#whalerape and the undeath of the author: separating the art from the artist

Paul Raven @ 06-06-2011

It’s a perennial problem: artists and writers, just like everyone else, can be appalling buttheads with deeply unpleasant ideas and attitudes. But do those attitudes poison their creations by association?

It’s all down to personal responses, of course. Here’s a post at ThisRecording that takes a look at the misogyny, racism and antiSemitism of beloved children’s author Roald Dahl; I was raised on Dahl’s books and loved them dearly, and I’m pretty sure my mother and my aunt – the main vectors by which Dahl’s output arrived in my world – would be just as appalled by Dahl-the-man as I am after reading that piece. But because I knew the work before I knew the man (and possibly because the work was edited to remove some of the more unpleasant subtexts), I find myself still able to draw a line between the two… though I suspect were I to re-read Dahl now, in light of the above, I’d be looking out for clues and signs of his sublimated nastiness. It’s hard to read with clean-slate innocence with that sort of knowledge hanging at the back of your brain.

Interestingly, though, this doesn’t seem to work the other way. Regular readers will know of my antipathy to archbigot and homophobe Orson Scott Card. I discovered Card’s reputation before ever reading any of his books, and as a result have read none of them (though I have read a few short stories since, which seemed only to confirm my opinions). And speaking of Mormons, habitués of the genre fandom Twittersphere may have noticed the #whalerape hashtag over the weekend, as a bunch of people (re)read this year’s Nebula winning novelette, “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” by Eric James Stone. As the body and comments of the Locus Roundtable blog post about it demonstrate, opinions differ wildly as to its merits (or lack thereof), and the point of fracture seems to be along lines of attitude to religious missionary work in general, and Mormon proselytising in particular. Having seen the running commentary – not to mention discovering that Stone’s attitudes to homosexuality are in the same retrograde camp as Card’s – I’m finding myself deeply prejudiced against the guy’s work.

To be clear, I don’t think this sort of prejudice is dependent on the nature of the offence caused: I imagine that a conservative reader might be just as shocked and put off an artist by finding out they were a closet Troskyite, for instance. But I do wonder if the problem isn’t exacerbated by the new-found publicness (?) of the artist lifestyle. With writers in particular, the old model – communicating with your public primarily through one’s work, and the occasional public appearance or bit of journalism if one were of sufficient stature to get the gigs – has given way to a much more performative presence: the author as celebrity, as pundit. It’s never been easier to find out what the most minor of authors thinks about sports, politics or other ethical quandaries… though, to be fair, the same applies to people in all walks of life. We’re all celebrities now; it’s merely a matter of audience magnitude.

This all ties in with my ongoing fascination with what literature critics call the intentional fallacy, which suggests you can only judge a text on its own merits; critiquing a text on the basis of knowledge about the author’s philosophies and actions beyond those admitted of in the text itself is an act of biography rather than criticism. Part of me finds the poststructuralist undertones of the intentional fallacy appealing – the author is dead, and we can find whatever meanings we like in every text! – but I’m increasingly convinced that, as noble and high-minded a critical ideal as it may be, it simply isn’t compatible with the world we now live in. Call it “the undeath of the author”, maybe; they may not be alive within the text itself, but something of them shambles around outside its perimeter fences. Perhaps in the post-war years it was easy to assume a text could be hermetically sealed off from the world in which it was created and in which it will be read; in the hyperlinked and searchable world we now live in, the outer membrane of every text has become permeable to a lesser or greater degree – no firewall is completely hack-proof, right? – and one of the first and easiest conflations to make is that of the author’s publicly-held opinions and the meaning of their text.

All of which may seem like academic noodling (guilty as charged), but I think there’s a real issue here, too. In light of recent discussions about the comparative invisibility of women or people of colour in anthology TOCs, best-of-the-genre lists and prize nominations, this difficulty in separating art from artist becomes a more problematic thing, and damages the credibility of editors or anthologists who claim to be colour-, creed- or gender-blind when reading submissions. To flip the issue around (and demostrate the prejudices do point both ways): say I was editing an anthology, and an Eric James Stone story came over the submissions transom; I like to think I’d read it and give it as fair a chance to succeed on its own merits as anyone else’s, but I can’t in all honesty say I’d truly manage to do so. And that’s an example of a conscious prejudice, one of which I am aware and can – to a lesser or greater extent – work to minimise; what about the subconscious culturally-encoded prejudices against women, LGBTQ people and people of colour, the ones that we almost all believe we don’t have, but which we almost all do have?

(I fully count myself among that “almost all”, by the way; I’m not entirely sure I believe any of us can entirely free ourselves from culturally-encoded prejudices, but we can at least work to mitigate them once we’ve become aware of them, a process which becomes – albeit very gradually – easier over time. Much as in AA’s twelve-step program, the first step is to admit that you have a problem; that’s also the hardest step of all.)

As is probably plain (and certainly in keeping with local tradition) I don’t have any answers to this dilemma; I’m just throwing out a collection of ideas to see what other folk think about them. So, whatcha got, huh?


When Manaugh met Miéville

Paul Raven @ 02-03-2011

With no qualification whatsoever, I commend unto you the BLDGBLOG interview with China Miéville, which is just about as full of good stuff as I could have hoped. If someone wanted to put on a symposium where Manaugh and Mieville could just talk about stuff that interested them for an afternoon – perhaps with guest stints from a few other smart people – I’d be there with figurative bells on. (Though I’d be careful not to jingle them while the clever people were talking, natch.)

The most interesting part for me (on my first read through, at any rate) was where Miéville explains why allegorical readings of his work are a little repellent to him:

… I dislike thinking in terms of allegory—quite a lot. I’ve disagreed with Tolkien about many things over the years, but one of the things I agree with him about is this lovely quote where he talks about having a cordial dislike for allegory.

The reason for that is partly something that Frederic Jameson has written about, which is the notion of having a master code that you can apply to a text and which, in some way, solves that text. At least in my mind, allegory implies a specifically correct reading—a kind of one-to-one reduction of the text.

It amazes me the extent to which this is still a model by which these things are talked about, particularly when it comes to poetry. This is not an original formulation, I know, but one still hears people talking about “what does the text mean?”—and I don’t think text means like that. Texts do things.

I’m always much happier talking in terms of metaphor, because it seems that metaphor is intrinsically more unstable. A metaphor fractures and kicks off more metaphors, which kick off more metaphors, and so on. In any fiction or art at all, but particularly in fantastic or imaginative work, there will inevitably be ramifications, amplifications, resonances, ideas, and riffs that throw out these other ideas. These may well be deliberate; you may well be deliberately trying to think about issues of crime and punishment, for example, or borders, or memory, or whatever it might be. Sometimes they won’t be deliberate.

There’s much more, so go read the whole thing. Miéville’s attitude toward allegory throws some interesting and hard-to-avoid caltrops into the road of criticism, because he’s simultaneously declaring himself to be a dead author while admitting (or so it seems to me) that the intentional fallacy is an attempt to graft nonexistent conscious impulses onto extant subconscious authorial concerns.

Of course, I could just be reading him wrong. 😉


How to Dismantle the Wall Between an Author and Their Work

Jonathan McCalmont @ 12-11-2008

This month in Blasphemous Geometries: has the intentional fallacy had its day as a critical tool? Should we roll back the stone from the tomb of The Author?

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

Jonathan McCalmont suggests that genre fiction fan-writers and critics should cautiously embrace biographical criticism, and examine books and other works in the context of their creator’s mindset.

Continue reading “How to Dismantle the Wall Between an Author and Their Work”