Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Raven, or The Death of the Author

Common Raven (and yes, they can be trained to talk)

The Raven (2012) features John Cusack as Edgar Allen Poe in a highly imaginative (i.e. no basis in fact) plot. Poe helps solve a series of murders based on his stories. As one reviewer described it, "It's like a grisly one-person interactive book club focused on one man's literary output" (Michael Phillips). The movie itself is mediocre. Cusack's innate charm, plus decent performances from Alice Eve as his love interest and Luke Evans as the police inspector, can't quite rescue the film from poor pacing and uneven tone. Still, I quite enjoyed it. I love watching Cusack in just about anything, and I was able to congratulate myself about all the Poe stories I had read.

What I thought most about, though, was the pleasure readers take in seeing their favorite authors on film. Becoming Jane is a prime example, though it's in a different category than The Raven, being 90% factual. Dickens' appearance in Dr. Who ("The Unquiet Dead") and Stephen King in Quantum Leap (The Halloween Episode) are other examples. People like to interact imaginatively with authors. They also enjoy learning more about their lives and personalities, to look at the wizard behind the curtain.

As a teacher, I'm ambivalent about the place of biography in studying literature.

I was educated in the formalist tradition, where what matters most is the text. I grew into a reader-response position, where what matters most is the meaning that readers make out of the text. I see the text itself as unstable and shifting, based a set of signifiers waiting for the reader to settle into the signified. One must avoid trying to figure out the author's intent, which is ultimately unknowable--if I intended this post to be brilliant and you read it as boring, is that your fault or mine? In this way (and several others) I align with Roland Barthes, who in his seminal essay, "The Death of the Author" (1967), argues that the identity of the author shouldn't be used to form meaning.

But on the other hand, isn't the speaker part of the rhetorical exchange? And doesn't knowing the context in which something is written affect the meaning? I concede that knowing more about the author and his/her time is one way of adding meaning to the text. I do include historical and biographical background in my classes. But perhaps I should do more. After all, in college I greatly enjoyed learning stories about the author's lives, not just the bare facts in the textbook overview. Having the sense of really knowing an author was part of the pleasure for me.

 It occurs to me that I know very little about the life of Poe.

1 comment:

  1. First, you might be interested in this:

    Second, I've been thinking quite a bit about this, as I've just been at a week-long single author conference. This summer, some colleagues and I decided to have literary salons--at which we will talk about our feelings, what characters we like and don't like, who we identified with--all of those things we're "not allowed" to do at school, elements which for many are part of the pleasure of reading. At the Edith Wharton conference I was just at, there was plenty of talk about Wharton's life and how it played out in her fiction, especially her relationships with her husband, lover, mother, and secretary. I noticed how startling I often found it to hear people speculating on what Wharton meant or intended in her fiction, because I've been so trained to avoid the intentional fallacy. And it was much more acceptable to enjoy gossip (particularly so in the case of Wharton, as the not-that-long-ago revelations that she started a long term love affair when in her 40s) at this conference as well.

    But as I'm about to embark on archival research of my own (looking at correspondence and manuscripts of Eudora Welty's), I've been thinking about the reasons why I might want to get more insight into the author of a text. I want to compare her story drafts to her finished versions to see if I see how her ideas evolved, and I want to read her letters to see if she writes any about her ideas of female appearance (particularly ugliness, as that's what I'm writing about).

    However, while I enjoyed being able to be more relaxed about my all around enjoyment of a text (or even the celebrity nature of authorship), I did notice how several people's archival work seemed to be more like--hey, look, here's a fancy dinner party Wharton was at! And here's another fancy dinner party she was at!--than actually explaining the significance of the finds. And I only enjoyed such information to a certain point--after a while, I don't care that various people had dinner together, unless the significance of such things are explained to me (even if it's just the extravagance of the dinner).

    I suppose the flip side of this is the fact that there are many artists whose work I love whom I realize I don't want to know about, because it would probably detract from my enjoyment of their work. I probably would never want to meet Trent Reznor or Peter Buck or William Faulkner, but I adore their work.