Who’s in Charge Here?

How to Read Literature Like a Professor - Thomas C. Foster 2003

Who’s in Charge Here?



THE INQUIRY CAME IN INNOCENTLY, as the troubling ones often do. A student. A question. A swirl of issues demanding to be untangled: “Dear Professor Foster, what about . . .”

As it happens, this is one I’ve been wrestling with my whole life. Someone I’ll call Steven sent me an e-mail with a question many others have asked, directly or indirectly. The short version is this: “How do I know I’m right?” The full version is more vexing. I’ll give you a sort of composite between “Steven’s” question and those I’ve received before:

I do have one question. Say I see something in the story that I think is a symbol (e.g. a blind man), and I share my thought with my friends and they think the same. But in fact the writer created the character of the blind man simply because he happened to see a blind man walking down the street while he was writing.

My question is, should we really give so much credit to writers by interpreting their works in such a special and meaningful way, especially when he/she hasn’t been proven to be a good writer yet?

This, of course, is the great and troubling question of literary analysis: how do we ever know that we’re right, that we’re accurate, that we’re justified? Actually, there are several questions here, so let’s deal with the main two first: can we ever be certain that our reading is correct, and if so, how?

In answer to that one, I would say that if you are reading carefully—not skipping pieces or inserting words that aren’t really there—and you see something, you can assume it’s really present. Take your example of the blind man. Does his presence, taken with other elements of the story, suggest something about seeing or the failure to see? Is someone failing to understand a truth right in front of him? Seeing that connection is not always easy or quick, and sometimes it doesn’t exist. In that case, the blindness may not mean much at all. But consider this: introducing a blind character into the narrative commands the reader’s attention, and the logistics of moving him around, if he is significant, are so difficult that you need a pretty good reason for deploying him. So assume that he means something until you can prove otherwise.

The second part of the inquiry is more intriguing: how can we be sure that we’re doing what the author wants us to do? The wise guy in me wants to say, we can’t, so get over it. If I could wave a wand and get rid of everyone’s sense of obligation to the writer, I would do it in a heartbeat. A reader’s only obligation, it seems to me, is to the text. We can’t interrogate the writer as to intentions, so the only basis of authority must reside in the text itself. Trust the words and the words only. You can never find the motivation behind them. Even if the writer told you his intent, as a group they’re notorious liars and not to be trusted. Plus, writers do things sometimes because they “just feel right”; that is, not every choice is made consciously, although that doesn’t mean there’s no reason behind it.

The real issue, though, is the one I framed in the title of this piece: who’s in charge here? First a bit of context. In 1967, a little-known (in America, anyway) French thinker on matters literary and cultural named Roland Barthes published a short essay in the equally little-known Aspen magazine called “The Death of the Author.” The fallout from that bit of whimsy has been the opposite of little known. On one level, it became a cornerstone of the poststructuralist theoretical program; on another, it became a symbol of everything Anglo-Americans hate about continental, and especially Gallic, thought. In other words, it had something for everyone. I have taught this essay a number of times, always with the same results, and those are illustrative of our problems with Barthes and his ilk: “Oh, my gosh, he’s saying that writers don’t even matter. That can’t be right! Writers have to be important. Otherwise, how can what we do as English majors, as English graduate students, matter?” And so on.

What first-time readers of the essay often miss, aside from the playfulness and archness of the piece, is that “author” does not equal “writer” perfectly. Yes, we generally use them interchangeably. Yes, that works just fine most of the time. Barthes, however, carefully avoids the French word for “writer,” écrivain, sticking with auteur. This is, in fact, his point: the writer, he or she who writes, is just fine; the problem comes in with the author, the ultimate authority on the text. That personage, the Author (and he consistently capitalizes it so we don’t miss the point) as Divine Creator, is dead.

Look at it another way. Most writers whose work you have read are dead. The others will be. At some point, all writers are beyond our reach. I’m not being morbid here, although I’m fully capable of it, but for once I merely state facts. All writers eventually reach the big Remainder Table in the sky. Simply part of the human condition. By definition, then, they reach a point where we cannot appeal to them for clues to meaning. Unlike their physical being, their written work survives, and it is that on which we must base our conclusions.

On that same topic, here’s a question: when is a writer dead? Easy, you say? A mere medical question? I think not. Granted, the writer as biological organism can be said to have died on the date on his or her death certificate. But think about it from another angle: what about the writer as creator of her work? Is there any difference, really, between the day after publication of her novel and a hundred years hence? Have the words changed? Does her ability to control our response to the work change in that century? I think not.

Oh, he could be like Henry James and bring out his “New York Edition” of his work years later, possibly even introducing numerous changes and revisions to the party. In our (well, my) time, Louise Erdrich and John Fowles brought out revised versions of Love Medicine and The Magus, respectively, so it does happen. Some poets, and William Butler Yeats springs to mind, tinker mightily with poems from the journal to the book stage of development, and sometimes from the initial collection to the Collected Poems. But most writers write their work once and, for better or worse, leave it at that. Mostly better. Do it right the first time and be done with it. Said the guy writing a revised version of his book.

This argument also gets around Steven’s other concern, about the “unproven” author. If we judge the text, the age or experience of the author does not matter. An example? Sure, why not? Maybe even two. In 1983, no one had heard of Louise Erdrich, including me, although she was only two years behind me at a college that isn’t all that large. That’s fair; she hadn’t produced any novels yet. But then she did, and what a novel. Love Medicine won the 1984 National Book Critics Circle award for fiction. First novels are rarely best or even near-best novels (Hemingway and Harper Lee provide two of the few exceptions), but this one ranks right up there. Now, we can argue that because chapters had been appearing as stand-alone stories in literary journals and national magazines for four or five years prior to publication, Erdrich was not completely unknown or unread, but the point stands that this was a first novel. If we accept the premise that significance is only valid once a track record has been established, then we will miss a wonderful novel—until, at least, the writer “grows up” in terms of reputation. For my part, I would prefer to read the novel rather than the reputation.

Or try this. In the week I was writing this postlude in the summer of 2013, an interesting publishing revelation occurred. In April, a debut mystery novel was published in Britain to good reviews and near-zero sales. In mid-July, at approximately the moment when remaining copies were being rounded up for a bath in the acid vats, the Sunday Times newspaper outed the real writer, a first-timer in adult mysteries sure enough, but also maybe the most famous novelist in the world (although Stephen King might argue that one). Robert Galbraith, it turns out, was J. K. Rowling, who wanted to publish The Cuckoo’s Calling anonymously just to see how it fared with critics when it wasn’t under her name. Her previous novel, The Casual Vacancy, sold more than a million copies but had not been treated kindly by critics, so she had some motivation. In the weeks following the revelation of her authorship, the new novel shot to number one on Amazon’s bestseller list, chiefly on the basis of e-book sales, all physical copies having been swept up instantly, while the publisher, Little, Brown, ordered hundreds of thousands of new copies to be printed. So here’s my question: what’s the fuss? From a marketing standpoint, I completely understand, but looked at as an aesthetic proposition, does it really matter? Is the book any better or worse as the work of Ms. Rowling than it was as the product of her retired military-intelligence alter ego? Ultimately, the book must stand or fall on the merits of the text, not the strength of the authorial brand. And to establish those merits, we need to read the book. We all find, all the time, that critics don’t speak for us. Often, sales don’t speak for us. Some of my worst reading experiences have involved books that “everyone” was reading and praising. Time and again, experience has shown that while I might be “just anyone,” I’m definitely not “everyone.” What I like, what I admire, what I dismiss, I can only find out by reading for myself.

The same is true of analysis or interpretation or whatever you want to call what we’ve been up to for the last few hundred pages. I can usually make a persuasive case for my reading of a novel or poem, but I can’t make it your reading. Yes, I do know a good deal about literature and how to have fun with it, but I’m not you and you are not me. For that, you should be profoundly grateful. No one in the world can read Life of Pi or Wuthering Heights or The Hunger Games exactly the way you will—except you. Often, too often, I find students apologizing for the way they see a work: “It’s only my opinion, but” or “I’m probably wrong, but” or some other iteration of this lame act of contrition. Stop apologizing! It doesn’t help, and it sells the speaker short. Be intelligent, be bold, be assertive, be self-confident in your reading. It is your opinion (but not “just”) and you might be wrong, although that’s less likely than most students think. So here’s my final piece of advice: Own the books you read. Also poems, stories, flash fiction, plays, memoirs, movies, creative nonfiction, and all the rest. I don’t mean this literally, although as a person who makes a living through books, I’m not against the idea. What I really mean is that you need to take ownership of your reading. It’s yours. It’s special. It is exactly like nobody else’s in the whole world. As much a part of you as your nose or your thumb. We all learn from each other when we read and discuss literature, and our readings change based on those discussions. I know mine do, in all sorts of ways. But that doesn’t mean I abandon my own viewpoint, and neither should you.

Don’t cede control of your opinions to critics, teachers, famous writers, or know-it-all professors. Listen to them, but read confidently and assertively, and don’t be ashamed or apologetic about your reading. You and I both know you’re capable and intelligent, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Trust the text and trust your instincts. You’ll rarely go far wrong.