Saturday, March 26, 2005

An SOS to the Word: The Writer as Myth

“If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”
I think the first time I heard that particular phrase said it was spoken by David Lee Roth, in response to a charge about the superficiality of his lyrics. Though I was a die-hard Van Halen fan in the early 80s, even I couldn’t argue with fellow high school classmate Landers Severe (what a cool name!) that his preferred rock’n’roll band Led Zeppelin, with their allusions to Celtic mythology and Lord of the Rings, was infinitely deeper.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, and so, my musical preferences—which now center on David Bowie, Bob Dylan, the Counting Crows, and Robyn Hitchcock—have matured quite a bit in the past twenty years.
Likewise, my opinion has changed somewhat about what I thought was a witty retort from the man who once bragged about his paternity insurance. That platitude now galls me like hot coals in my belly. Forgive me, but I really despise that line. To the point where, when I hear a writer utter it (as I did recently), it can turn me off to his/her work.
Now I know that propaganda isn’t art, and a lecture is not a narrative. I know that the author is often the last person who should be consulted when looking for the meaning of his work, and that themes can sometimes arise almost as if they are emergent properties of a story, rather than deliberately crafted elements. But when I hear this particular sentiment expressed, more often than not it is being offered as an excuse, a justification for a tale of pure escapism without higher thematic value. Even when it isn’t, it’s an inelegant cliché and I expect those who make their living as wordsmiths to express themselves with more sophistication.
Why? I am a slow and careful reader – I can easily spend two weeks to a month with a single novel – and when I devote that amount of precious time to a writer, I need something for it. I expect them to take me somewhere I haven’t been before and can’t get on my own. I expect them to show me worlds I can’t imagine for myself; present me with new ideas I’ve yet to encounter (or new takes on old ideas); teach me concepts that push the limits of my universe; help me to bring clarification to nebulous thoughts which may be bubbling unexpressed in my own subconscious. It’s very simple. I read to learn. I read to improve. I read to expand my world and worldview. Simply put, I demand that my writers be more intelligent than I am. Now, that intelligence can manifest in a particularly skillful and seductive prose style, or that intelligence can manifest in the presentation of an idea that enlightens my mind or expands my imagination. And yes, I read to be entertained. But entertainment for me is not a shallow pursuit.

Or, as Gene Wolfe puts it, "My definition of good literature is that which can be read by an educated reader, and reread with increased pleasure. ... there is a level on which a lot of fiction these days is expected to give everything up first time to somebody, whether he knows something about the subject or not. You do not do that."
I grew up in the state of Alabama, attending an all-white elementary and high school, a school which was heavily associated with a fundamentalist church, amid children (and even adults) who told off-color jokes about race and gender. Thankfully, I had a father who forced a science fiction book into my hand when I was an adolescent and forced me to read it (despite my protests). I am not as I very easily could have been because I read. (In fact, it was John Irving’s The Cider House Rules which directly altered my position on the abortion debate, just as it was Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy that helped me codify my own problems with organized religion). Reading opened up my world and opened up my mind, and I think I approach the written word with a sense of awe as a result that others reserve for religion.

Recently, neuvo-gonzo journalist Eric Spitznagel ran an interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the pages of The Believer magazine (March 05 issue). Okay, it was a medium claiming to channel the famous creator of Sherlock Holmes, and I give him about a point oh oh oh one percent chance of having actually succeeded, but nonetheless I found the interview to have a few things of value above and beyond its obvious humor content.

Sir Arthur, speaking through the person of Hawaiian trance medium Arthur Pacheco, had quite a lot to say about writers and the afterlife. In fact, he had quite a lot to say about writers and the afterlife.
“I have only praise for anyone who takes on the role of writer or author. Did you know that writers are leaders as seen from our point of view? The writer is a leader indeed, in that he carries a torch of a particular type, and believing in his own topic, he dares to lead others down the lanes of what can eventually be their own enlightenment.”

Pretty insightful for a guy who dropped dead in 1930. I hope I am as elegant when I have shuffled off this mortal coil.
I recall recently reading a noted British author observing the way in which writers are revered in the UK but disregarded here, where our adulation is reserved for television stars. I think I still labor under the myth of the writer as an important social figure, a person with something of value to communicate, whose opinions and observations of the world matter. Who was it that said, "Books used to be written by writers and read by everyone. Now they are written by everyone and read by no one?"
So when I hear that aforementioned cliché, a warning bell goes off. That’s a teacher who’s just informed me they’ve nothing to teach. I might as well grab a bottle of beer and plunk Dumb and Dumber in the DVD, for all that I’ll get out of their work. Such is of no interest to me. My time is valuable—all time is—and when I read these days, I need the author to be a damn sight more erudite that good ol' Diamond Dave.


Inspired said...

Great post, Lou!

I'm with you on this completely.



Lou Anders said...

Thank you, Vera!

Ted said...

The Western Union line was Samuel Goldwyn's, originally.

Lou Anders said...

Interesting. Just read his Wikipedia entry and learned a few things.

Anonymous said...

I've always been fascinated by the fact that messages in any piece of fiction comes in several layers.

Such as:

1. The author's intentional "surface" message ("I want to show the reader that...");

2. The unintentional message, or "subtext" -- if you believe in psychoanalyzing fiction ("The author projects his own xenophobia on the alien characters...");

3. The message emerging from the historical/social context of the work itself ("This book was one of many in the early post-9/11 period, as can be seen in...");

4. Archetypal imagery ("The 'quest' theme in this book ends in an unusual manner...")

5. The "speculative message" layer, unique to science fiction ("OK, aliens are symbols of the Other, but they're ALSO earnest speculation about alien life...")

And you can probably think of more.


(How come fantasy fans are so opposed to the notion that a fantasy story contains "subtext"??)

Lou Anders said...

I was fortunate enough to study Harold Pinter under his leading lady, Dame Dorothy Tutin, and she was fond of telling us how, when directing one of his own plays and being asked about the meaning of a scene, he replied, "It's impossible for us to know the author's intention at this point." So I appreciate your breakdown of the various categories of messages. You might ad a 6th classification, that of the famous (albeit overused & oft misunderstood) Marshall McLuhan line.