Are we ever gonna get away from this question: Who do we call “author”? Foucault, Ezell, technology-talk

I think what we’re facing today, in the 21st century, as readers whose habits have been hugely affected by the explosion in print and digital publishing, is oddly parallel to the issue at heart in Margaret Ezell’s Social Authorship and the Advent of Print. Let me explain.

There’s no page number on our handouts, but I suspect that it’s on 43 (the joys of counting) that Ezell complains about the way modern literary history has prioritized print history over manuscript circulation history: “Finally, having a ‘voice’ is equated with being in print, with the obvious implication that ‘work’ is equated with print text and anything else, manuscript copy in particular, is only ‘silence.’ The sole criterion of the success of these generations of women writers is the amount they published, with no mention of the amount they actually wrote.”  Now, it’s clear what Ezell’s bottom line is: manuscript text was important and warrants as much study as the printed work.  Unlike what today’s stuffy thinkers seem to insist, “the manuscript text operates as a medium of social exchange, often between the sexes, neither private nor public in the conventional sense of the terms, and a site at which women could and did comment on public issues concerning social and political matters” (41).

Foucault would probably be one of those people Ezell takes with, as he outlines very specifically (remember the four criteria?) what it takes for an individual to be called an “author,” what it takes for a text to be called a “work.”  And, if you recall, they are not democratic definitions that include everyone who writes a journal, letters, cookbooks, whatever.  But Ezell’s studies deal precisely with those handwritten, hand-bound letters, personal journals, etc. shared among friends, family members, and coterie circles, papers that were at once literary in nature but not meant to be published for wider dissemination.

Ezell deals with works from the seventeenth century.  We are here today, over 300 years after these texts were written, and yet still the question of “To whom shall we bestow the title of ‘author’?” is valid.

Today, our print culture is the exact opposite of literary culture in the age that Ezell has described.  Hardly anyone writes by hand today (penmanship classes are dead in the public educational system of the United States – R.I.P.), and in the last twenty years we have seen an unbelievable explosion in digital publishing, the average person shares his personal thoughts with the rest of the greater world (even if they want to hear none of it) via the internet.  Just about everyone has a blog, like this one.

In 300 years worth of literary study, the verdict is still not out on manuscript literature – or, maybe it’s safer to say that there’s a prevailing notion that it is secondary to printed literature, which Ezell is trying to change.  Let’s do a quick survey around the room and ask if it’s fair to call bloggers “writers.”  And let’s wonder if in 300 years from today, assuming life still exists, people will be asking the same kinds of questions about our age of digital print.

— Florentina


This Doesn’t Change the Fact that I Love Virginia Woolf

Some disparate thoughts:

In college, in one of the most influential classes I’ve ever had, the professor who would become my Mentor made a disparaging comment about “you know, the type of person who underlines a passage in a novel and writes beside it ‘irony.'”  Everyone else in the class laughed.  I chuckled along too, probably, but I was confused.  Was that a stupid thing to do?  Because I had done that plenty of times.  I was laughing at myself.

I’m not huge on writing in my books, but especially since then, I’ve refrained from making margin notes, unless it’s to paraphrase a paragraph in a theory book to help me remember it all better.  If I underline anything, it’s something I think is beautiful, or startling, or moving.  It’s something that has touched me, for whatever reason, as a reader.  So I have come to read viscerally, rather than cerebrally, as I stated in my last post, and I admit all of this unabashedly.

Here are some of the quotes I’ve underlined in my copy of Mrs. Dalloway:  

87 One cannot bring children into a world like this.  One cannot perpetuate suffering, or increase the breed of these lustful animals, who have no lasting emotions, but only whims and vanities, eddying them now this way, now that.

90 The whole world was clamouring: Kill yourself, kill yourself, for our sakes.

146  He did not want to die.  Life was good.  The sun hot.

179 He had thrown himself from a window.  Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes.  There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness.  So she saw it.  But why had he done it?  And the Bradshaws talked of it at her party!

I underlined a bunch of Mrs. Dalloway’s thoughts, of course, but I underlined just about everything that has to do with the suicide of bewildered Septimus, the former who soldier who says things at once beautiful and crazed.

That is probably because the lines are so damn sad, and about as muddled and confused as they are vivid.  And also because I can only read anything written by Virginia Woolf as a modern reader, as someone who knows the hard fact that Woolf killed herself. So that any slight mention of suicide in her writing must be somehow foreshadowing, or inextricably linked, etc., with her own death.  (And of course this applies to all writers with such pained histories.  Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace come to mind.) It’s impossible to ignore the “author function” here, Mr. Foucault.  There is essentially no way for me to read a Woolf piece about suicide without thinking about Woolf’s biography.

So of course, in reading “A Room of One’s Own,” I was uncontrollably drawn to the Woolf’s descriptions of the impassioned, suicidal female would-be-poetess, Judith Shakespeare: “who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body? — [Judith] killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried at some crossroads where the omnibuses now stop outside…” (1343)

I suspect that the popularity and influence of “A Room of One’s Own” throughout the years is because Woolf has created a totally female figure (Ms. Shakespeare, who is scorned for her literary ambitions and eventually made pregnant by a man who takes pity on her) who matches the masculine ideal of the solitary, romantic poet.  Judith Shakespeare dies young, her life tragic and stormy.  She is named Shakespeare but really, she could have been Keats – if someone had allowed her to actually write.  But her story is compelling precisely because it can be compared to that of the sad-male-poet-who-dies-young, precisely because we already have that classification of the author figure.

I suppose in this way, I find myself nodding along to Margaret Ezell’s critique of Woolf and the creation of the “female canon.”  In creating a suicidal fictional character to envision the experience of the literarily-minded Renaissance woman, rather than accept that other forms of female writing existed (letters, religious papers, advice books, etc.), Woolf seems to have prioritized a masculine image of the solitary, serious, impassioned writer.

At the same time, maybe Woolf prioritized this image because it’s the same one that she herself embodied, in both her life and death.

— Florentina

on What is an Author?

There’s something about a blog format that warrants some informality, at least in my eyes, so this is going to be a ditty of a thought.

Let me first introduce myself as a reader.  My name, Florentina, has its root in a well-known book (I’ll let you figure out its title), whose protagonist is first and foremost a “lover” – in both the bodily and emotional identity sense.  To be a lover means to delve wholeheartedly into the image of the lover, to embrace all the pain of unrequited love, unfulfilled love, unsatisfying love – ideas that stem primarily from books and art.  It should follow that this character is a voracious reader of books. All books, of all qualities – the more sentimental the better.  In short, the protagonist reads to be moved.

I’ll readily admit it and say that I read for the same reason.  So all the reading that I do during my spare time consists of novels and short stories, rather than non-fiction or critical works, and much of it is contemporary stuff.  As a result, I also spend a lot of time browsing the appropriate literary forums, such as literary websites (i.e., journals, magazines, and good old-fashioned bookstores.  Say what you will about the rise of online and digital media, and whatever differences exist between this new form of publishing and traditional print media, but there is something common in all of these forms: the author is widely, necessarily displayed.  In the form of books is the author’s bio, with a picture, a commentary, or at the very least a blurb, or a list of the author’s other works.  In online magazines, the author’s name will frequently link to another website, oftentimes the author’s personal/professional site; and of course, you can search by author and effectively reach that writer’s entire oeuvre.

On page 119 of the class copy of What Is an Author?, Foucault acknowledges that a world will never exist in which “the fictive would operate in an absolutely free state” and not be limited by “the figure of the author.”  He gives some historical backdrop but goes on to say the following, and note the key line I’ve bolded:

“Although, since the eighteenth century, the author has played the role of the regulator of the fictive, a role quite characteristic of our era of industrial and bourgeois society, of individualism and private property, still, given the historical modifications that are taking place, it does not seem necessary that the author function remain constant in form, complexity, and even in existence.  I think that, as our society changes, at the very moment when it is in the process of changing, the author function will disappear, and in such a manner that fiction and its polysemous texts will once again function according to another mode, but still with a system of constraint — one which will no longer be the author, but which will have to be determined, or, perhaps, experienced. “

Foucault addresses the change of society, but he wasn’t around for our big internet boom.  Popular authors today take to blogs and twitter accounts and have enormous online presence.  Take Jennifer Egan, for example, who “tweeted” her short story, “Black Box,” 140-characters at a time.  Take Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen, both young authors who have both released incongruous non-fiction essay collections – there’s no connecting thread in their respective books, except that they are the authors of those essays – presumably because there’s high public demand for these authors’ opinions, personas, maybe to better understand their past and future creative works.  These days, you hear less and less about the Salinger types; maybe Thomas Pynchon is one of the last hermit-like literari who refuse to give interviews and try to keep their lives as private as possible.

Foucault does admit that “literary discourse came to be accepted only when endowed with the author function” (109), that “literary anonymity is not tolerable” (109).  This has not changed much since 1969, except to have intensified.  The fact is that the internet is crowded, with everyone on a computer able to spill out his thoughts, guts, heart on a webpage.  In a space crowded with so many words, with so many anonymous inhabits, authors must fight even harder to be read.  And to do that, they’ll strengthen their personas, online and off, even more than before.

— Florentina