As I observed in replying to Guy Pursey’s polite skepticism toward the parodic goof by which I pretended to make meaning out of the page breaks in Lolita, literary critics treat the text as if it were the unified product of a single mind, even when it is a composite assembly. The concept of a unified text is the unspoken presupposition behind all literary criticism.
This concept links post-1970 literary theory to the New Criticism, which it otherwise sought to take down a peg or two. Even someone like Stanley Fish, “who preach[es] the instability of the text and the unavailability of determinate meanings,” falls back on the concept. Fish holds that “the meaning of an utterance would be severely constrained, not after it was heard but in the ways in which it could, in the first place, be heard.” The plurality of a text’s meaning, in other words, is a consequence of the different ways in which it could possibly be read. Plural meanings do not result from a multiplicity of sources of meaning within the text itself. The unitary text yields multiple interpretations because of its different reception in different “interpretive communities.” The text, though, remains unitary.
The problem is that literary critics accept on faith the published text that sits on the desk by their left elbow as they type up their conclusions. Uncurious about how it came to assume its current form, they treat the fact of publication as authoritative. The real author, whoever he or she is, quietly disappears from view.
Their lack of curiosity about the author’s text has repeatedly tripped critics up. Perhaps the most famous instance was when F. O. Matthiessen, discussing Melville’s working methods in American Renaissance, praises an arresting image in White-Jacket:
What is the moral of the story? According to Steven Mailloux, it is not quite right to say that “responsible editing is a necessary preliminary to sound criticism”; the more accurate conclusion would be that “editing is criticism”—that is, “editing is an extension of the same rhetorical activity that results in published arguments establishing a text’s literary and historical meaning. . . .” But Mailloux also confuses the published text for the authoritative text. At best, the textual editor restores an text’s original unity—and to the end, of course, of establishing a new authoritative text upon its publication. The concept of a unified text remains unchanged and in charge.
There is a fundamental distinction between a textual scholar who corrects typos and a go-to-town editor like Gordon Lish, who carves an altogether new text out of the author’s pumpkin. Whether or not you agree with Mailloux’s assumption that critics and not authors establish a text’s “literary and historical meaning,” an editor like Lish establishes the published text out of which the critics, unconcerned about problems of authorship and authority, whip up interpretations.
I have been using Raymond Carver’s early story “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” as my prooftext. Consider the last sentence of Carver’s original version when set alongside Lish’s edited version.
|December, West Springs, Ill. (December 1966) ||Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976) |
|He continued to stare, marvelling at the changes he dimly felt taking place inside him. ||He turned and turned in what might have been a stupendous sleep, and he was still turning, marveling at the impossible changes he felt moving over him. |
In disputing Lish’s editorial revisions with Kevin Neilson, who maintains that he is not troubled by them, I have repeatedly asked for an interpretation of the phrase impossible changes. He would not satisfy my request, but since then I have found one.
My own argument is that the phrase is meaningless, and for two reasons: (1.) it reflects Gordon Lish’s intention rather than Raymond Carver’s, and (2.) what the philosopher John Searle calls the “intention in action” that gives meaning to a literary utterance at the moment of composition is beyond human knowing, because there is no means of recovering the intention behind Lish’s one-word insertion. There is simply not enough evidence.
But this has not stopped critics from offering interpretations. In my first post on the problem, I cited a reading by Charles E. May that is invalidated by the critic’s ignorance of the text’s composite nature. Here is the reading that I found earlier today; it is even more strained than May’s. In American Literature, Kirk Nesset quotes the sentence as edited by Lish, and remarks: “With the repetition of the gerund, Carver suggests on the level of syntax the kinds of possibility residing in the ‘impossible,’ emphasizing that the road to recovery is part of the journey, too.”
One gerund belongs to one man, the other to another—but Nesset assumes they belong to the same unified text, even though there is no authority whatever for such an assumption. Having made that assumption, though, Nesset can proceed to an interpretation of Lish’s one-word insertion impossible. The meaning arises from his own presupposition, arrived at in ignorance of the story’s textual history. The phrase impossible changes has meaning if and only if a unified text is assumed, but that assumption is, as I have shown, unwarranted and unsustainable.
Fish is right, then, that the ways in which “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” can be read are always constrained, but in post-1970 literary theory, as Foucault has said, the “system of constraint . . . will no longer be the author. . . .” Questions of authorship are laughed off, but only because literary critics have invested authority in a published text whose history they are not interested in.
 Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), pp. 305–07.
 F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1941), p. 392.
 Steven Mailloux, “Reading Typos, Reading Archives,” College English (May 1999): 586.
 Kirk Nesset, “ ‘This Word Love’: Sexual Politics and Silence in Early Raymond Carver,” American Literature 63 (June 1991): 310.
 Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?” in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, ed. Josué V. Harari (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), p. 160.