1. E. C. Scrubb
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    E. C. Scrubb Active Member

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    Is the Author Dead? Is There any Meaning in the Text?

    Discussion in 'The Lounge' started by E. C. Scrubb, Aug 2, 2013.

    I'm interested in how this community, as authors, will respond to these two questions.

    Here's the background that has come to this concept of reading a text (skip it if you get bored easily, though I'll keep it short, so for those of you "in the know" yeah, I'm leaving a WHOLE lot out).

    Let's start with structuralism/semiotics: there are deeper meanings in the text and the goal is to break down the sentences to get to the deeper meanings, then understand what is being communicated through them. There's a whole host of things that go along with that, but basically, a reader should get back to the author's time period and culture to understand the deeper meanings, yet the deep structures that carry them are also universal.

    Post structuralism/postmodernism (Not necessarily the same, but conflated enough for here). This is a reaction to the above. The words on a page are just symbols of a sign (a spoken word) that is trying to point to an experience or thought. Words and sentences thus don't carry meaning, except the meaning I bring to it. For that reason, all of language is thrown into free play (however you want to read the text is fine, because there is no meaning to the text).

    While that is somewhat out there (It's Derrida, what do you expect?), the main issue I'm wondering about in here, is what has become known as Reader-response criticism. In the extreme form, the author is dead (his/her intent, meaning, etc., has no bearing on the text). In it's lesser forms, it is recognized that the reader brings his/her universe and understanding to the text and engages it while the author has no control over what he or she has written.​

    So, with that said (or skipped, if you decided to), do you believe that once you have written something, you have, should have, can have authority or control over how it is interpreted? Can you say, "that's not what that means?" Or, is the locus of authority for understanding a text completely in the mind of the reader who is bring his or her own understanding to the system of symbols on the page?
     
  2. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    To paraphrase Lionel Trilling, we can't trust a creative writer to say what he has done; he can only say what he meant to do, and even then we don't have to believe him.
     
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  3. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    That's nicely put. I do like reading between the lines, wondering whether I'm interpreting the stories correctly, so naturally I also enjoy stuffing "hidden" meanings into my and KaTrian's stories, but usually I don't mind either way: the readers pick up on them or they don't. What matters is that they derive some emotional, preferably intense experience from the story. Nevertheless, there are times when I want to make my position on a subject absolutely clear, so that's when I take precautions to make the text as clear as possible, but it's often difficult to avoid any ambiguation, so I just have to accept the fact that as long as you put your art "out there," sooner or later you will be misunderstood.
     
  4. UnrealCity
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    UnrealCity Active Member

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    Yes the author is dead. Once (s)he has created something open to interpretation, it is exactly that. I think that's the beautiful part of writing is that it can be understood in unintentional ways and reach out to the audience on a personal level.
     
  5. Orihalcon
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    Orihalcon Active Member

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    For creative writing, I side mostly with postmodernism. If someone a hundred years from now attempts to interpret one of my texts based on the time and culture I lived in, it is very likely that they will misinterpret that text. The more reasonable alternative would be for the reader to simply freely interpret the written work as they go along any way they like up to logical consistency. As a creative writer, I will attempt two things with my written work; evoke feelings and provoke thought.

    Since emotions are very personal and individual, my text must be open for interpretation if I want to touch the reader on a personal level. I cannot assume that what I write will evoke in the reader a specific feeling, but I can attempt to evoke related emotions.

    Since ideologies, morals and views are personal and individual, I cannot assume that my reader will agree or even sympathize with me, my story, or any one of my characters. What I can do is let the text either subtly lead the reader to either ask questions themselves or present the reader with a question; I will then attempt to ensure that the question is explored and understood by the reader. Finally, I will attempt to lead the reader into an answer, but the answer must come from the reader and not from me.

    To achieve my goals, I simply weave these two goals with each other throughout my story. I can't get everyone on my side, of course, but I can use simple, primitive and profound emotions that most people have in common to stir up some feelings. After that, I'll attempt to lead the reader to a point where reason and emotion conflict with each other, where emotions conflict with each other and where the reader's previous reasoning breaks down and must be somehow augmented. A few well-put questions will then easily provoke thoughts that can be used to stir up emotions further. From there, it's mostly up to the reader where they want to go, but I will try my best to invite the reader to entertain these inner conflicts.

    So in short, while I may intend to evoke certain feelings and provoke certain thoughts, a lot of it is also based on the reader's personal and individual interpretations, something I have no authority over.
     
  6. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    IMO, once you put a piece of writing out there, it's no longer yours. It belongs to the readers. If they "misinterpret", you wrote it wrong. Or you did what you were supposed to and got them thinking. Doesn't matter either way. It's theirs now.
     
  7. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    Absolutely not! Half the fun is seeing the audience find meaning in my words I never knew was there. It speaks of their own preoccupations and themes as well as my subconscious, and that's also a big reason people read in the first place - finding individual meanings in other people's words.
     
  8. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Agreed, Shadow. Not long ago I was discussing Everything is Illuminated with a fellow interpreter of Ukrainian. He thought I was off my rocker when I discussed my personal take on the significance of the the character of Lista in the book, how I felt she represented a primordial memory of the very land and how this tied into her roll as a fellow "collector" along with Jonathan. Being Ukrainian himself, his take was on her more tangible, plot-based roll in the story, her history, the fact that she was clearly Polish, not Ukrainian, etc. His way of reading the story was utterly unlike my way. Not wrong, but clearly different.
     
  9. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i don't see any practical sense to that question... no one can control the minds of others and since it would be impossible to do, it would be ridiculous to believe you have/should.can...

    of course you can, in any free-speech-allowed society...

    how could it not be?... i don't see what there is to debate here... what am i missing?
     
  10. E. C. Scrubb
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    E. C. Scrubb Active Member

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    Cart really hit in when he went back and hit the issues of linguistics. If locus of authority is completely within the reader, without any other input, then all contracts are voided, all texts mean whatever they want, and mein kampf is a lovely children's book (All very extreme examples, I fully admit). We in society really do not operate with the locus of authority in the reader. Instead, we tend to operate with a dual locus between the text and the reader, and a secondary one in the author. The debate is where meaning is found. In short, to what degree is it found in the words with agreed upon definitions, to what degree is it found in the reader that brings his or her perpective to the text, and to what degree is the "proper" understanding actually that of authorial intent. Where is the "true" meaning of the text, or is there a true meaning.

    That gets into a whole host of other questions concerning speech acts, context, etc. etc. I was just wondering however, if authors here want to retain some authority in how their texts are read. I would propose that they do, though we often say no, we don't. I haven't done this yet, but I imagine that if I looked through the reviews, I'd read a number of posts from the author that said, "That's not what I meant." The usual response is, "be clearer." But the author is dead, then it doesn't matter how clear s/he is, because what is understood has nothing to do with his/her intention anyway.


    ____________________
    CART-- Just for you:

    I can understand your background reading, I skipped it for brevity's sake.

    I can understand. your background reading, I skipped it! for brevity's sake!

    ICANN! Understand your background! Reading, I skipped it! for brevity's sake!

    (alright, not as good as "Time flies like an arrow," but still!)

    EDIT: Oh, and while Barthes coined "death of the author," I'd say the idea of the distance between the author and text goes back to Russian Formalism.
     
  11. Pheonix
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    Pheonix A Singer of Space Operas and The Fourth Mod of RP Staff Contributor

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    This is interesting... And It seems to me like your ideas when you write will color it, but really it's up to the reader to interpret.

    For some reason though--and this is where things get weird in my thoughts on the subject--this made me think of Finnegan's Wake... Yeah...

    I tried to read that book out of curiosity, discovered that I couldn't get past the second page, and that I hadn't understood a word of the first two, and then gave up and took it back to the library. Then I went home and listened to a recording of James Joyce reading it and was so profoundly moved that it's stayed with me ever since, even though I have only a vague idea of what the heck was going on in the excerpt he read... Something like that, I cannot imagine it being left only to the interpretation of the reader. At the same time, I can't imagine it being solely the expressed understanding of Joyce either.

    It's like, when you read something, you are sharing that with the person who wrote it. They are giving you a piece of their mind, their understanding and psyche, and in return, you take that through the filter of your own mind.

    Writing is like sharing your soul with the world, of course your understanding and ideas will be the basis. But to expect that everyone will feel the same way when they read what you've written would be like asking people to have the same fingerprint. You give of yourself, and others take it as their own when they read your work.
     
  12. JJ_Maxx
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    JJ_Maxx Banned

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    This reminds me of a Harry Potter discussion my wife and I had a while back. It turns out Rowling came out and claimed that Dumbledore was gay.

    Now, I said that the author had already wrote the books and can't really add in something like that. She didn't put it in the books, so it's not true.

    She feels that the author still has ownership of the characters and can say what they 'really are'.

    It was an interesting discussion.
     
  13. Lisztomania
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    Lisztomania Member

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    As a poetry writer, I ask the readers to come up with their own assumptions of what the text means to them. Having said that, I will also have my own meaning of why I wrote it & what it means to me.
     
  14. 7thMidget
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    7thMidget Member

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    Personally, when writing poetry (because it's the only thing I've actively shared with others, so far), I love it when people interpret my writings in completely unexpected ways and I have an increasing tendency to write in a way that fosters it, although I already do so naturally. I love it partly because it reassures me that, even when I pour too much of myself onto my words, no one really notices :cool: I definitely appreciate a dead author, which doesn't mean that I wouldn't like to know his own interpretation of things. I see it as complementary to my own vision, not exclusive.
     
  15. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I haven't read the books. Did she specify in the books that Dumbledore was straight? If not, then that's not true, either. If the sexuality of the character is not specified, then he may be gay, and if that's how Rowling saw him, her interpretation is as good as yours.
     
  16. JJ_Maxx
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    JJ_Maxx Banned

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    Her interpretation is irrelevant. The canon, as it were, is closed. I also assume he has two eyes, even though the text doesn't specify. All I'm saying is you can't add something to a character after the fact. The book is done and whatever is there, is all there is.

    I don't think authors can say, 'Oh and by the way that character you spent four years with is gay.'

    If the author doesn't ever give the slightest hint of gayness, then you assume the character is straight. You usually assume the norm, not the exception.

    Once we have the book in our hands, we only have the words you gave us.
     
  17. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I basically agree with this. There was never any textual evidence that he's gay. And quite honestly, his sexuality adds nothing to my interpretation/understanding of the series.

    What minstrel said is true as well. Her interpretation is as good as anyone's. Her interpretation may even carry a bit more weight to some people since she wrote the series.
     
  18. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, and in this case, I don't see how "she didn't put it in the books" makes it not true. She didn't clearly and unambiguously state that he was straight, either, right? Nor did she, probably, clearly and unambiguously state his shoe size, his favorite food, how much salt he likes in his soup, how much he loved his parents, or a whole lot of things, important and unimportant. That doesn't mean that she didn't know, in her own mind, all of those things, and it doesn't mean that they didn't influence her while she was writing them. Stating one of them after the book is written doesn't make that "new", it just makes it previously unstated.

    You may assume it, but that doesn't make you, the reader, the authority over the author's reality. I wouldn't assume that every character leans over into the majority condition in every possible way - that they're all right-handed, have the majority hair and eye color, and so on. I would assume that what is not specified, is something that I don't know.

    (Also, in all of those many books, are you absolutely positive that not even one sentence was influenced by the author's conviction about Dumbledore's sexual orientation? You may not have picked up on that influence; that doesn't mean that it's not there.)
     
  19. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    I could not agree more. To say anything else is to be unapologetically prejudiced. I might choose to not specify my character is black. Especially if I'm writing in apartheid times, but if my character IS black, it will be an integral part of them. And when apartheid is over, I might tell people, 'Guess, what guys..". Besided, loads of people might have already speculated my character is black, because they recognised the flavour of the culture or pain of the struggle or something. Just like many wondered if Dumbledore was gay before JK came out and said "Guess what, guys..."
     
  20. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think it's kind of silly for readers or writer to worry about those details after the fact, since it obviously had no bearing on the story. What's the point? Here again, the writer trying to direct the reader outside the actual writing - and some readers refuse to be directed. If she thought it important that D be gay, it should have been in the writing. If she saw him as gay in her mind, but didn't think it needed to be in the story itself, why not let readers decide for themselves (if they even considered the matter at all)? I guess this is why I don't pay attention to authors - only their books. :p
     
  21. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    What I find amusing about the whole "D is gay" deal and the fact that people are arguing that she is somehow imposing something into the work after it has come from the presses is that Rowling didn't call a press conference to make this announcement. It was the answer to a question asked of her at Carnegie Hall during a book tour. She explains how this facet of the character gives him particular motivation. She's not knocking door to door, "Excuse me, yes, good morning, I'm J.K. Rowling. Those films of mine you've been watching, the old fellah, with the beard, yes, he's gay. Have a lovely afternoon."

    She was talking about her writing process. It was the cultural zeitgeist that jumped on what she said. And since the zeitgeist is a gestalt form of the readership/wachership it is the zeitgeist that has made it canon, not Rowling.

    And this takes us back to the original question. The author isn't dead in this case, literally or figuratively. She has spoken and the reader has listened. Some will chose to unhear what they have heard, but it would seem that the majority will not. The author has offered and the reader has chosen.

    We can prescribe as much as we like, but we, the considering audience, have as little control over the way a work is interpreted as an author has of explaining things after the fact. It either does or does not get accepted. The very idea of the dead author is thrown into question when a very live author like Rowling says what she says and the culture takes it in. We can pontificate that her words or interpretation are meaningless, but that doesn't seem to be what is actually happening. The rule is thus not a rule, but a prescriptive opinion only.

    In the other direction, authors seem to be increasingly willing to hear the interpretations of their readership. Storm Constantine has an entire publication house she devotes to publishing the fan fiction written by aficionados of her Wraeththu universe. She fosters the idea with gusto. There are several episodes of the show Supernatural wherein nods or outright references are made to the phenomenon of gay ships*, which the fan-base of that show is inclined to enjoy, thus making canon that which was never originally part of the script.

    * A "ship" is short for relationship. In the fandom world, "shipping" is the act of pairing characters from a franchise, and sometimes between franchises, together, be it from the canon or not, str8, gay etc.
     
  22. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I haven't read the books yet, just seen the TV-version of the movies, and I don't, as I said, pay attention to authors, so I wasn't aware of the context of her remarks. Still don't understand how his being gay was a motivator - but then I don't see how his being straight would be a motivator either. I guess would say if she proclaimed in this interview that he was gay, I'd question why that wasn't brought out in the book; if she said she saw him as gay, it leaves a little more freedom of interpretation. But I'd still like to know why she thought it was part of his motivation...

    As to people accepting it - well someone here said they had thoughts about that before she came out with the interview, and obviously fanfic has carried this line of thought as well, so to many it was confirmation of their interpretation, not really a "revelation" they grabbed onto. But it still boils down to the author saying, "This is how I saw things" and readers either agreeing or disagreeing - and nothing the author says is going to force readers to do either. And that is why the author is 'dead'.
     
  23. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    You and I are on the same page here, Shaddow. :) (My reply was not really directed at you. I just happened to post after you.) ;)

    She was only expressing her thoughts as to her writing process, what she was thinking when she was writing this character.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7053982.stm

    This idea that somehow she is modifying the canon is not her doing, but the doing of the readership. Just as you mention, it is for the readers to say yes or no. I completely agree with you there, but I find it hard to disconnect the fact that it was the very author's words that fostered this. I simply feel that the increased connect we have with the source of written works, and the connect that source has with its readers, calls into question if this concept of dead author/non-existent reader is not eroded to some extent.

    To add another layer to the question, what happens when such revision or clarification by the author makes it to print? David Gerrold's A Matter for Men saw first print with references to a gay relationship had by the MC removed. A subsequent publication at another publishing house had the complete text as Gerrold originally wanted it, relationship included. Do we cry foul because the author is imposing what was not there in the original print or do we accept because this is how the author wanted it and originally invisaged it and it has actually seen life in book form?
     
  24. JJ_Maxx
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    JJ_Maxx Banned

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    Yes, the point is that it is up to every reader to decide whether they allow an author to be a revisionist. When you write a story, with a beginning and an end, it's a closed canon. What's there is there.

    Of course if a new book comes out and the main character changes in some way, then I don't see a problem with that because you are changing the story as I am experiencing it. We are experiencing it together.

    Before you buy a book, the story is in the future. When you read it, it is in the present and when you complete your adventure, it is now in the past.

    I don't believe that authors really have control over their works after they publish them to the world. Rowling was just an example, and it's not that I'm against D being gay, but I felt cheated that I read all those books and was never told this. I think it's unfair to tell us after the fact.

    It reminds me of television writers who make statements like, 'In a future episode, you're going to find out that Jack has been dealing with a loved one with Alzheimer's." They say it like this because they know it hasn't happened yet, so they can't come out and say its true.

    Again, it's up to the reader if they idolize an author to the point where they allow the author to alter the characters or story outside the covers of the book.
     
  25. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    The thing is, fans and readers differ. When I started to write recently (2005) I was writing in real time on the blog. At one point I earned a bit of notoriety and fandom, the stories kept going, they were autobiographical but I didn't state that . In any case, as the people became more attached, they started to take close interest in what the character was doing. And a few rather disturbed people took offense at a particular action of the character. Literally overnight, they turned into passionate haters of me as a writer and a person. They were outraged, claimed the character would 'never do such a thing' and even threatening violence if I didn't change it as per their request! The bizarre thing was, it was all my life, as it happened. But a few fans were confronting me about ruining their vision. Of course, they were a vast minority, most fans were great, but it was my first taste of this problem.

    The next project I wrote was full fiction, but a lot of fans latched on and chose to believe it was real, just because it was written in 1st person pov. And after the project finished, I continued to write the same blog as personal, just blogging, and I was accused by one girl that I wrote so much better when I was 'telling the truth about my life' (the fictional project). You can imagine how bizarre it was to be accused of faking my own life, and being "more authentic and truthful" in my fiction. I took it as a massive compliment, but the girl was so angry, she ranted for days on my page and she wasn't the only one.

    There is a sea of examples of fans taking possession of fictional stories and characters and even fans defending characters from their creators. So yeah, fans can be very weird, and the ones who idolise the writer are the most posessive of the work, they are the least likely ones to 'allow' the writer to even have a point of view, they sometimes see the writer as someone who is standing between them and the story. Sort of like literary dopleganges. No need to pay attention to them though. What I learned from it all is, don't fraternise with fans. Keep yourself separate and communicate through your work.
     

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