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?