FIND in
<--prev V28 next-->

From: "Jim Henley" <jlhenley@erols.com>
Subject: RE: (urth) Readerly/writerly
Date: Wed, 15 Dec 1999 23:38:21 

> -----Original Message-----
> From: urth-errors@lists.best.com [mailto:urth-errors@lists.best.com]On
> Behalf Of Jonathan Laidlow
> Nice description. I think this ties in well with all that we've
> said about
> Wolfe and Modernism. I don't believe that Wolfe abdicates control
> of his texts to the reader in any complete sense. Sure, he sets up
> dummy levels of narrative to distance the reader from any secure
> narrative centre, but there are ways through the narrative. Not sure
> that Wolfe's narrators are strong enough to be described as the
> dominant partners though - they are peculiarly slippery.

First off, thanks for the compliment, though Jeremy certainly adduces some
literary forebears for the analogy. I don't recall reading anything by
Paglia specifically comparing reading/writing to bondage & discipline, but
I have read a lot of Paglia and I was certainly working from her theories
of pleasure. Plus, I've read a lot of porn...

Now, anent Wolfe and his narrators and dominance and authority: To me it's
less a matter of controlling interpretation than controlling attention. The
sheer gothic thrill of Dr. Crane's encounter with the real Councilor Lemur
is anterior to any interpretation we make of it. A book dominates to the
extent it commands your time - including time away from the book. (I recall
being "dominated" by Arthur C. Clarke's _Imperial Earth_ as a kid, but I go
years without thinking about it and remember nothing except a terrific
set-piece description of insomnia. OTOH, I spend entirely too much time
thinking about the Sun books, even ones I haven't read yet. frex, I'm
assuming that Blue will turn out to be Ushas and Green either Skuld or
Lune, all before even reading OBW. This ties in with what you later have to
say about Wolfe's authority as a writer - I'm being controlled by a book I
haven't even opened. But Christmas is coming!)

In other words, Wolfe is the dom and I am his sub. <g>

Can a book dominate in the sense of being its own interpretive authority?
Is that the idea? Is there an example of such a book? Agree with you about
the slipperiness of the Wolfe narrators that I've encountered.

> (I prefer the concrete term 'book' to this work/text confusion - it
> allows covers, introductions, footnotes, and artwork to have an
> authority that co-exists with the linguistic units)

Hey, this is excellent!

> What is the authority of Severian for example? Does he
> possess the same kind of narrative authority that Gene Wolfe does?

Of course not. Sev lies. <gdr>

I'm inclined to say that Sev doesn't possess the same kind of narrative
authority that Wolfe does purely because Sev is a fictional construct. If
we want to get all modernist, let's say Sev is _more_ of a fictional
construct than Wolfe is. I might be inclined to say that Sev _constitutes_
Wolfe's narrative authority, but it's more than just Sev - it's all the
stuff that makes us go, "Whoah!"

> Well yes, but what about the narrator? True to his torturer
> profession, Sev is a very controlling narrator, who sometimes
> misleads us. But he makes mistakes. He may not know what the
> hell he is talking about, but I'm sure GW does. There are always
> extra levels of authority - no text contains just one dominant mode of
> authority, although the narrative structure may try to convince you
> that it is otherwise. You can read all of Long Sun as straight
> objective third person narrative, and then be blown away when you
> find out that it is actually Horn's literary construction of Silk.

Well, not now I can't...

Actually, you weren't the one that gave up that game for me; it was those
darn cover designers at Tor. My fault for saving the Long Sun books until
this month.

Anyway, I agree with everything you have to say, though I would suggest
that it's also possible to be _disconcerted_ by finding out that LS is
actually Horn's literary construction of Silk. In fact, I think Wolfe
proves that he knows what he's doing when he has Horn immediately set about
reestablishing his authority, to the extent Horn can. Were Horn to take the
attitude, "I made it all up, your interpretation is as good as mine, tee
hee," the ending might feel a little too much like "And then I awoke from
my dream."

And this may be what separates Wolfe's books from those of some authors who
make a _program_ of producing "writerly" texts in Barthes' sense - too
often the project comes across as merely flip.

> Of course it is! Despite everything that's been drawn from
> Foucault's words I maintain that his essay does not (unlike Barthes)
> destroy the need for authors. He expects us to understand the
> origins of the concept, and show how the 'author' of a text works to
> guarantee the authority of the book. What kind of authority would
> Kilgore Trout's 'The Shadow of the Torturer' possess?

A fair but not trivial question. I'm assuming we're considering this _as
if_ the fictional Kilgore Trout were real - we're not considering the
question of what happens if Vonnegut writes a story reproducing the entire
text of TBOTNS by Trout, or even Philip Jose Farmer writing TBOTNS while
pretending to be KT. (One knew that _someone_ was pretending to be KT.)

So, here's where I may differ with Foucault and even, gulp, you. I think
that there's an extent to which an author constructs his authority as he
goes: the reader picks up the book, making a provisional grant of
attention. What the author does with that initial grant determines the
course of the relationship. Now, I can't deny that some writers come to
some readers with a fair amount of credit already established. (Did I say
"grant?" I meant "loan.") You give them more chances. You may be more
inclined to go back to their books if they don't grab you the first time.
(Am I starting to get all reader-responsey?) But TBOTNS works to establish
its authority as it goes, and would do so even if it came under David
Salvatore's by-line - we'd just never know it...

> <snip interesting stuff>
> scientific debates. In the eighteenth century there was a distinction
> between authors who wrote for the greater good and were real
> literary craftsmen (Pope's saving his work for seven years) and the
> commercial Grub Street 'hacks' who in many cases did not have
> the inherited fortunes which allowed them to concentrate on small
> circulation poetery and instead had to write for money in the forms
> that would generate the most sales.

As opposed to now... <g> (Poor John Clute. It's hard work being defensive.)

> This assumes you want to contain a text. Why do we reread
> favourite texts? We read them because we constantly find new
> things in them alongside the familiar. Reading is always a
> problematic experience, but we create a dominate reading which is
> the least contradictive. This is containment, of a sort, and I believe
> we do it all the time. The point is that our containment is not
> permanent, merely a device of reading which allows us to construct
> a coherent narrative.

Sure. Again, I think of textual "domination" being that which impels us to
spend the time establishing interpretations and coherent narratives at all.
But I don't disagree with any of what you say here.

> [wasn't too sure about the whole weasel thing, but liked this bit:]

Hey, watch what you say about the weasel!

> > Weasels can even give us a handle on the textual property of
> multiplicity -
> What
> Foucault does is to try to make clear the way the author limits the
> possible significations of a book. I maintain that this isn't a bad
> thing - it is neither good nor bad. Our knowledge that GW wrote
> BotNS produces a very different reading (partly because of the
> stature of our author) to the same book as written by Kilgore Trout.

This came up before. But this seems a good place to adduce Borges' "Pierre
Menard." The narrator of that story claims that Menard's rewrite of
Cervantes produces a radically new text. But Borges makes it pretty clear
that the narrator of that story is a jerk, and maybe a fool. So...

> That doesn't mean
> we must erase their existence, merely understand the way we read
> the 'new Gene Wolfe novel' in different ways to the 'new Jeffery
> Archer novel', and the way the presence of the author has a bearing
> on our reading of their narrators.

I think the presence of the author is a sign of what ways of reading might
and might not work. The problem is not so much that we won't try to read
_The Prodigal Daughter_ as "a powerful meditation on God, time, love etc"
because it's by Jeffrey Archer. Rather, the book itself suggests to us that
we'd be wasting our time to do so. In a sense, the nature of Jeffrey
Archer's authority is something that gets constructed from the texts

And in the meantime, Wow, that fight with the alzabo is really something.
(I'm feeling compelled to stress the thrills&chills values of Wolfe's books
this week.)

> But they can be stabilised in the reading process. One of my
> favourite bits of post-modern theoretical writing is a little comment
> by Frederic Jameson about the way late 20th century conspiracy
> theories are the last gasp of those who cannot accept pluralism.
> Instead they manage to construct a narrative out of disparate and
> contradictory evidence to make the chaotic events of the twentieth
> century make sense.
> But this is what we always do - we construct narratives out of the
> material at hand, guided by the author/obstructed by the author.
> Just because we can't  quantifiably have a 'correct' reading, it
> doesn't necessarily  follow that we can't distinguish between 'good'
> and 'bad' readings.

This is superb! I don't suppose you could manage to appear at the sacred
windows of every high school english class in the land, could you? It would
eliminate a host of sorrows.

> At this juncture we probably need a quote from Whitman's 'Song of
> Myself'. Anyone got it to hand?

Um, "I am Sarge. I disdain pulchritudes..." ?


What if we only get what we deserve?
  Somehow, I couldn't quite summon the nerve"
              -- Costello/Bacharach

*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

<--prev V28 next-->