The Text Entire

Last night, probably too late to have undertaken it, the estimable Richard Eoin Nash and I engaged in a brief twittering discussion. This odd reality (a tweeted colloquy) kicked in when Richard tweeted a link to a post at Magellan Media. That post is the assertion that a book "is made great by the people who read it, connect with it and communicate about it."

That seems to me another assertion of the primacy of the reader, which thought always gives me pause.

I don't want that to put me in the wrong light. It's just that for a while it has seemed to me that discussions about the future of the book assume that publishing is universally in opposition to the reader.

Although it troubles me, I understand the argument that publishers need to be moved out of the way. Sometimes this is about the reader. But the argument also posits itself in support of the author who is already able to self-publish--which, I think is a clearer discussion. I always respond to the sake-of-the-reader assertions by arguing that, given the hundreds of thousands of books published in this country each year, the publishing industry is (collectively and obviously) a horrendous gate-keeper.

What our colloquy raised for me last night was a set of questions that have become perennial in the new publishing environment: Is the text entire valuable in itself? (is it worth more than $9.99?) Should it be re-read? Should it be kept? Who is qualified to judge a book? Who owns it? Should we allow a text to be sampled in the composition of other works. Can an author still assume that it will even be read from start to finish? Ever?

The trouble I'm having is that in the world of books considerations of the author and of the primary existence of the text are not often enough at the center of the matter. At times we are told to encourage equal, cooperative roles for the author and the reader, as though a novel were a conversation.

I'm just asking whether the text is full in itself--as the author has made it.


Mylène said…
Ah, Fred, now you've got me going.

One of the odd things about the discussions you describe is their curious assumption that readers are not already tended and attended to--by the author herself. As an author (even as a literary author) I can attest to this. At every moment the reader is at my shoulder, down to the level of the very sentence itself (as I describe in my post below). How, I am constantly thinking, can I make this a worthwhile experience for you, good reader? How can I help you feel awake, moved, surprised, delighted, inspired to ask questions, tense, suspended, carried, alive, curious, intent?

Yet I'll be the first to admit that though the reader is right there at my right shoulder, she is not at the center of the text. She is not the text entire. This comes not out of any disrespect to audiences. This is simply because it is the job of some human beings to take other human beings where they did not know they wanted to go until they got there, to do things an audience does not yet imagine being done. This generally doesn't happen in "conversation" with audiences. This happens in great, private leaps. Impressionism. Cubism. Jazz. Chaplin in "The Great Dictator." Faulkner. Martha Graham. The White Album. Plath. You will not do anymore black shoe.

We can chop up, sample, mix, and de-center the author of a work, and the work itself, and devour all this on any plate or platform we like. But if we expect to have anything worth sampling in the future, my feeling is that the text entire will need to keep its place card at the table. Probably at the head of the table.

And while we're at it, it's worth remember that sampling, chopping, transposing and stealing is nothing new, that the Moderns invented it early in the last century, and the culture had good fun with it for a while, and again later in the century with post-modernism, and now again in its current, populist, accessible form.

And all along and after and long before texts entire were privately written and privately produced, Austen sitting alone at her desk, making stories of great power and value, things that were so strong they've attracted and been married to zombies and sea monsters--and still nothing can touch them.
Joni Rodgers said…
There are so many aspects to each of those questions, and it all comes down to where we're headed, what we value as a culture. We need to make conscious choices about that, so Fred, thanks for starting this conversation -- which is actually about a dozen separate discussions I look forward to exploring in this space.

For now, I agree with Mylene that conversation with the audience needs to take place in response to art, not as a guiding force. And in answer to Fred's question, yes, the text is -- has to be -- entire, whole, and finite as the author crafts it. The reader's experience of the book is separate from that and unique to each reader. The text is the the Mustang convertible I built, buffed, and tuned up. The reading of the book is the road trip, and I'm not invited.
Or maybe you can be invited, Joni, depending upon the level of interactivity. I wonder at what point we will revert back to something akin to the serialization of the Victorian era, where authors' messages WERE shaped by reader response, and, like television series today, were often changed and modified accordingly.

To me it seems one advantage of the interactivity of the web and new media could place readers and writers more in dialogue with one another, and this is something I am actually excited about. One of the great problems for me currently is that I do wonder (kvetch about, agonize over, bemoan) who my audience is. I'm hoping that I will be more mainstream and cast a wider net than a literary one. But how can I KNOW that if I only show the book to a few people in workshop, an agent and an editor? It's really tough to know what's going to catch on, and the purist in me says to fuggitaboutit and just write from my heart. So I do, but at the end of the day, I still don't believe my message is complete without someone else reading it.

It's the Aristotelian triangle: author, message, audience. I always believe writing programs put too much emphasis on the author part of that triangle, and publishers too much emphasis on the audience part. But what about the message? What about the take away? And what about the idea that the right person delivers the right message for that certain group of people?

Harriet Beecher Stowe did it. So did Dickens. I can't help but think their success at not only moving their audiences but influencing policy and change was due in part to the fact that they had to listen to readers as they composed--something most of us no longer do.

Great post, Fred.
Something else I've been wondering about--are we ever the audiences for our own work? Where do our surprises come from? Do they come from some muse lingering beside our shoulders, or from some forgotten place within ourselves?
Thought-provoking post, Fred.

I agree that any writer who wants to stay published has to keep the audience's needs, desires, and expectations in the back of his/her mind. But during the writing process, there's only room for one vision and one voice, and it has to be the author's.

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