10 August 2009

On and on on the matter of author intent

At one point during my thesis defense, one of the committee members asked if the intent I explained for the story being discussed should perhaps be made more apparent for the reader. My answer was, "I'm not sure that's up to me," to which my chair replied, "I'm pretty sure it is." All was said in good-hearted tone, and I wasn't bothered by his suggestion, but just today I returned to that moment, realizing I underrepresented myself (something I have made a habit of doing in life). I just don't think authors should have to beat their readers over the head with hidden meanings and suggestive imagery. If readers get it, they get it. If they don't, there are still the more literal elements for them to consider.

One thing that bothered me severely about my creative writing program (and, I'm guessing, creative writing programs in general) is the unfortunate lack of in-depth meditation on writing. In workshop for a week, you're reading and commenting on three writers' submissions, or reading and discussing an entire book, not to mention the work you have for two other classes, and the life you're living off campus. Personally, I can read and absorb maybe one book in a week, and then I might need a week off before the next one.

One day this summer, I was bullshitting with an old college friend who's been a computer programmer since he graduated in 2002. In discussing syntax, something common to our respective trades, we found ourselves in agreement about something not commonly respected when it comes to language. Like him, I enjoy reading prose so dense that I frequently stop to re-read and re-read portions... not because it's poorly worded prose, but because the ideas therein are complicated enough to be worth reconsidering. This is when the act of reading becomes the process of understanding. Understanding does not often come at breakneck pace.

In my very humble opinion, writing is far too often overworked until tender. And for what purpose? Frankly, I think it's to cater to readers who aren't willing to do any work on their own. Attempts to know one's audience sometimes lead to writing for readers who want their ideas as pre-processed and neatly packaged as everything else in a life of convenience. More and more, writing seems geared toward readers who want to speed-read a dozen books in the time it takes me to understand one. I just don't understand the big damn hurry. It's not like any one of us can read everything ever written. Then why not take our time with the books we've got?

I'm not saying I'm the best damn writer or anything. In fact, I'd confess I think I'm no better than average. And part of the reason is that I'm not so much a writer as I am an idea man, but I don't see a problem with this.Who knows? Maybe I just sat in too many discouraging workshops where decent ideas were passed over or misunderstood by readers too hurried to drop in and make an attempt at understanding. (And to those whose ideas I passed over for lack of time, I do apologize. It's not exactly a writer's world out there.) I'm not saying I want to sacrifice the feel of the story by only writing fictional worlds in which the characters flap about as hollow ideas in a concept. I do know, however, that my stories come from ideas (something often discouraged in workshops). I do this because I want my stories to have a weighty epicenter, and if the story can still ring true as a believable world for those readers not interested in ideas, fine. Anyway, conjuring believable worlds is probably the hardest aspect of writing, and the one coming the slowest to me.

Still I feel like I encountered little or no attention to ideas in fiction writing workshops. Instead, I saw hints that America needs more copies of John Irving and Alice Munro. These prose-heavy styles of writing are fine, and I do enjoy reading them from time to time, but what about the rest of the genre? What about all those classic idea writers like Nietzsche, and Kafka, and Camus, and Orwell? And Hesse, and so on and so on and so on? I remember reading books by them and learning something about existence. The Great Gatsby is an awesome book and all, but it's mostly about rich people living in New York. Does the Universe revolve around money and Americans? Well, let me rephrase. Should it?

All I'm trying my darndest to say is, I feel like an odd ball reassuring myself that somehow my writing does matter when around me I see an America and its fiction that both seem interested in how something is worded rather than what its words contribute to understanding. I don't know. Maybe you should just call me crazy or lazy.


Xander and Alana Cole-Faber said...

I had a horrible time with graduate school, both in an art program and in my museum program. I ended up giving up on the idea of an MA in art for many of the reasons you are talking about. I just hated the system, the questions, the critiques that came without any discussion of theories of art, etc. I remember once being criticized because the motivation for a series was a bit cliche. And I couldn't help but think, "So the fuck what?" It was a different reaction to a cliche, so is that not valid? If you haven't seen this before, isn't it possible there's something to learn here? Ugh. I'm rambling.

Anyway, the way I got through the crap is to learn more about the work of the people offering the advice. I guess this works for just about anything, including politics and science. Often people reveal their own biases in their work, so for me learning more about them made it easier to see their perspective, even if I didn't agree with it. I'd then use that knowledge to filter through their critiques, tossing what I thought was based on bias and unhelpful to my chosen path.

I should just shut up now. But I guess my conclusion is that it's all valid. All of it. I mean, sure, some things are utter crap. But I'm talking about anything created with some degree of thought or effort, or a purposeful lack of effort. Keep doing it the way you do it. There's an audience for you out there.

zimdog said...

Yeah. I feel you on that, and certainly I'm for the creation of any art as well. It's just so troubling the critics that come out of programs. Here I am, a much more bitter and cranky art appreciator after having gone through an arts program. It just doesn't make any sense, this tendency for the norming of art. Geez. People always get in the way, don't they?

zimdog said...

I mean, we. People always get in the way, don't we.

I almost gave it away that I'm not one of your kind.

Oops. Shit!