The Author is Dead

Ven ven at
Sat Jun 23 22:16:33 EDT 2001

> The second way is at the very least supportable.  And you're right that
> knowing about the author usually enhances the reading experience.  So why do
> I think it's irrelevant?  Because I think reading a text ought to stand for
> itself.  You shouldn't have to know that Thackeray was a racist to read his
> characterization of the black woman in _Vanity Fair_ as racist.

Hmm but it's not so simple, though my original post probably gave 
that impression. When I first encountered Miss Swartz, the wooly 
haired mulatto from Saint Kitts I didn't know what to make of her, or 
other characters' relationships to her at all. Between Thackeray's 
archness and my ignorance of the precise social and historical 
context of the words he was using, I couldn't produce a coherent 
reading of her part in the story at all. Only on my second 
encounter, once I had read Sutherland on Thackeray's attitudes to 
race, could I see what she was about. The characterisation always 
struck me as racist by today's standards but only by some 
understanding of how it read (was intended to be read?) in its own 
day  could I make sense of it. (This is the same thing Melissa was 
referring to about Dante, right?). So, the author may be dead, but 
how we can read a text without some idea of the shared cultural 
context it was produced in I still have no idea.

> original question was: >[If] 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? > >  

My answer is, why did we have to take his depiction at face value 
in the > first place?  If you read a book in which every (or the only) 
black person > is stupid, or every woman is vain, or every religious 
person a hypocrite, > doesn't that ring a few hundred warning bells 
about the author's > credibility? 

Sure it does, if it's that obvious, but in reading novels from outside 
my own culture -- geographically, or chronologically -- I don't feel I 
can just apply my own standards without considering a book's 
context, I think I would be missing a lot if I did.

 From my perspective, what the author intended doesn't matter, > 
because I'm not drawing any conclusions about him or her.  I could 
still say > this was a racist characterization even if I knew the 
author was a committed > abolitionist.  Tanaqui and I had 
something of this discussion talking about > Heinlein: no matter 
what he *said* in real life about women, no matter how > much 
respect he gave his wife, he's got a lot of one-dimensional females 
> cropping up in his books.

Good point.  But (had to be a but, and I'm playing devil's advocate 
here <g>) Heinlein's females might be one dimensional, and reflect 
Heinlein's wishful thinking, but imo they compare favourably with 
the women in books produced by misogynists in Heinlein's era.

 > >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. > >

Actually I now realise I only do this with some authors. It doesn't 
really come in to my reading of David Brin for example, or Terry 

 I think we will just have to disagree about this.  It sounds to me 
like you > are interested as much in the history of a book (by 
which I mean all the > elements leading to its creation, including 
the author's life) as in the > book itself.

I think I tend to read like an archaeologist, I like to grub around 
underneath things <g>. My own life has disposed me to want to 
find out what is behind the stories people tell, the stuff they hoped 
to keep out of sight. That's probably why I became an 
archaeologist in the first place........

Going back to what I was saying about guesswork there's an 
aphorism which is an archaeologists' in joke: "Three stones make 
a wall." in reference to the initial stage of excavation, when the top 
soil has been cleared and the archaeology starts to appear. One 
stone means nothing, two stones are just two stones but three 
stones, in a line, and there could be a wall down there -- or it could 
just be a coincidence after all. Applied to any situation where three 
or so  bits of evidence seem to point in a particular direction it is 
both a justification for the drawing of conclusions and a caution. 
This Thackeray discussion  is a bit like that, I think I've got my 
three stones but I know that all they can lead to is a theory.


"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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