Monday, April 26, 2010

Return to the authors

It is perhaps appropriate to be questioning the authority of Michel Fou­cault, who famously held that, if the author is not exactly dead, at least he is a tiresome and repressive figure who should be removed from office, by force if necessary:

     We are used to thinking that the author is so different from all other men, and so transcendent with regard to all languages that, as soon as he speaks, meaning begins to proliferate, to proliferate indefinitely.
     The truth is quite the contrary: the author is not an indefinite source of significations which fill a work; the author does not precede the works, he is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction.
The author, in short, is the enemy of freedom, where freedom is identified exclusively (and narrowly) with the “free play” of meaning. Not that the conclusion follows. If and only if limitation and exclusion are the armed enforcers of political repression does it follow that “authors” are the enemies of freedom.

But the exclusion of pork from my kitchen does not prevent its being sold to you. Indeed, you can purchase (and consume) my portion. Feel free! And the limitation of a text’s meaning to its author’s intention does not impede my creation of a different meaning. I can even do so in the author’s name, although I will be mistaken. I will be burglarizing his authority while simultaneously claiming to reject any authority of the kind.

At all events, it is appropriate this morning to question the authority of Foucault, the leading authority for the disregard of the author, because my 3,000-word life-and-works essay “In Praise of Prose”—Francine Prose, that is—has just appeared in the May issue of Commentary. This is the second such essay I have written, after having surveyed the career of Michael Chabon in the Sewanee Review a year and a half ago.

I should like to write more such essays (Stanley Elkin is next on my to-do list), but more immodestly, I should like to persuade other critics to undertake essays that offer a panoramic view of an author’s life and works.

A good book-length model of the genre is William H. Pritchard’s Updike: America’s Man of Letters (2000). In his Introduction, Pritchard explains that he has not written a literary biography. “From time to time I point to facts in the life that seem to parallel or even help to account for certain moments in the writing,” he says. But his subject is Updike’s writing. If his method is not biographical but critical, though, he has built according to biography’s structural plans. “[M]y practice,” he says, “has been to take chronology seriously by using it to tell a story of Updike’s progress from one book to the next.” The ultimate goal is to promote “the discussion of artistic value.” (Pritchard is even more immodest than I.) But what this also means is that “artistic value” is more central to his purpose than is “meaning”:I am not mainly an interpreter of literature; that is, I am less interested in telling someone else what the novel or poem means, what its “significance” is, than in suggesting what the experience of reading it is like, and how that experience is a vital one.I am not sure that I want to suggest what the experience of reading Michael Chabon or Francine Prose or Stanley Elkin is (new readers can discover that for themselves), but I know for a certainty that I am on Pritchard’s side in hoping to end the totalitarian régime of interpretation in literary study.

Criticism needs to recover from the daze of meaning and return to the more difficult and important question of value, from the isolated and naked text to the author and his lifelong work. And why? As William Maxwell said in agreeing to speak to a biographer of John O’Hara: “Good writers deserve to be remembered.” And critics are around to see that they get their deserts.


R. T. said...

The focus on experience, as you have described it, suggests good old fashioned respect for aesthetics rather than preoccupation with contemporary theory. That works for me!

Amateur Reader said...

Pritchard is so good. He has a little piece on Macaulay in the current Hudson Review that does just this sort of thing in seven pages.

Career surveys seem particularly suited to amateurs like me. If I simply read all or most of a writer's work, I have already done more than most people - I gain expertise just by reading. And if I then write something, I've done something rare. Thus, my two week surveys of Balzac, Poe, and John Galt. That last one was truly in the spirit of William Maxwell's quotation.

Looking forward to the Prose piece.

D. G. Myers said...

Yes, exactly. Life-and-works essays require no other expertise than wide learning, careful reading, and a good prose style. Most interpretivists have none of these.

Mark Athitakis said...

Life-and-works essays require no other expertise than wide learning, careful reading, and a good prose style.

When you put it that way, it actually sounds simple. Which, of course, it isn't.

Do you know if the complete essay on Prose be available online? All I've read of her work are assorted essays, "Goldengrove," and "Reading Like a Writer"---that last book one I return to often. Too much of my reading time is spoken for with new releases, but I would love to start exploring more of her work.