The Author Is Dead

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Sat Jun 23 01:25:23 EDT 2001


On Wed, 20 Jun 2001 19:28:08 -0400 (EDT), Kyra Jucovy wrote:

>   This interests me - what about a situation like Philip Dick's _Valis_
>(I suppose Philip Roth does the same thing too, but I know a good deal
>more about _Valis_) where an author explicitly writes a fictional work
>about him/herself?  B/c in a case like that, aren't you sort of opening
>yourself up to being judged on how you presented yourself?  . . .although
>with _Valis_ it works the opposite way for me; after reading up about how
>much of the book was drawn off of PKD's real experiences, I'll admit that
>I was pretty convinced he was insane, but I was _deeply_ impressed by
>how: a) he was willing to admit to being insane and b) was able to use
>that to make a powerful work of art.  And in this case I'd also have
>to say that I felt reading about his life gave me a deeper
>appreciation of the book - but I think that's mainly because I'm so
>impressed by his use of his experiences.  Would you say that this was
>an illegimate reaction, though, because I shouldn't assume anything about
>the way he chose to portray himself any more than I should about how he
>chose to portray any other character?

I think a truly postmodern reading would still consider the "Philip Dick" of
the novel as a fictional construct that might or might not resemble the real
person.  But I'd be more inclined to read it as something closer to
autobiography.  (It sounds like a very interesting book; maybe I need to
check it out....)  I'd wonder how much he was being honest about.  I would
have to work very hard not to assume that I knew him just from reading this
book--does that make sense?  If he's writing about himself, and it's
explicit that he's writing about himself, then yes, I think one possible
reading would be treating the fictional character as a representation of the
person.  (You could even say this about the people you know in real
life--that what you know is really a fiction you've constructed about them
through observation.  And the person I am on this list bears only small
resemblance to "the real me," whatever that is--another fiction.  Sounds
like PKD is only doing what we all do in an online community, only more
formally.)

Sometimes I'll read a story by an author whose life I know a little bit
about, and something in the story will seem awfully close to those bits of
fact.  I wonder then how much the author is working out his or her problems
in fiction...probably shouldn't, but it's impossible to avoid.

>   Hmm. . . what about criticism of nonfiction?  Does the author fit in
>at all with nonfiction, or is the situation no different than with
>fiction?

I don't know how that works for the critical community.  Good question.  I'm
always *very* concerned about knowing about the author of a nonfiction book,
because it goes to veracity...as I said about Sutherland writing about
Thackeray, I want to know if the author is writing from a particularly
biased viewpoint.  I think there's a case to be made for needing this same
information about a fiction writer, though...hmmm.

Here's what I think (entering Private Heresyland): Any fiction is about a
world that isn't the same as the one I live in.  Even if it's not
speculative fiction.  This is just the way I perceive it--however deeply
immersed I am in a book, it's still some other world.  In fact, I think of
"getting into" a book as though I'm stepping through a door to another
world.

Nonfiction, however, is always about *my* world.  So if an author says
something that doesn't match up with my experience, I'm not going to let it
slide without checking up on the source.

Now, if you think of fiction as representing *our* world, then wanting the
same information about the writer and his past and his other writings and
beliefs makes a lot of sense.  It might also go toward explaining why
certain religious groups are opposed to Harry Potter because it's "about
witches" even though the witches in the book are nothing like the kind of
witches we have in our world.  Or why some people in general disdain
fantasy.  Or any of the other strange reactions people tell me about certain
books (strange in this case meaning "I have NO idea how you arrived at this,
and I'm trying very hard to remember that you have a right to your opinion).

>   Hopefully these questions aren't too naive - but you've been
>sufficiently clear as to spur some interest!

I don't think they're naive at all.  And I'm glad I'm being clear.  I'm
starting to feel awfully exposed because I'm sounding like some kind of
expert, which I really am not.  Critical theory changes just like any other
discipline, and I'm worried that what I'm talking about makes me sound the
literary equivalent of a physicist explaining the ether.

Melissa Proffitt
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