This will probably be a recurring title as I work on finishing my MA. I love authors. My favorite authors also tend to be literary critics.
LikeT.S. Eliot. I love him. Yeah he was kind of a jerk (or really, whatever), but not only was he a great poet, he was an excellent theorist. Decades before Barthes, Eliot advocated for authors to be disregarded while reading a work.
I don’t do this.
It’s not because I don’t like Eliot (see above), it’s just that I can’t! I love to learn things, anything, and when it comes to authors I really enjoy learning about them and their time. It opens up so much for me when I read their work.
But I don’t get bound by them either. I think only red-herrings are more annoying to me than an author trying to control how I understand the work they’ve created. I don’t completely discount them, but authors aren’t God (sorry authors). As much as some of you would like to think you’re omniscient, especially concerning your works, you aren’t. I think it would be impossible. Even in this post, a relatively non-creative work, I will see ideas, insights, flashes of stories, brief reflections of brilliance, and so much more that I am not intending in this moment as I write.
Why don’t I know everything if I’m the author? Well, partly because I’m not smart enough to keep track of all of my thoughts and influences consciously, but also partly because language is dynamic. These words might not mean the same thing to me tomorrow that they do now. Don’t believe me? What did September 11 mean in 2000? What did it mean in 2002? What does it mean today? What will it mean in 3001? Language, even seemingly static language stuck on a page, changes.
So while I don’t disregard the author completely, neither do I worship the author. I simply add all of that information that informs the text to my reading of the text this time around and then let it blend together in the sieve of my mind. And as I add more information and readings and life, I run it all through the sieve again.
Maybe I feel most comfortable discussing literature from this platform because I like to read and edit and analyze and enjoy literature. I think the editing is particularly helpful for this.
See, when I edit I have to keep track of the story. This may sound simple, but it’s really not. I have to keep in mind the scope of the story as a whole, something complete and finished even as it is in progress. But I also have to keep track of the tiny details. And to use my time effectively I have to keep all this in my head on top of my own reactions as a reader and thinking as a more generalized reader, while I read the story once.
As if this wasn’t hard enough, I also have to keep in mind the voice and tone of the work when I offer suggestions and try to prevent my own voice from dominating. I can never take myself out of a work, but I can do my best to minimize my presence so that it can fade into the background and emphasize the brilliance of the author.
But does that make me a co-author?
This was the question I found myself asking today while I was reading through another draft of my friend’s story. The question probably would have wander back and forth like a ten year-old trying to attract parental attention before wandering away, except that this version was ensconced in an email that mentioned each draft of the story had been completely re-worked based on my comments.
At first I was taken aback by the comment simply because I don’t think of myself as offering insight that powerful. I honestly felt a little bad, as though somehow I had destroyed another’s creation through mis-guided attempts at help. But then I realized
this is what editors often do for authors.
And in a way it was kind of freeing.
Because I know that I have not forced or coerced these changes in the story (for the most part), I can rest assured that this story still belongs to the author and that I haven’t destroyed anything.
But that doesn’t make my relationship with the text any less complicated.
There is only one part of one line that I created in the story so far, and I offered it amongst several options for a phrase that didn’t seem to fit. Other than that, the story has changed and shifted because I provided my questions/thoughts/reactions/associations/opinions/ for the author to consider. Any changes steming from that are completely authorized.
And yet, they still reflect me. Certainly they reflect more my immiatation of the author, but they still reflect me. And the story exists in the form I read through today in part because I read it, and also because I shared my thoughts.
And when I read this story I see the author almost distilled and reflected in it, which I expect without acknowledgement. But I also see today, with all our hopes/fears/pains/loves/concerns/joys/lives also distilled and reflected in this story. There are phrases that if I weren’t living today I would never read as allusions. I see the political environment, our economic environment, our world precariously balanced as it is in this story. And the hope for a better tomorrow also shines in this story. But they are so slight as to be overlooked should this story be read in 30 years.
And I will, more likely than, not never be known in association with this story, so my reflections will go unnoticed and understood differently. Which leads me to another question – would I still be an author in that time when my fingerprints are smudged?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. They are ones I think about often, not only because I enjoy editing, but because I am an English academic with an emphasis in textual criticism and authorship theory. The questions don’t get any easier when applied to dead authors. But the complexity is fun. I will probably be thinking of answers to these questions, especially as I move into fields where my livelihood depends on having a definite answer to what role I’ve played in producing a work, for the rest of my life.
And I’m quite content with that.