Sunday, October 01, 2006

Authors and Authority

Last week the Bitch went to a literary do and took with her a pair of young artists unused to literary events. Their outsiders' take on the evening seemed amusing at the time, but in retrospect raises serious issues about the status and power of writers in a Britain of market-led publishing on the one hand and rampant creative writing courses on the other.

The event was a prize-giving, the culmination of a competition run by an organisation whose main activity is running short courses and workshops for writers. A founder tutor and competition judge announced the prizes, in some cases inviting the author to read, and in every case talking in some detail about the winning work.

My artist guests were both fascinated and shocked. Firstly, they were fascinated by the thing I have always taken for granted, the spectacle of authors getting up and reading out their work aloud, sometimes with confidence, sometimes visibly shaking, sometimes reading well and sometimes not so well. What struck them forcibly, as contemporary artists trained to create work in such a way that it speaks for itself, was that the author was thus forced to be in the way of the writing, and the writing itself thus subsumed and ultimately divested of authority. This is obvious when the reading is bad, but it's true even if the reading is good, and of course it's true even at a famous author reading, where the whole thing plays into the cult of personality.

More importantly, however, the thing which shocked the artists was the compere's commentary. Trained in London art schools to take full responsiblity for the meanings of their work and, to that end, to control the context in which it appears, they were staggered that writers could be in a position where another person could decide independently what their work was about and announce it to the world, while the author had no opportunity for speaking about his or her work. Well, I laughed at the time, the judge was after all saying pretty nice things, and I was one of the winners, and it doesn't do to look a gift horse in the mouth, but it's true that when he said my story was a 'rite of passage' piece I was pretty gob-smacked for a moment, and couldn't work out how he made that out, and later when I did it struck me that, much as he'd liked my story, he may well have missed the point.

And afterwards it set me thinking. Clearly we can never expect to have ultimate control over how our work is read - books are ultimately what readers make of them - and clearly sometimes authorial intention fails to be realised, but writers do sometimes do new things which need to be read in new ways. Yet it does seem that on the whole it is the writers who have least voice in any debate about their work. One of the biggest crimes, for instance, has always been for a writer to take issue with a newspaper criticism (so undignified!), and now, it seems to me, the whole creative-writing teaching explosion has led to an ethos in which the authority on the meaning of a writer's work is not the writer but another (the teacher). Interesting that while the teaching of art has so much longer a history than the teaching of creative writing, artists do not suffer this situation. And look at James Frey, apparently utterly without control of the context of his work, and when he tells the Guardian that he first wrote his book as fiction, he may as well have said it into the wind, for there's John Burnside writing in the same paper last week, making the argument I have made about different kinds of literary truth, but nevertheless overlooking this crucial point.

Ironic, really, when you think of why we write in the first place...
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