Friday, 23 May 2008

Tosh and piffle

Susan Hill’s always interesting, thought-provoking and opinionated blog lives up to all these epithets in her latest post on what Roland Barthes would have called ‘the death of the author’.

She’s talking about Terry Eagleton, a lit-crit professor whose work has also been exercising Emma Darwin recently, so I thought I would ruminate on all this stuff and leave you to think about it while I’m away in the Peak District. (Turned out we didn’t have enough money to go to Italy without dipping into the boys’ college fund. Couldn’t do that, obviously… so Derbyshire it is. Keep your fingers crossed for nice weather…)

Ms Hill extracts various quotations from a review by Terry Eagleton in the latest London Review of Books. Because I don’t have a LRB handy (tsk!) I shall quote her quotations, with the due acknowledgement to her blog:

TE in LRB: 'Writing, unlike speech, is meaning that has come adrift from its source.'

Me: So far, so good. Can’t argue with that.

TE in LRB: 'Literary works are peculiarly portable. They can be lifted from one interpretative situation to another and may change their meaning in the course of this migration.'

Me: Beginning to argue now. How can things change their meaning. Sure, you can give them another interpretation, but meaning? I don’t think so.

TE in LRB: 'Works of literature are to some extent cut free from those who engender them, wandering through the world to accumulate new meanings in different situations.'

Me: Beginning to think Prof Eagleton and I don’t agree about the meaning of the word ‘meaning’.

TE in LRB: 'Never trust the teller trust the tale. Literary works have intentions of their own of which their producers know little or nothing.'

Me: Well this if frankly tosh and piffle isn’t it? Literary works have intentions of their own? Is he seriously ascribing conscious agency to a ‘tale’ outside the mind of the author?

Eagleton was one of the literary theorists who lectured to undergraduates when I was at Oxford (he was very good, favoured denim, was witty and worth listening to; he even made up a song summarising a whole term’s worth of lectures at one stage which was fun) and I went to all his lectures. This may not sound like much but, given that there were terms when I attended no lectures at all, going to listen to somebody whilst I could have been ploughing through endless texts for one of that week’s two essays was a Big Deal. Despite Eagleton’s amusement value I found this whole ‘death of the author’ thing the most utter drivel. I know it’s not pc and may be thought arrogant to be so dismissive of something which lots of extremely clever people believe in, dismiss it I do as utterly ridiculous.
My view is even more entrenched now that I am a published writer. The thought that people out there would presume to say that their interpretation of Testament is just as valid as what I was trying to say - indeed, that what I thought I was doing is irrelevant - is frankly annoying.

Am I alone in this?


Tim Stretton said...

Well said, Alis!

I'm perfectly happy for people to 'interpret' my work however they choose (but lighten up, guys: they're just stories). But it's bollocks to pretend that they have an equally valid take on what the work means, or what I meant by it.

Somebody suggested--with a straight face--that "The Dog of the North" is an allegory of the US invasion of Iraq.
FACT: It isn't.

It is a story, one element of which is an invasion which has different consequences to the aggressor's intent. That doesn't make it an allegory. The book also includes a red citrus fruit: that doesn't make it an allegory about GM foods either...

KAREN said...

Sounds like utter tosh. That's my interpretation of his meaning ;o) As you say, they are two different things, and saying that literary works have intentions of their own is downright...odd.

Have a lovely time in the Peak District, by the way. It's not exactly Italy, so I'll keep my fingers crossed that at least the weather's not too bad!

David Isaak said...

JRR Tolkein (of all people) said that too many critics confuse "applicability" with "allegory."

In any case, I think critics spend altogether too much time worrying about "meaning." I'm not sure authors always "mean" anything that can be summed up.

And I absolutely dread lectures or analyses that include phrases such as "What Tolstoy is trying to show us here..."

Juxtabook said...

I have a foot in both camps here. I quite like a bit of theory and appying theory, especially one outside your comfort zone, to a text can throw up some surprising things; most of them worth the having too. However, as an ex-teacher and a bookseller in the real world I do share a bit of the tosh and piffle argument too. I think what the problem is, is that too many critics have nailed their careers to the mast of one particular theory and then sail that ship for all it is worth and take on all nay-sayers with full armory, becasue it is not just a theory but their career they are defending. Theory is ok in its place but real readers and real writers are what are most interesting. I think most people would accept some theoretical assumptions such as the text is in part created between the writer and the reader, not just by the writer - which is what you mean when you say that you re-read a book because you get something different out of it each. But just because you agree with that doesn't mean the 'author' is 'dead'. I think most readers that get different texts on re-reads are still trying to construct a text that the author they so admire 'meant' but they bring their own life experiences to that process which changes the slnat of the reading. They still think the author is the higher power in the relationship though. Quite right too.

Emma Darwin said...

I feel a bit foot-in-both-campish too, because I'm not dead and my whole writing effort is directed towards getting what I'm trying to say across. But I do know that I can't guarantee that a reader will find in my novel what I put in there. I'm relying on a set of commonly accepted rules about grammar, vocabulary and syntax, to convey what I want to say, the story I want to tell, in a way that I hope the reader will hear in much the same way. But can I be sure? No. The only means of transmission is little black marks on a page. Umberto Eco describes a novel as 'a machine for generating interpretations.' (But he also said that he wrote The Name of the Rose because he felt like poisoning a monk, which to writers is a much more familiar kind of motive.)

But though I think the theorists may be philosophically right, it's virtually no help to me as a writer, just as knowing that philosophically the earth goes round the sun is less use for finding my way than thinking in terms of it rising in the East and setting in the West.

However, there's an argument emerging that the ever-growing presence of creative writing in the university literature departments is bringing an 'old fashioned' liberal humanism back into fashion, because it has much more in common with how actual writers actually operate. There's a good piece from the THE here - I hope this blog lets me put in the link!