November 2009

Writers who write about their writing

Here are some thoughts that suggest that writers are not, as people tend to believe, the best people to talk about their work.

In fact, after reading this, you might come to believe that they are the worst possible choice.

1. I’m not qualified to talk about my book

In How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Pierre Bayard notes that:

[Paul]Valery posited that despite appearances, an author is in no position to explain his own work. The work is the product of a creative process that occurs in the writer but transcends him, and it is unfair to reduce it to that act of creation. To understand a text, therefore, there is little point in gathering information about the author, since in the final analysis he serves it only as a temporary shelter. (Bayard, p 16)

I have discovered that this is, to at least some extent true, as the conscious effort of creation is tremendously supplemented by a myriad of subconscious influences that I cannot even identify, let alone qualify or quantify. While, for example, The Lesser Evil is not by any means a deeply subtle text, I can but presume that similar principles are at work here.

2. My book becomes your book

Bayard goes on to describe

an experience familiar to all writers, in which they realise that what is said about their books does not correspond to what they believe they have written. Every writer who has conversed at any length with an attentive reader, or read an article of any length about himself, has had the uncanny experience of discovering the absence of any connection between what he meant to accomplish and what has been grasped of it. There is nothing astonishing in this disjuncture; since their inner books differ by definition, the one the reader has superimposed on the book is unlikely to seem familiar to the writer. (Bayard, p97-8)

There’s a lot to say on this.

The first and most obvious conclusion that one can grasp from this statement is that by talking about their work, an author is pre-loading their text with extra meaning, colouring the reader’s experience in a certain way, coming closer to ensuring that the reader has the experience the author intended.

Even for the author, I don’t believe that this situation is ideal. Having never actually had an audience for my work, I can’t say from experience how it feels to have someone read something into your work that you didn’t realise was there … but it sounds very exciting, not something to be feared or avoided.

Of course, I can imagine circumstances where a universal reading experience would be the ideal, especially in the realm of non-fiction, and also in fictional texts where the author is championing a cause or point of view.

The second conclusion I draw from this has to do with the author’s level of control. Anyone who writes a book is a control freak … on the page, if not in the real world as well. It seems to me that letting go of that book, sending it out into the world to make something of itself would not be too different from releasing a carefully-moulded child in the same way.

Parting thoughts:

The reluctance of an author to relinquish the right of reading to the reader can, in my opinion, damage his/her book’s impact upon its audience. Take everything I say about my work with a grain of salt.

This post is a necessary disclaimer for all future writing about my writing. You’ve been warned.

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