Friday, November 3, 2017

Life to the Author!

Raiden chews his nails. Libra does not.

It’s something I realized somewhere in the middle of hundreds of drafts. I caught the male protagonist biting his cuticles several times throughout the storyline, even in the drastically trimmed version where many scenes got completely removed—he did it enough that this bad little habit stayed.

If you know me, I chew my nails. Badly. I chew my nails and my hangnails and my cuticles and my skin, I bite at my lips and the insides of my mouth. When I was a child, I once even chewed half the cat’s whiskers off. She was okay with it.

It’s such an encompassing part of me that I am still shocked when people mention how disgusting it is. Then I think about it and I absolutely agree. Whenever my mom bites her nails, I bark at her to knock it off, but that’s because I hate the sucking sound she makes.

I quit for a time while I had braces, but picked it back up since, and tried to stop on numerous occasions before I picked up the violin and realized it was much better than having to cut them every day.

About a year ago, I read a novel in which a character bit his nails as an obvious attempt at characterization. There was something about it, though I can’t put my pun-intended finger on it, that fell as flat. None of her other characters bit their nails, and when he chose to do so, it was more demonstrative than a nervous tick.

I don’t bite my nails when I’m nervous. I bite them when I’m thinking. Which typically makes me nervous.

But that’s strangely true for a lot of neuroses. I’ll read about characters who struggle with food or suffer from agoraphobia, shyness or even paint, sew, or do any of the activities that I spent quite a bit of time thinking about, and there is definitely a sense of when a writer is discussing a tick or hobby that he actually does himself or when he just tries to force a character to.

What is more interesting to me, however, is that thought Libra shares some of my more fear-induced flaws, she never bites her nails even once. My best friend likes to make fun, knowing how much I hate when people ask, “Is a character you?” her saying point-blank, “Libra is just like you.”

I’m a brainwashed member of an apocalyptic cult?

But there’s some truth to it. Not all. I never pictured her as a version of me—not as a reflection of myself or a representation of who I want to be. I didn’t picture her that much at all compared to some of my other characters. I struggled to find who she was pretty consciously, but she developed her own mannerisms without a lot of input from my surface mind. She took a lot from my perspective on life, my goals, and my worries, but she is not me; she is not a nail biter.

“Death to the Author” is a phrase I only recently learned, despite that the blogger who introduced it to me it claiming it was the first thing you’re told in an English class.

I remember talking about the concept with my theatre professors in school: How much of the author’s life, or intention, matter when evaluating the work itself?

The conversation with them went nowhere, filled with inconsistencies and outright contradictions that served their desired conclusions. When my fellow student attempted to make an Absurdist piece about Rubrics cubes representing the homeless, it was bad because he was trying too hard to force a point. When an upperclassman spewed a stream of consciousness on a page, writing whatever gibberish that came out and calling it art and saying, “It’s about whatever you want it to be about!” it was bad because he didn’t actually have a point. But…

Antione Artaud wrote Jet of Blood to test the limits of the theatre; nonsensical and impossible visuals to see if it could be produced. We went through and depicted the “meaning” behind each decision—“The nurse’s exploding breasts are a metaphor for puberty!”—despite the professor himself claiming that it was just to see what theatre tech could do and the author being put in an insane asylum. Yet Brecht and Arthur Miller were famous for the intentional thought behind it.

When Beckett said that Godot was not God—“If it was, I would have said it was.”—his fans who had adamantly praised him for his precision in theme changed their tune. “Beckett doesn’t know what it’s about!”

I could go on, but the summation is I would hear the same person denouncing a work for one reason to praise another for that same exact factor. Whether or not the author’s opinion mattered seems to depend very much on whether or not the author’s opinion/reputation aligns with what the arguer already wants to believe. Does it serve his point? Then it matters.

Death to the Author—the idea that we judge the work on its own merits and not the author—is difficult to implement… and not always necessary.

Nearly every writer has some sort of rumor following him around. It’s impossible to tell the difference between fact and gossip too. We love our drama and if you can make up an interesting fact about someone, someone’s already done it.

Charles Dickens was a sexist asshole. Lewis Carroll was a pedophile. Edgar Allan Poe was a drug addict. Stephen King is going blind. Mark Twain was dead long before he died. Shakespeare was a woman. Everyone is secretly gay.

Even in the day of the internet the rumor mill is horrible and untrustworthy, and the sad truth is most of our worst deeds will never be proven or openly discussed. If you hate an author for an immoral act, you might find yourself without any reading material period.

And I don’t necessarily think a writer’s point needs to be taken into consideration by the reader. If she achieves meaning from a pile of gibberish then so be it. It can be hard to get excited or intellectually stimulated and we can appreciate each other by instinct rather than a logical exchange of intentional ideas.

On the other hand, I don’t think ruling out a person’s character is the better way to examine literature.

I’ve been in on one too many critique sessions where I am fully aware of how the writer’s inner life came into play.

The horny, lonely guy who writes too often and too long about how beautiful women are. The soon-to-be-father whose protagonist despises nurses and his pregnant wife. The 50 year old woman who longs for the novelty and innocence of teenage romance.

Patterns in religion, sex, relationships, goals, lifestyle, and, of course, opinions all very often can be directed straight back to the author’s own experiences.

This is different for everyone, a broad spectrum of life’s application occurring in literature. There are people who complain about not being able to write for other genders and races, people who write in settings similar to their hometown, and those of us who mentally digest the shit we’re going through via the written word. Meanwhile there are those who have very little of their real life, only flights of fancy and pretty images so finely patched together it’s impossible to tell the origin. Most of us fluctuate back and forth, growing our ability to interweave fact and fiction through practice.

But there are times in which we choose to ignore these trends when they are probably more telling than we’d like. My characters say things I don’t believe, do things I don’t agree with, and I’ll be the first to argue we should not confuse our characters with our writers. Yet, when you have a man who consistently writes characters that struggle with attraction to underaged women, who later marries a much younger woman—meet when she was underage—and is eventually accused of harassing underaged women, saying his work is “just fiction” denies a pretty obvious part of his inner-monologue.

Do we need to shun and despise artists who are latter suggested to be selfish and sadistic? Mentally ill or cruel? That’s up for debate.

Personally, I say there are reasons to separate the creation from its creator, that you can find meaning in something that was never intended to be there, that you can enjoy a work made by a monster. I also think that there are reasons to pay attention to the factors in an author’s life, especially when looking to improve yourself. People constantly advise reading great fiction to be a better writer, but you can’t just write like Hemingway and be surprised when you’re not successful. He had a complex journey in his career, a whole bunch of external factors that created the image and audience he had by the end of his life, far more than what he’d done stylistically. You’d be far better off finding your own influential Gertrude Stein to mentor you over cutting out all synonyms for ‘said.’

But I write this not to argue whether or not Death of the Author is a viable perspective to have in literature. I wish to claim the benefits of the opposite.

Back during my stay in Boston I went to the symphony. Don’t get me wrong; I’m still broke as hell. But my cousin received too tickets and knowing that I was learning the violin, asked me if I wanted to go. We had gone prior, and I mentioned to her, as we sat in the seats, that I most enjoyed the World Premiere of the last symphony we went to in which the composer came on stage and discussed with us his work.

Then, low and behold, once again we were met with a World Premiere called “The Conference of the Birds” by Lembit Breecher. The program described the story—three songs based on a 12th century poem—while Breecher himself gave a small introduction.

I loved the music, visual and different, wrought with emotions and almost literal bird sounds. The professional violinist next to me was less than impressed, claiming he didn’t understand most modern pieces. And I agreed. Had the composer himself not been there, I’m sure I would have felt much different.

The reason I buy self-published books isn’t altruism, nor is it high expectation. As I’ve said before, most indie books are half-baked, only finished in the most minimal, technical sense. I find some beautiful novels written by self-publishers and hope that no one believes I’m trashing the path as a whole, but it’s a lot of digging through hard and rocky earth, even outright shit, to find the diamonds—often only to satisfy yourself with diamonds in the rough. If I merely wanted to read a good book, I’d stay strictly to traditionally published novels via reviewers and friends who I trust because you have to take a chance on a lot of bad books if you want to find the great ones in the indie world.

But there’s something personal about a self-published book that is lost in the professionalism. Their means of promotion is self-revelation, personability, accessibility. There is this great connection between you, a strange sense of their work being a labor of love. It is untouched by bureaucratically minded corporations, not having been slid through formulas or groomed into something more homogenized for those of the masses who are unwilling to try new things.

Death to the Author dehumanizes a work. In some ways, it enables us to believe in the story, to enjoy something despite the inherent flaws of humanity attached to its creation. Life to the Author can enhance a connection, a natural conversation between writer an reader.

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