The Death of the Author! Maybe!

Cultural critic and commentator Lindsay Ellis (disclosure: a friend of mine) has a video up talking about “The Death of the Author,” which is a primer and discussion of that particular literary theory, and whether it makes sense to apply it to work today. It’s an interesting video and makes a number of relevant points (among them one noting that “death of the author” as theory relies more than a little bit on a homogenized critical outlook), and I can recommend it for viewing — and have helpfully included it above.

It’s also given me a reason to offer of some of my own thoughts on the concept and the role of the author in general, inspired by, but not necessarily in conversation with, the points that Lindsay brings up in her video essay. These thoughts are not exhaustive (i.e., this is not all I think about the topic), but I think worth thinking about.

1. Sometimes all you have is the text. It is in fact possible to know nothing about an author or a work before you read it; just go into a bookstore or library cold and pick a novel out of the shelves more or less at random and start reading. All you will have is what’s on the page.

Now, in fact, most people don’t approach a book that way — we’ll have heard about the book or author elsewhere, or at the very least we’ll read the flap copy and see the author’s photo — but if memory serves, children often do approach books that way. Kids are given books, or pick them because of cover art, or simply don’t make the connection that the stories in the books they read are written (and illustrated, as the case may be) by a person. The author as a construct doesn’t exist, and if it does, they’re not important to that reader. What’s important is the text.

I get a couple dozen books a week sent to me by publishers, and while I can’t claim to be entirely ignorant of the concept of the author (or the idea that the author is a living, breathing human being), I can say sometimes all I know about a particular author is their name on the cover, and the text of the book they’ve written. I don’t do a full background search on every author I read; I have neither the time nor the interest. In those cases, the book stands more or less on its own.

2. The book isn’t the author; the author isn’t the book. I’m fond of noting that when Old Man’s War came out, a lot of people assumed that I was politically conservative, given their own reading of the text. Then they would come over to my site and be surprised and/or angry and/or confused that I as a person didn’t mesh with their conception of me based off the text, and relatedly their assumptions about military science fiction and the (American) people who write it.

It’s easy to ascribe personal or philosophical attributes to an author based on what you read out of their fiction, and I’m not here to tell you not to do that. I am here to tell you that you should be prepared to be wrong, as often as you’re not. Books are highly distilled intellectual product designed for particular effect; authors are messy dingleberries who on average are neither better nor worse than other people. They just write better (or have better editors, as the case may be).

One side effect of this is that you should expect that at one point or another the authors whose work you admire will disappoint you, across a spectrum of behaviors or opinions. Because they’re human, you see. Think of all the humans you know, who have never disappointed you in one way or another. Having difficulty coming up with very many? Funny, that.

(Don’t worry, you’ve disappointed a whole bunch of people, too.)

Following on those top two points:

3. It’s possible to separate the art from the artist, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to. In the cases where all you know about the author of the book is the name on the cover, the art is already largely separated from the artist, and even when you do know something about the author, who they are as a human might be largely separated out from the highly mediated product of their efforts. A shitty human can write great books (or make lovely paintings, or fantastic food, or amazing music, etc), and absolutely lovely humans can be aggressively mediocre to bad artists. There is very little correlation between decency and artistic talent. You don’t need to be a good human in order to understand human behavior well enough to write movingly about it; remember that con men are very good judges of character.

With that said, if you discover that the writer of one of your favorite novels (or whatever) doesn’t live up to your moral or ethical standards, you’re not obliged to give them any more of your time or attention, because life is too short to financially or intellectually support people you think are scumbags. Likewise, you and you alone get to decide where that line is, and how you apply it. Apply one standard for one author, and a different one for another? Okay! I’m sure you have your reasons, and your reasons can just be “because I feel like it.” Just like in real life, you might put up with more bullshit from one person than another, for reasons that are personal to you. It’s nice when you have a standard that you apply rigorously, but you know what? I for one am not going to judge you too harshly if you pick and choose. There are more creative people in the world who produce at a standard you find acceptable than you will ever get a chance to read, listen to or otherwise appreciate. It’s fine to abandon some and go find others more to your liking, whatever that liking may be.

Related, remember that some work (and some authors) will age poorly for you, because times change and you’ve changed. I mean, probably. Maybe you’re one of those people who stopped changing your opinions and thoughts when you turned 25! Bless your heart.

4. Authors know more about their worlds than you do, but maybe don’t have all the answers. If you believe that only the text matters, then an author’s thoughts, beliefs, etc about the world they constructed on the page are no more relevant than your thoughts or anyone else’s; if it’s not on the page, it’s not canon. And that’s fine for you to believe, but as the author, I certainly don’t believe it, because among other things I know how much of the world I have to create in order to support what’s on the page. I have to know more about my world than my readers do, otherwise it’s going to be difficult for me to keep consistency of action (and consequence) across the work, both in characters and the world in general.

But, as it happens, sometimes writers and readers don’t find the same things important, with regard to the worldbuilding. As a result, readers sometimes think about certain things more than the authors have, and the authors get caught flatfooted when readers want to know more about that particular thing. Alternately sometimes the author kind of bullshits through something because they don’t think it’s important and later it comes back to bite them and has to be explained away. In Old Man’s War, I didn’t do any sort of real worldbuilding for Earth because I knew I was going to leave it in a chapter, and I didn’t think about whether I would ever write any sequels.

And then one day I was asked to write a sequel, and readers were asking why future Earth seemed exactly like now, and I had to recon my way out of my own laziness. It worked out okay (indeed the explanation became a seed for much of the series onward), but the point is, at the time of the original writing, there was no deep-seated reason for doing it other than “it doesn’t matter, so why bother.” Guess what! It mattered.

How much should you trust non-textual commentary from the author about their work? I tend to advantage the author (as I would, wouldn’t I), but there limits, and it helps when there is evidence outside the author’s word. The famous example of JK Rowling noting Dumbledore was gay was not in the text of the book series in any obvious way, but Harry Potter movie series screenwriter Steve Kloves noted that Rowling had him take out lines alluding to Dumbledore’s heterosexual dalliances because it wasn’t correct for the character, and did so before she went public with his sexuality. So there’s some reasonable evidence it’s not an entirely post hoc bit of character development.

Ultimately (and banally) the owner of the intellectual property has say as to what’s official “canon” and what’s not, regardless of what’s text and what’s commentary. It should also be noted that this is a gross oversimplification of matters, since over time public sentiment hugely influences the perception of an author’s work, long before it enters the public domain (but especially after). The “canon” of Sherlock Holmes, in terms of the perception of the character, hasn’t been limited to Doyle’s works for decades. The most famous cultural image of Pride and Prejudice (for now), D’arcy taking a swim, is nowhere in the original work’s text. And so on.

Related to this, and finally for now:

5. The actual death of an author makes a difference in a number of interesting ways. On a prosaic level, an author physically dying starts the clock ticking for their work to enter the public domain, where the work itself has a better opportunity to separate itself from its originator. Their death also begins to distance the public approbation and opprobrium of the author from the work. In the short run it means that people who were, say, uneasy about the moral character of an author can enjoy their work without worrying that they’re putting money into the pocket of a creep (or racist, or whatever).

In the long run, almost everything about the author becomes a footnote to the work. Even Shakespeare, arguably the English language’s most notable writer, is better known as an icon than as a person, save for occasional and historically shaky appearances in films. Occasionally death elevates an author into notability — Emily Dickinson comes to mind, although in the public eye even she is more about her work than her life — but it’s usually the other way around. Time wipes the author away from their work until inevitably people approach the work like a child would: With only the text itself, and a name that has no context outside of it.

Which might sound depressing if you’re an author, but, eh. One, you’ll be dead so you won’t care. Two, people even remembering your name for a century (or two!) is a hell of a thing. I know the name of L. Frank Baum but not the name of my paternal great-grandfather, who was alive at the same time. I don’t know anything else about L. Frank Baum off the top of my head but his name, but I know there’s a Wikipedia article about him I can go look at. My paternal great-grandfather is not so lucky. Now, note well that not all of authors are going to be L. Frank Baum; we’re probably not even going to be Temple Bailey (a bestselling author of 1919, and now you know). But at least you have a shot at it.

(Also, in case you’re wondering which authors alive today will be household names in 2119: Rowling and Stephen King. I think you’re probably not surprised by this prediction.)

Suffice to say that if you truly are a fan of the “Death of the Author” style of literary criticism, in the long run, you’re not wrong. But in the short run, the author isn’t dead yet. Especially when, you know, they’re actually still alive.

The Big Idea: James L. Cambias

Can a “big idea” be a bad idea? Author James L. Cambias (who has been one of my favorite writers since we were both at the University of Chicago together) grapples with this problem, and how confronting this issue made his new novel Arkad’s World all the better.

JAMES L. CAMBIAS:

“It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.”

— David St. Hubbins

Sometimes Big Ideas can be dangerous.* My new novel Arkad’s World was almost killed by a Big Idea.

The book is (in part) a love letter to boys’ adventure stories. As a tip of the hat to one of the greatest adventure stories, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, I wanted to include an ambiguous villain — a Long John Silver type character, who would seemingly befriend my young hero Arkad, while pursuing a selfish hidden agenda.

My incredibly clever Big Idea would be that this slippery character would never actually say anything true. His statements would all be sarcastic, or jokes, or rhetorical questions; and when he actually seemed to be speaking in a straightforward manner he was lying. This pathologically untruthful villain would get hold of Arkad, and the two of them would search for a lost spaceship containing Earth’s lost cultural and historical treasures. Meanwhile, a seemingly menacing rival team (who are of course actually the good guys) pursue them and ultimately Arkad realizes he has been duped.

Sounds good, right? Very clever, right?

Okay, here’s the problem. My young hero is naive. He knows a lot about the world he lives on, but almost nothing about what’s going on elsewhere in the Galaxy. He doesn’t know how important the lost spaceship is. He doesn’t know the political background.

And the only character who can tell him all that important information is lying all the time. Which meant the reader can’t find out any of this stuff either.

For about six months in 2015 I bashed my head against this project, until I finally realized that my clever Big Idea was actually a really bad Big Idea. It was so clever that it crossed the line into Stupid. I had to scrap most of what I had written, redo my outline, eliminate my unreliable character, and start over.

The delay meant that I didn’t finish the manuscript until the end of January, 2016. I was about a week away from submitting it when I got the news that David Hartwell had died.

David was my editor at Tor. He “discovered” me and published my first two novels. He gave me encouragement and wise advice. I wanted him to see this book — not just because I wanted to sell it to him, but because I wanted his opinion of it. I wanted to impress him.

But because of my stupid clever Big Idea, he never saw Arkad’s World. I felt really bad about that.

His death also meant an emergency reorganization at Tor Books. Without David as an advocate, Arkad’s World kind of fell through the cracks, and the company declined to publish it.

In the end, it was someone else’s Big Idea — an absolutely crazy-sounding Big Idea — which finally got Arkad’s World published. In the Fall of 2017, at Gregory Benford’s urging, I went to the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop in Huntsville, Alabama. (You can read my account of it here.) The TVIW is a conference dedicated to actually building and launching an interstellar probe to Proxima Centauri by 2060. It sounds mad, but right now I wouldn’t actually bet real money that it won’t happen. The people involved in the project are very smart and very dedicated, and at least a couple of them are very wealthy.

On the third day of the conference I played hooky along with some other science fiction writers — including Allen Steele, Sarah Hoyt, and Toni Weisskopf, the publisher at Baen Books. We went on a tour of the Marshall Space Flight Center, including a visit to the old Saturn rocket engine test stand from the Apollo program. Ms. Weisskopf and I were both disinclined to climb the rickety-looking stairs all the way to the top, so we had a little time to chat while the others made the ascent. I told her about Arkad’s World, and she asked to see it.

Pitching a science fiction novel to an editor when you’re halfway up a rocket test stand is pretty damned cool. I think the Rule of Coolness forced Ms. Weisskopf to buy the book. Which she did. And now it’s out, so everyone can see the Big Ideas I didn’t have to throw out.

*See the history of the 20th Century for examples.

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Arkad’s World: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site.