Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Writing Ourselves Out of the Narrative

At a time when writers seem to be ever more writing from and about the self; and a first person solipsism dominates new fiction and confessional poetry alike, why is it that I'm craving a writing that is not the death of the author so  much as their erasure? I want a name on the spine, and to know no more. I have no hunger for reality. I want the writer - and that includes myself, this writer - to be as absent as possible from it all. That the work can exist alone. Is this Barthes' Death of the Author and grown up older and wiser? Or rather am I seeing that the integrity of writing in our contemporary 24/7 culture can only really exist if it renounces ego; if it rejects the systemic autobiographical; if it erases all trace of background?

I think in our 21st century post-religious age we have identified and exagerrated the self to such an extent that our desire to understand "ourselves" is becoming a problem. We've never been so aware of the word "self" yet are we self-aware? The few survivors of the Second World War are a generation that when questioned on television are hesitant about the demands of the medium; they want no medals, no memorialising, even, to some extent to have no memory. Are we post-Freudian? Crime is going down all over the Western world, either as a result of our comfort, or the result of our carefulness - and yet the crimes that shock us are those of the person, the individual paedophile, the man who murders his family then himself. We are appalled by these solipsisms; yet we drag ourselves out and into the open with "selfies" - photographs on our mobile phones taken at arms length; or through our Facebook profile.

Writers we are expected to talk like this on our blogs - and yet it is writing that has the smallest of audiences that doesn't sell a book. A poet like Ken Goldsmith can say we don't need to write original work anymore, yet he has to be an original creation, got up as a literary oddity on a TV show, unmistakeably the writer, this writer, even if the words are not his words.

In this world I want to disappear. Mention to someone something from your life, from your past, and they say "you should write about that." But what do I know? Am I to write about what I can hardly believe in? A happened past reconstructed via fake memory and adjectival truth? I don't think so. I want a writing where I am absent. That I am not me. That I am not there. That the "I" is other. That you, reader, will not guess its me, or see its me, or need to know its me. Later, we can marvel at Kafka's diaries or Ballard's biography, or Carver's interviews but do we need to know the life? Do we need to go down that wormhole? At what point does it tire us - make us inevitably disappointing to the one audience we really crave (our "self"). Can we truly surprise ourselves any more when we are there, there, there, all the time?

I want to be invisible in the work - and I don't want you to look for me. Can you make that distinction?


Jim H. said...

Ghost write.

Isn't one of the pillars of post-modernism that we can't escape ourselves? That even the most distanciated persona is still someone somehow very much like ourselves?

Adrian Slatcher said...

Maybe thats what I'm reacting against. I don't want to be postmodern anymore. I want to not exist (in the work.)

Jim Murdoch said...

I hate it when readers—and this happens especially with my poetry—assume that when I use the first person pronoun I’m referring to me. I’ve heard stories—well, one story at least—about a woman who commiserated with a poet after he’d read a poem … let’s say it was about the death of a wife … only to learn that the man’s wife was at home and as fit as a fiddle and she was angry with the poet; she felt she’d been lied to. In several of my poems the ‘I’ is actually my daughter. This is why when I published my first collection I called it This Is Not About What You Think because the poems, at least the way I’ve arranged them, tell what appears to be a life story but it’s not my life or at least not all my life. I’m not averse to writing about myself but mostly I don’t do things worth recording and I’m always amazed by those writers—I’m friends with three of them—who perpetually raid their own lives and always seem to have new and interesting tales to tell. I can’t do that. In my last book, a novella, I gave my protagonist this great line: “I’ve no time for memoirists—people with their heads stuck up their own pasts.” And that is me speaking. Works of fiction should be able to stand on their own. Any work that only opens itself up after one knows a good bit about the author is a bad piece of writing as far as I’m concerned. This doesn’t mean that the lives of real people can’t be interesting—Hemingway’s lived a pretty interesting life—but most of us don’t unless we’re Stephen Fry and jetting off to new and interesting places to do new and interesting things with new and interesting people—jammy bugger.

When someone picks up one of my own poems that’s written from the perspective of an ‘I’ I expect them to assume that persona. Even when that ‘I’ was me I still expect them to slip on my shoes and make that poem their own. They have no idea what I add to that poem to make it work for me. It will always, always mean something different to me than it will to anyone else. Make the poem your own. This is also true with prose but usually the speaker is identified and tells us too much about themselves for that to happen but I have a few short stories where I say so little about the narrator that that might be possible.

Adrian Slatcher said...

I think the autobiographising of poetry is particularly rife these days. The amount of reviews that refer to the poet's partner/father/mother etc. when its a character in the book. Partly because of the success of so many confessional memoirs. I find in fiction its easier - the story is clearly not mine, but yes, I'll use any details I can whether I've stolen them or lived them.

Hugh Smith said...

The danger of "death of the author stances", I think, is when they don't make a clear enough distinction between theory and culture. The death of the author model is very helpful for maintaining some kind of aesthetic standard, which in turn generates more theory, but it becomes problematic when it becomes an obstacle to aesthetic community. It seems to me what is really problematic today is the absence of aesthetic community, especially outside the academy. Aesthetic community, as much as aesthetic objectivism, are both necessary for the production of good art, but only the latter is a result of the "death of the author", which seems in turn to erase the former. I find myself spending so much time reading writers I can never hope to meet; I don't know where they live, how old they are... and the result is that meaningful discourse surrounding the art which has been produced disappears. I don't even know other people who know the books I read. The idea of a silent personal, direct communication, between the unauthored work and the patient reader is disasterous because it cuts of discourse surrounding the work. We have to learn to read the work on its own terms, without idealizing the mysterious absence of the author from the text; we must remember that the author exists somewhere, is the product of some aesthetic community, and is involved in the world, despite his or her absence from the work.

Adrian Slatcher said...

I've always had a great interest Hugo in the power of artistic networks. It fascinated me when I was younger, not least because I was so far from them. Those networks have become easier in some ways, particularly in poetry, though I think it does take a lot of work to find not just other writers but other writers whom you have an aesthetic bond with. I walk between different groups of poets, some who are rigorously conventional, others who are purely experimental - my own aesthetics are wanting to do different things than either; so I guess I take what I can (both the rigour and the purity if you like). Fiction is harder, I think, but fiction writers tend to be less hung up on what novel you are writing, and quite helpful in the craft and the hard work of it all. Universities have fostered a collegiate creative writing approach which probably contradicts the theory-led approach from previous generations. What we lose, I think, is a distanced criticism. Like with music, everything is here all at once, and it might take twenty or thirty years to go "that's what was what they were writing about." Not all writers are accessible, but I'd be surprised if all the ones you are reading are totally inaccessible. But it tends to be blogs like 3AM magazine (and others on my sidebar) where you might read an interview with someone, rather than the more mainstraem media.