Explaining Why The Author Is Dead for Face-to-Face Sessions

My sister loved this show. It
was the first thing I thought of
as an illustration for this topic.
In my previous post, I mentioned that we adopt the stance that 'the author is dead' when doing critiques in our face-to-face litcritter sessions. This practice probably runs counter to the approach some of us were taught in school -- the one where we take into consideration the author's personal history, and the circumstances surrounding the writing of the text itself.

The reasons for the approach stems from the "writers who read / readers who write" philosophy. As writers, we cannot stand over the shoulders of the authors we submit to, defending or expanding their understanding of our text as they read what we've submitted. Unless you're a well-known author (and sometimes, even if you are), your text stands alone, bereft of any help other than the editor's personal intelligence, knowledge, experiences, preferences, and agenda. Therefore, as readers we apply the same sort of rigor to the nominated texts.

Furthermore, we can't exactly tell writers: "The reason this story worked is because the author has this type of personal history and because it was written in this environment -- so go out and have a similar personal history and cultural environment."

We're after writing techniques that can deliver (more or less, based on the audience, which is a whole other blog topic) the effect that the author intended, sans author or lengthy background or even Cliff's Notes or Wikipedia research.

Are there instances where this doesn't work? Yes. One type of story where this doesn't work is one where the cultural mores of the story are so alien / different from our own experience. For example, when we try to apply our own modern sensibilities to stories set in the Victorian era, we have to enter that story keeping in mind not only that it was a different time, but also that there were different expectations and ways of doing things back then. This is actually why we tend to read more modern stories than older classics.

Are we saying that this is the only way -- the proper way -- to read texts? No. Of course not.

Are we saying that a writer should therefore assume that readers may not be privy to every little bit of knowledge we do should therefore explain everything to death? Are we espousing the reduction of in-jokes in stories, asking that writers write for the lowest common denominator, or criticizing authors who write for narrow audiences? Again, of course not.

But we are also saying that the approach is illuminating in a different way -- in a group of readers with different ages, different experiences, and different preferences -- to see how each one responds to a given text. We learn how some people who love Science Fiction react to Science Fiction stories differently from the Fantasy or Historical Romance crowd. We're exposed to the tolerances for action, love, violence, fear and justice that different readers have and file it away in our minds.

And when we write the next time, hopefully, it is with an insight into how our ideal readership (and the rest of the readership) may react to our writing techniques.


Jerry Cornelius said...

Those are some good points. I think it also depends on the voice the book is written in. If it's a fictional first person narrator (who is possibly unreliable) it's easier to read it as someone other than the author speaking.

Ka-Blog! said...

@Jerry: Yes, though I think that it can still be applied to text that use 3rd person POV (limited or omniscient or decentralized intelligence), and even the VERY difficult to pull off 2nd person POV.