Sunday, September 15, 2013

Deloper of the Author

Renay (@renay) on the relationship between book blogging and the publishing industry, and especially the etiquette of authors dropping in on fan spaces.
"Because I'm aware of how badly things can go when fans seek to engage with creators, I'm intensely dubious that some creators think it's acceptable to walk into book blogger fan spaces featuring their work and argue about intentions and readings without an explicit invitation. 
"[...] After watching many of my favorite book bloggers shift from primarily fanwork toward the industry, I contextualized what I see happening in book blogging amid all the debates about where book bloggers fit. Book bloggers are fans, but as book blogger culture has grown and the ability of blogs to create 'buzz' for books has increased, they've continued to grow closer to the publishing industry, which can be a detriment to the fan community around those blogs."  
Communities: You've Got Your Industry in my Fanwork (Strange Horizons). 
In the comments thread (and in the surface crackle on the Twitterorb) the focus is mostly on the authors-in-fan-spaces aspect. (Update: also check out Renay's follow-up on the fall-out, and Larry Nolen making some decent points about not conflating fans and book bloggers).

I don't exactly have a stance on this, but I do have a sort of extended twitchy pose, as though you're pretending to take a photo of me, but actually filming. That disintegrating rictus is as follows.

(a) Obviously it's possible for an author to join a conversation about their writing without kindling a flamewar (like this short bracing but friendly discussion of Tim Maughan's 2012 "Limited Edition"). Renay's article is a great reminder that any author who wishes to do so should probably arrive with an abasing forward-roll, rather than with a seismic strut, just to try and level the power dynamic a bit.
Of course kindness and respect won't always be met with kindness and respect (see note 1). Perhaps the legitimacy of authors mingling with readers is such a tricky area because it is really primarily a form for conflict, rather than an object of conflict? Online animosity is an abundant, naturally occurring resource, and when it happens to include readers and an author, a probable shape for it to take is an argument about the legitimacy of the author's presence in the first place!

So perhaps the legitimacy of authorial interaction can't be determined very well outside of these particular contestations? (See note 2). If it can't, that's small one argument against pinning your blog with a "No Authors Allowed!" (or an "Authors Welcome!") sign -- at least insofar as your policy could be prevent, by baseless decree, the very process through which an authorial interaction reveals its legitimacy.
(b) OK. But even so, we can still think in general terms about these authors who paradrop in deep behind enemy (well, behind their own lines, I guess). For instance: perhaps authors don't necessarily have as much power in such situations as first appears?

For starters they are of course dead. It's by now very widely accepted that authors don't have final say over the meaning of their words. Before Barthes' death of the author thesis, there was Wimsatt and Beardsley's Intentional Fallacy. A patient and careful reader should be able to provide an interpretation which is more authoritative than the author's interpretation. Emotionally, the stakes are higher for the author.

It may actually be easier to do this with the author included in the conversation: they can often play the part of the textual expert, who will point out possible pitfalls as the interpretation develops and strengthens. If it turns into a struggle for the soul of the story, authors will often have a home field advantage. But just as a skrik vir niks gamer can beat a programmer at their own game, so you can beat an author at their own book. (See note 3).

Secondly, one stance which is common to a great many authors -- that of wanting desperately to be loved -- is not a very strong position to begin from. Of course a great deal depends on the magnitude of the particular author. Certainly a small-to-middling author probably has fewer fans to choose from than those fans have small-to-middling authors to choose from. (Compare Jonathan McCalmont on everyone being a writer and other things). Whereas celebrities who nudge hordes (knowingly or negligently) to advocate on their behalf are another matter.
(c) Then again, perhaps the power of readers in such situations isn't quite so secure either! Because although authors don't have final say over the meaning of their words, they may well have a continuous say over the words themselves.

There could be a murmur of excitement just here. I mean, it's OK if you feel like excitedly murmuring.

I'm talking of course about ebooks (and to some extent print-on-demand). And at the moment I am thinking in particular of indie publishing -- electronic and print-on-demand, but the possibility could certainly spread to legacy publishing. In most cases the advantage of authors over readers is that authors possess the legal right plus the technical capabilities to revise their work. Revisions can be done on the basis of readers' criticisms, and criticisms can thereby be made obsolete or otherwise transformed. Book bloggers could become one of the ways in which an author hones whatever it is they really want to say. Book bloggers could be co-opted as junior collaborators in pursuit of that will-o'-the-wisp, authorial intent. (See notes 6 and 7). So that's another form of interaction: wait, watch, gather intelligence, and if necessary, revise.

"It's always a sobering moment," writes Alastair Reynolds, "the first time you hold the end product. Months or years of work, distilled into a rectangle of card and paper. This is it -- no more changes now." Perhaps in the future, many writers won't be aspiring to get published, but to get closure.

(d) All that being said, it seems pretty likely that the direct involvement of authors and publishers in the textual record of reception and dissemination is a pretty malign thing on the whole. (See note 8). While there is something very intriguing about a fan becoming, as it were, the dominant scriptor in a dense nexus of text -- determining how an authorship function emerges as an effect of that nexus -- and likewise while there is something cool about the notion of author-turned-conduit -- so that whatever rewriting is tacitly embodied in every surveilled squee and critique can actually be continually realised -- there is also a lot to be said for the more familiar ideal: a relatively independent network of people who think about and talk about fiction, without too much interference from the people who produce it.


Note 1: A quick glance at the Ben Aaronovitch thread suggests that despite mumbling a caveat ("commenting on reviews is usually a mistake,") with a mouthful of humble tart ("I also miscalculated [...] in hindsight [...] probably where I went wrong [...] those who are broken and disappointed all I can say is sorry") Aaronovitch very quickly annoys his reviewer; his next two posts (and last, I think) mostly try to clarify, do some damage limitation, apologise and escape.

Note 2: Imagine no author had ever supplied their two pennies' worth. What superstitions might we develop around the possibility of authors and readers meeting? What hocus pocus might be unleashed? (Beware note 9). Or indeed what might be dispelled -- perhaps the spell of fiction itself. The reason the authors are kept on that mountain is that if they were ever to speak directly to their audiences, in their own person, society would at a stroke lose all ability to suspend disbelief and immerse ourselves in narrative fiction.

Note 3: I bet it's not that common to find a big argy-bargy between someone who believes that authors controls the meanings of their works, and someone who believes that those meanings are public property. (See note 4). What are probably more common are argy-bargies over different ways of construing that "publicness." Perhaps one pernicious species of argy-bargiest is a sort of extravagant subjectivist, who believes all interpretations are equally good, simply because they're rooted in the sanctity of individual experiences. We've probably all come across this. "My interpretation is my right, I don't have to defend it!" A book blogger who believes that might have more cause to quake at the appearance of an author (see note 5), because they're not used to supporting their own interpretations with evidence, arguments, comparisons and so on. Perhaps the sense that authors should stay away is actually sustained by these extravagant subjectivists? People who, ironically, commit a kind of intentional fallacy about their own reviews, believing them to necessarily correspond to their experience of reading?

Note 4: Dunno, but ... maybe an exception is kids? Maybe kids are more likely to believe that authors control the meaning of their works? If so, how does this understanding eventually change? (It doesn't necessarily involve reading a bunch of Barthes, right?) I wonder if the psychological foundations of the extreme subjectivism I just mentioned might already be laid down in children's author-idolatry? Perhaps there is sometimes simply a shift: meaning is a feeling which happens to me; when I was a child, I thought it was a feeling that an author could make me have, but now I know it is a feeling I make myself have, using an author (and/or consuming a commodity)?

Note 5: Maybe it's worth prodding the "OMG GROSS GET OUT OF MY ROOM" analogy? I feel like the vehemence of a stereotypical angsty privacy has something to do with shame, or more precisely, with irritation that a realm has been unnecessarily opened up in which shame is now a possibility. The intense desire for privacy is not really about protecting any superior activity. Not necessarily, anyway. It can easily be about the sanctity of the bathetic.

Also: a good first post for any author could just be, "Knock knock." (Thread continues. "WHAT?!" "I just -- can we talk?" "GO AWAY!" "We never see each other any more! I miss you. Can I come in?" *pause*)

Note 6: It is not a common practice, and it could be totally scandalous at first. I think this is particularly interesting with respect to calling out a piece of writing for retrograde identity politics. How will fans react to authors who try to fix whatever problems they spot? If a sentence in a love scene, flagged up by some bloggers as rapey, were to discreetly disappear -- is that more or less creepy?

Perhaps we'll soon be forced into a problematique of "the problematic": why exactly do we try to decipher the masked ideological content of all the cultural stuff we consume for fun? To what extent are we safety-labeling presumed subliminal propaganda, for instance? To what extent are we reading the ideology of cultural products as symptoms of their producers, as a kind of system of incentives and disincentives to become better people? To what extent are we training ourselves for other analytic and rhetorical battles (perhaps battles that are endlessly rescheduled)?

Note 7: Compare Wimsatt and Beardsley in "The Intentional Fallacy" (1946/1954):
There is a sense in which an author, by revision, may better achieve his original intention. But it is a very abstract sense. He intended to write a better work, or a better work of a certain kind, and now has done it. But it follows that his former concrete intention was not his intention. “He’s the man we were in search of, that’s true,” says Hardy’s rustic constable, “and yet he’s not the man we were in search of. For the man we were in search of was not the man we wanted.”
Note 8: It doesn't follow necessarily that individual authors heroically restraining themselves from meddling will necessarily improve matters.

Note 9: Can authors write fanfic of their own canons, I wonder? Would responsive authors who change their books on the basis of fan discussion lead to cabals of secretive book bloggers? Would authors have to go undercover to find out how many stars they've received? Also -- beware! -- see note 9. Now you are mine.

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