Jane Austen was a lot of re that I snipped off

Ven ven at vvcrane.fsnet.co.uk
Mon Jun 18 20:04:55 EDT 2001

 Paul said
> >> I don't know the book of which you speak well enough to make
> >> deliberate comment, but this doesn't make sense to me: surely, if Mary
> >> is a malingerer and a social climber, then she should be treated as
> >> such? 
> >Interesting. One of the things my English teacher used to 
> >complain about was my tendency to ask why the author hadn't 
> >written a character differently or turned the plot another way. I'm 
> >still doing it which is how this bit of the argument got started. If an 
> >author wrote it that way is there anything more to be said? 
> It's not that there's nothing to be said, it's that the question "Why didn't
> the author write the book differently?" can be a dead end.  It goes to
> motive, which is unknowable.  Anything we might say about why Jane Austen
> made Mary a whiny hypochondriac rather than a genuine sufferer is pure
> guesswork.  Guesswork, moreover, that usually supports our own theses at the
> expense of the author, who isn't around to defend herself.

The reason I introduced the Thackeray example was that in 
contrast to JA 's portrayal of Mary we do have some idea of the 
author's motive, or motivation. And what's wrong with guesswork -- 
you've probably noticed by now I don't tend to believe in universal 
truth (except, maybe in mathematics) -- everything we think is 
made up of guesses and hypotheses, that's why we have to talk 
about it so much. (OK, so I recognise some hypotheses are more 
testable and/or more worth considering than others.)

> One aspect of postmodern criticism--a mainstay of feminist criticism as I
> was taught it--is the strong reading.  A strong reading is one that denies
> the obvious things the author "intended" you to understand or believe.  It
> means not taking the text at face value, not accepting the overt
> conclusions.  It's important to feminist criticism because it's how you look
> for hidden or subjugated voices (though I hate using that word).  It's like
> reading Conrad's _Heart of Darkness_ from the woman's point of view (either
> the native or the fiancee).
> Anyway, you can ask those questions, but I don't think you can draw any
> conclusions about the author from the answers you come up with:

Just hypotheses which you may or not find support for in other 
aspects of an author's life and work.

> >Well, this brings me to a bit of argument I've been meaning to bring 
> >up, concerning author's predjudices. Suppose a character in a 
> >nineteenth century novel is presented as stupid, comically ugly and 
> >irredeemably vulgar mannered. It's designed to arouse sympathy 
> >for the young man  whose father wants him to marry this fright for 
> >her money.  But suppose this character is black, and we know 
> >from other sources that the author was actively racist, does this 
> >not change the picture we have of her and of the author's intent? 
> >Can we still treat her as the author depicts her? The author in 
> >question is Thackeray, the book Vanity Fair.
> Again, the author's intent is problematic--and I don't know what other
> sources you cite as evidence of Thackeray's racism.  (I also haven't read
> the book.  It's on my to do list, okay?)  If you've got an author who always
> depicts black characters as stupid, ugly, and vulgar, then you can probably
> not trust that depiction.  But his intent doesn't matter.  He could be
> maliciously racist.  He could be ignorant.  He could be completely
> misinformed.  All of those are still just GUESSES.

Educated guesses at the very least in the case of Thackeray, 
although I would be intereseted in counter arguments to the strong 
case which Sutherland put (see my last but one post). 

> Besides, I really don't think it matters.  Reading isn't about illuminating
> the mind of the author.  It's self-revelatory, as I think I said before.
> You might be passionate about discrediting racism, and criticize _Vanity
> Fair_ with that end in mind, but continuing along that line to draw
> conclusions about the author is just a dead end.  You're reading the text,
> not its writer.

Ooh Melissa, I can't agree with this. What does one do? Pretend a 
text was beamed in from the universal creative mind? I can't ignore 
what I know of the author and the origin of a book. And I can't stop 
being interested either.  Speculations and sometimes judgements 
about where an author is coming from are very much part of this 
reader's experience. 

This is becoming about what it is and isn't right to comment on in  
criticism.    As I said above I had trouble with seeing why I 
shouldn't criticise the way an author had written something. What 
has struck me since is that this kind of thing was sometimes 
allowed. Shakespeare's Measure for Measure was presented to us 
as a "problem play". The reason for this, apparently was that in the 
first two acts it follows the pattern of a tragedy only for the last 
three acts to be comedy, down to the happy ending.  So, I think, 
Why was it in order to consider why Shakespeare's plot was 
designed the way it was and not to wonder why George Eliot 
shoehorned Maggie Tulliver's life into tragedy? (Imo of course). 

Looking forward to the next round........

"Any reader has the right to say of any text: "But I didn't think it was that good."

Samuel R Delany
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