31 Questions: Some Answers
Earlier this year I posted a link to a most excellent piece: Stephen Burt’s THIRTY-ONE QUESTIONS AND TWELVE APOLOGIES BY WAY OF A THANK-YOU NOTE FOR THE 2013 VIDA COUNT, and at the time I promised to write in response some of the questions. Life intervened, but I did want to return to that project, if only because I was so deeply stimulated by the original article. Here’s the first post:
Stephen Burt’s Question #9:
Is it possible to read a piece of literary writing without imagining that the author has an age, or a profession, or an ethnic identification, or a height, or a weight, or a race?
Well, yes, maybe, but which of us has the opportunity to read anything with the identifying information redacted—other than contest judges that is. For the rest of us, the publisher conveniently plasters images of the author on the cover and everything else we want to know is neatly summarized in the biographical notes. The message couldn’t be clearer: A person like you will enjoy reading something by a person like this.
Pictures lie and bios are chock full of bullshit. Diegesis is my favorite piece of film jargon, and it describes the elements of the movie that are related to the telling of the story. Having met enough writers over the years, I’ve learned to ignore all nondiegetic material, including but not limited to blurbs, acknowledgements and anything that purports to tell me anything about the author.
Years ago, after a writer I was mentoring read Somebody Else’s Mama, he told me that he’d never met any people like those in the novel. Joe had come up in the hardest parts of Hartford and his life experiences simply hadn’t included middle class black folks living in a small town on the Mississippi River in Missouri. (As far as that goes, neither had mine.) After encouraging him to get out of the house more, I told him I didn’t think it was a bad thing when readers and writers found their way into new worlds. We talked cross-purposes for a while until I realized that Joe’s problem was less about the characters than it was that the subject matter didn’t align with the expected concerns of a writer like the one he perceived me to be. Were he making a list of novels that reflected his version of the African American experience, it was unlikely my book(s) would make the cut. So much for my work “counting.”
Were that I’d met Joe after he read the book and had him tell me who he’d imagined I might be. Doubtless his assumptions would have been as wrong as mine often are about the writers that I read. It’s the age of reading (and viewing and listening) biographically, and we are all in the habit of inventing the lives of the artists that we love. And that’s also why those who can afford it hire publicists. They want to make sure your version is the one they’d prefer you to believe.
Which has nothing much to do with how art is actually made. Part of getting out of my own way as a writer was to learn to separate my ego from both the process and the content of the work. When I stopped caring whether people believed that what I was writing was autobiographical it got a lot easier to get the work done. Which doesn’t stop people from imagining that what they read provides some great insight into my soul. Among the very many things that I have no control over is how my books are read.
Which is only partially the point of #9, and part of the brilliance of Burt’s essay is the way that these questions keep turning on themselves, thereby reflecting the slipperiness of the subject matter, i.e., the whole question of identity in literature.
Here’s a story I’ve told before: During the last semester that I taught sixth grade I read my students S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. This was a class composed largely of African American and Hmong-American students, and after I finished the book, I showed them Coppola’s filmed version. They enjoyed it, but they were puzzled. There was a lot of buzz at the tables. Finally one of the girls raised her hands and said, “We thought the Outsiders were black.”
And that was the absolute truth of the movies they had already created in their minds. I never asked them who they thought S. E. Hinton might be, but I’d like to imagine that she would enjoy that story. Or she might hate it. What does it matter what she thinks?