes the comments.) As Susannah Clarke said, discussing Strange and Norrell (scroll to the bottom, or read the whole thing), “The author couldn’t come. The author has left the building. She left when the book was finished.” The person who wrote the book is not the person discussing the book–even, I think, while the writing is in process.

    I deal day-to-day with scientific papers and technical references, which involve a very different sort of authority. We hope that they are accurate (authoritative, perhaps) accounts of reality. Yet the final authority on such texts is reality, and the texts are made to bow to it, though it can sometimes take a very long time to make them do so.

  2. A small point– not all hand-copied books were illuminated. Some were made, relatively speaking, on the cheap. They were still valuable, of course, not just because of the amount of hand work in them, but because they were written on parchment or vellum– stuff that’s still expensive.

    We’re likely to only see reproductions of illuminated books (or the illuminated pages of books which aren’t thoroughly illuminated) because those are the most interesting to look at.

  3. Two things go on in an encounter with any kind of text, and I am including visual art in that category. One is the emotional response. I suppose indifference is an emotional response, too. But the other thing is the understanding of the author’s purpose or intended meaning. I’ve had strong reactions to works I didn’t understand, but eventual understanding deepened the appreciation and response.

    I guess I’m trying to say that I think “authority” can be a positive thing if the “authority” wants to bring the reader to understanding, which the reader might not have, rather than impose an opinion on him.

  4. “yet we were supposed to accept as gospel whatever the profs told us to think about the text, because most of them made it fairly clear by grading that there was only one way to interpret a text: the prof’s.”

    My very first semester in college, I had an English prof who did exactly NOT that. He said that we could present any interpretation we wanted, but we had to justify it. He, more than any other teacher I ever had, taught me to THINK. And then I discovered how rare his approach was–and haven’t been a big fan of academia ever since.

    It seems to me that if an author has to say what a text means because NO one is “getting it,” the author didn’t do a very good job. But that’s probably very seldom the case.

    When I was a teenager, I wrote a poem (it actually won second place in a contest) in which I had the line “Someone may have seen and thought of something new to him.” (Couldn’t use “them” as a singular in the 1960s.) When I write or speak about ideas or my opinions, that is always my primary goal: that someone thinks of something new to them–even if that new thing is a really good argument against my position.

  5. Randolph: The author has left the building–that’s certainly going to be more true after the author is dead, if the reader comes on the text without encountering the author first, and all that’s said about her. It seems more difficult to encounter a text in isolation, though that could just be me: I am surrounded by interaction with text, and tend to approach works because of what I’ve heard about them.

    Nancy Lebovitz: Didn’t mean to imply that (a tour through Melk was proof enough!) so it’s fixed.

    Pilgrimsoul: So how do you attribute authority–whether the commentary is convincing? Or is there some outward process by which you accept textual commentary as authoritative?

    Here’s a thing . . . a very astute reviewer today commented on something I thought fairly basic fare, and detects possible signs of genius. Is that authority, or someone imposing patterns where the patterns might not actually exist? (Except if one perceives such a pattern, does that cause it to exist?)

    Carol Kennedy: “Something new”–oh yes. That resonates deeply with my experience.

  6. An interesting question on authority. Experience and/or superior knowledge is necessary, I think, because they allow one to get someone to look in new ways and see things she has not seen before. But to that must be added the willingness to let the viewer look and see and come to deeper understanding.
    But, yes, the commentary must be convincing. By that I mean that there is evidence for interpretation.
    Because I said so won’t cut it.

  7. I was interested in your bulleted list of things you’ve observed in the past few years. Most of them I noticed too, and found fascinating and unnerving. Certainly worth *lots* of thought.

    It’s interesting to see current, not-so-very famous people become fictionalized. Well, actually I’ve only seen it once, that I can recall, but a bunch of writers, earlier this year, made up extravagant “memories” of another writer, and put them up, all on the same day. At first I thought I was reading stories about a fictional character–then I realized the guy was real! And had actually had a pretty exciting life, but the stories were taking it one step beyond, of course.

  8. Asakiyume: What a fun thing, to make up a life for a real person . . . and that leads me to imagine someone encountering this series of posts in the future, while delving down and down into the deeper layers of the Net, and taking it as biographical.

    Or, it reminds me of the story that Vonda McIntyre told about how her Starfarers sf novels came into being.

  9. Asakiyume: She talks about it here. And by the way, if you click on her name on the right sidebar here, you go straight to her BVC novel page, where you can find the first book for free.

    I have it on my Kindle right now–it’s a good read.

    This would be another interesting thing to explore, how hoaxes, or ads, or throwaway ideas end up being something really good. For example, back when Disney Channel was young and hungry, one of their story people, Jymn Magon, was assigned to come up with “something” for the Gummi Bears candies. He came up with a terrific show.

    They also did that with the Pirates of the Caribbean ride–but I think there the link to Tim Powers is fairly overt.

  10. I had a few English and German teachers of the “The text exists in isolation and only my reading is gospel” type in highschool. One of them put me off Hemingway for life. I also vividly recall arguing down a German teacher’s very male reading of Lessing’s Emilia Galotti as being about the emancipation of bourgeoisie and the killing of Emilia as a totally justified as a way of sticking it to the nobility, while the teenage girls in the class viewed it as a play about an honour killing (not that we would have known that term back then) and refused to both have sympathy for Emilia’s father and budge in our position.

    Many of my teachers also had the infuriating tendency never to explain historical and social background details to the texts – another legacy of the “text in isolation” school. I remember that I once got snapped at by my German teacher, because I did not know what the word “latrine” meant – because middle class teens in the 1980s can totally be expected to know about latrines.

    I got the tail end of the “text in isolation” school of thought, because by the time I got to university, those people were mostly gone. It actually persisted longer in schools than universities, because the school teachers who had been taught by those professors stuck around for several decades more.

    Regarding using real people, living or dead, in fiction – the few times I’ve done that I found it an enormous ethical dilemma, because what if I accidentally misrepresent or slander an actual person? Of course, I researched those people as well as I could, so I had a reasonable basis for my portrayal. Besides, the historical figures in question were long dead.

    Actually, whether the historical figures in question are long dead and whether they have living direct descendants is the ethical dividing line for me. It’s why I love The Anubis Gates and On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers, but have enormous issues with Declare – because the real people mentioned in Declare have only been dead twenty years or so and still had living descendants.

    That’s also why I have no problems with fan fiction, but find real person slash morally problematic, even though the actors or rock stars or sports stars featured in real person slash will likely never read or find it.

  11. Sherwood, pretty much any of the 1980s cartoons that were basically glorified toy commercials (He-Man, She-Ra, MASK, Transformers, Strawberry Shortcake, etc…) would be excellent examples for that. Their sole raison d’etre was selling toys, but some of them managed to weave a pretty good story and memorable imagery around those toys. And Transformers of course got a big budget live action remake with two sequels that introduced the story to a whole new generation.

  12. You’re talking about the New Criticism, re the Text Solo.

    But that was devised by Southerners of the modern era when the Civil Rights movements were beginning to create national attention to Jim Crowe conditions that ruled the nation post the Civil War. Partly also this disappeared what the Civil War was about. The New Critics did not wish to look at Southern-created literature in the context of slavery, and did not want you to, either. This is another reason Faulkner had to find another style to compose his texts from: that kind of writing reflected the denial and the obfuscation and obscurity in which certain things about our way of life contained and how we did things, some things which we don’t even put into words, and those who do put them into words have violated community cohesion. It was a very sophisticated strategy. How conscious it was I don’t know enough about the devisers of the New Criticism to say. Often the most successful strategies operate purely from instinct!

    Query: could you expand on what Dante had to do with the proliferation of books in the Reformation era, as he died over a century before that.

    Love, C.

  13. Foxessa: I don’t think Dante had anything to do with the proliferation of books directly, but indirectly, as he and others (including painters)perceived that the classical world was not exactly the same as the medieval–that they not only lived and dressed differently but viewed the world altogether differently–giving rise to the shift from the Great Chain of Being to a different paradigm, and a rediscovery of the ancient texts.

    Cora: That is a very interesting distinction about Declare and Powers’ earlier works. I actually had more trouble with his depiction of Byron etc, as they didn’t seem like the images of the Shelley circle that had emerged from my readings, but Mileage, as they say, Varies.

    Yes! I totally forgot about the toys. And yes, about the persistence of the text in isolation school through schools. Though over here, through the seventies, so many schools had abandoned reading the classics in favor of readers with snips of classics.

    And I had to laugh–your description of Emilia Galotti brought back my German class’s discussion of it. Our prof was an East German escapee, and he hammered us about that male-centric interpretation. For him there was exactly one meaning: emancipation of bourgeoisie, and woe betide anyone who didn’t reproduce his points exactly in our tests. I haven’t reread that one since.

  14. Carol, the “finding something new to them” concept resonates with me, too. Not only do I hope to do that with my own writing, but it’s why I read as widely as I can, talk to people, go to WisCon: I’m always looking for that new idea, that new angle, that something that gives me a different slant on things.

    BTW, we had an excellent panel at WisCon on Nisi Shawl’s story “Deep End” at WisCon in which people talked about different things they got from the story. We could have gone on for hours. Asked about some of the observations, Nisi said, “I thought it was a very simple, straightforward story,” though she didn’t necessarily disagree with some of the points of discussion.

  15. Lol, I’ve gone through the whole shenagian from Text as Part of the Author’s Biography, to Texts in Isolation to the Discourse and Intertextuality fun at university. And noticed that the latter theoretical approach works surprisingly well for Medieaval literature.

    It also seems that I can count myself lucky in my teachers. I never had one who insisted of his/her reading to be the only one. Or maybe they didn’t want to argue with a kid who’d read more books than they (that counts at least for one of our school teachers). 😉

  16. The discussion of real people in fiction makes me think of the program notes from a version of The Sound of Music that I saw over the weekend. There were quotes from — an interview, I think — with the eldest von Trapp daughter (not named Liesel), who pointed out a couple of really big deviations from reality (among other things, their father was not a tyrant; he was a kind and loving man who in fact taught them to make music), and said that she had seen it three times, all because people had asked her to, and she did not want to see it again, “because it would be a good story if it didn’t use [their] name.”

  17. I think the text-in-isolation thing also stemmed from a desire to make lit crit more scientific. If you could put Tom Jones between two glass slides in a sterile environment and describe what you saw, then you were the next best thing to being in a white coat, with research grants to match.

    By contrast, the authority in medieval times was usually ascribed to a person, rather than a text: “Aristotle saith”, “Pliny holdeth”, “Galen pronounceth”, etc etc. In many cases we only know those authors through their texts, but I think the difference is important in the context of your discussion.

  18. Miriam: Oh, I can imagine how strange that would be for her. What an odd position to be in!

    Charlie Butler: Yes, yes! About the ‘scientific’ approach to literature. Oh yes, the days when the scientist’s white coat was regarded as priestly garb. (Remember when the covers of science fiction magazines all had their white-coated scientists ministering to their mysterious machines up on daises, like the front of a church?)

    That’s true about the medieval ascriptions, but then the writers would blithely borrow, change, and extrapolate text with all the panache of the current writers who are injecting zombies into classics, and spinning stories around the writers of those classics.

  19. Not to mention the sacred art of forgery, because to the medieval (Western) mind, the motive justified the means. So let’s invent a “Donation of Constantine” to serve our holy cause, and it’s not really a lie, it’s a kind of meta-truth. Our truth. That we believe in. Because we are right.

    The one thing you could not do without apologizing profusely was to innovate. You were supposed to stand on the shoulders of those ancient giants. If you stood on your own feet, you were getting above yourself.

    In fact originality did not become a fetish until well into the modern era. All writing was supposed to be derivative and imitative–and that was considered its best virtue.

    So, fanfic? Totally classical in inspiration.

  20. The interaction between reader and author on the net made me think of a discussion I had with my housemate the other day. I was trying to explain the difference between narrator and author and why it was important to have a difference, and she was trying to explain why she didn’t see the difference as important at all. I’m not sure that either of us actually understood the other person by the time we gave up and went to bed.

  21. Danceswithwaves: That could be a very interesting discussion indeed. But it sounds like everybody first needs to define their terms and make sure all are on the same page before proceeding. (This can be the downside of such discussions, as it’s not like math, where we all know what prime numbers and equations are.)

  22. My favorite literature class in college was Intro to Modern Japanese Lit, because it had a completely different approach to the text than most of the western literature classes. Just from my experience of writing, it seems pretty obvious that the death of the author is a good thing, because a novel is not a direct expression of the author’s opinions and psychoses. If it were, we might be arresting James Patterson and his stable for being serial killers, or Nabokov for pedophilia. But the death of the context is a terrible thing.

    I’ve never had a class where the professor told you what to think about a book. It kind of defeats the purpose of having a class in the first place, really. But a lot of them just sketched out some idea of the context, or expected us to learn about it from the text itself. The Japanese Lit class was different, because it started from the beginning, this is the historical situation, this is the political situation, this is the literary situation, this is what the author did with his life, his social group, personal friends, countries he visited, political stances. And then you have the text.

    There is no text out of context, either your context or another one. But without knowing the author’s context you’ll miss all the jokes. My favorite part was when we learned about the popularity of the I-Novel, where the narrator and the author were conflated, and realism was so highly prized that any breath of coincidence or, say, plot, was frowned on heavily. And there were a group of novelists who were reacting to this literary movement, by innovating the unreliable narrator, just to mess with people’s heads. It was great.

  23. I just put up a commentary/reaction to your post on Obsidian Wings.

    To cross-post the relevant bits:

    When other people love a text that I think is without any corresponding worth, I’ve found that any one or a combo platter of things are going on:

    1. They don’t have much fiction in their lives, and much of what they love is *story*. I suspect a good deal of the popularity of the “Left Behind” books comes from this, a story-deprived subculture finally getting some stories they’re allowed to love.

    2. The specific text is part of something — a fandom, an experience, a subgenre, a subculture — that they love already, and reading it reminds them of all the joy of the larger experience. It’s as though the text is a semi-transparent lens, laid on top of a larger pattern. It’s the *pattern* they’re loving, at least as much as the lens, but the lens allows them to focus on the pattern.

    3. They really do see things I don’t see. If the story is in a particular fandom, there may be details that resonate with other stories or discussion in that fandom, elements that play off or play against other popular stories and themes.

    4. They are making up details or backstory in their own minds, fleshing out the story without even realizing it. Or they may realize they’re doing it, but they love that feeling, so they love the story that gives it to them.

    In a textual-critical discussion of a certain fanfic AU a while back, I said that I had problems with character A’s behavior, it didn’t match how he seemed to behave in canon.

    One reader said she noticed the difference but it didn’t bother her, because she figured that in this alternate universe A had had a more difficult childhood than he had in canon, so it was natural that he’d behave in such-and-such a way.

    I said: but that’s not in the text. She said: maybe not, but it’s in *my mind* as I read it, and that’s good enough for me.

    Basically, she was willing to make up parts of the story in her mind so that she could go on enjoying it. I suspect she was only unusual in being conscious of what she was doing, and that in fact people do this *all the time*, whether they’re reading fanfic or Great Literature.

    How do you pin down meaning, when readers are going to bring emotion and experience to a text, however they came by it? is: you don’t. Or at least, you don’t do it in something that’s worth re-reading.

    A text that really, truly pins down meaning is called “math”. You don’t need to read Pythagoras to understand the Pythagorean theorem — indeed, it’s best not to, ancient mathematics proofs are very difficult to read and understand. Once you understand the theorem, you don’t need to re-read your old math textbook: you’ve *got* the meaning, now you can use it. If a text is worth re-reading, that’s proof that there are multiple ways of reading it, and that its “meaning” is an emergent property, something found neither in the text nor the reader alone.

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