Power of Literature

In this era of austerity pushed by (predominantly conservative) politicians, education is generally the first target. This short term thinking, of course, fails to account for the long term benefits of an educated populace. Or, to be cynical, perhaps it does account for those benefits, but sees them as drawbacks (“I love uneducated voters”, as a current Republican stated while campaigning). Of all the academic fields, the arts & humanities are the primary targets. And, often, when someone decides to go into my field (English Literature), they get grilled by family members because of it.

First, people tend to mistake English for grammarians. That is, I think obviously, not all we do. In fact, we rarely do grammar as students in the field, though many of us teach it as grad students & adjuncts, because we have to.

Second, people generally don’t understand why we bother studying literature. It’s all just reading, after all. Or they think that we all focus solely on “Great Books” and ignore popular works.

To break this, I want to look at a piece of literature, briefly, to discuss the power of literature. In this case, a piece of popular writing: Richard III, by William Shakespeare.

People tend to forget that Shakespeare was the J.K. Rowling of the late-16th and early-17th centuries. He was popular. He wrote pop culture plays. He wrote for money (through his part ownership of the acting company).

But, on to Richard.

Our popular image of Richard III is that of a conniving, treasonous, hunchback who ran from his battle at Bosworth against Henry VII.

This is the image that Shakespeare presents and it has been part of pop culture and history books for at least the last century.

However . . .

Shakespeare used Thomas More’s history as his major source for the play. This is of great importance.

More was part of the court of Henry VIII and wrote under him. That Henry was, of course, the youngest son of Henry VII, who deposed Richard III by force. Likewise, Shakespeare was writing under Elizabeth I, granddaughter of Henry VII.

To keep things brief, both More and Shakespeare were writing propaganda pieces to enhance the reputations of the ruling family and cement their claim to the throne (by deposing a bad, murderous, hunchback king).

Shakespeare’s literary account was bought by generations of historians and sold in classrooms for even more generations.

Eventually, enough historians, and others, looked at other primary sources, ones contemporary with Richard. They looked at portraits, legal documents, and other records. They found that Richard was fairly popular, first as a noble and later as a king. Because of this work, historians have, by and large, changed their view of Richard, but it’s still filtering down.

All because of a work of literature.

This is part of why we study literature.


“What should we learn? Literature. [. . .] If literature is kept alive, then the dao, the moral way, is kept alive; and if the dao is kept alive, then teachings of the sages and worthies are kept alive. Thus we have much to gain from studying literature. Moreover, its influence can be more inspiring [than being in the presence of a great man] because it calls upon us to articulate our ideas and beckons us to draw analogies. Thus what literature offers us is more than something to rely on: it takes us by the hand and bolsters us up; it holds us by the arm to get us on our way.”
– Cheng Yaotian (18th c. Chinese scholar); from Analects, Confucius (2014 Penguin edition)

Halloween Sale

McFarland Pub, the publishers of my book, have sent the following:

HALLOWEEN HORROR SALE!

We realize that the stores have had their trees and Christmas decorations out for sale for weeks now. At McFarland though, no one wants to leapfrog past our favorite holiday, Halloween! McFarland has scheduled a sale for our books about horror – whether on film, television, literature, games, comics, culture or anything else. When you order direct from our website using the coupon code HORROR25, print editions of all horror books are 25% off Friday, October 26 through Halloween, October 31. Be prepared to be up late with the lights on…

https://mcfarlandbooks.com/flipbooks/horror-books/

This includes my book: https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/the-modern-literary-werewolf/

Authorial Intent (Revisited?)

Thanks to a meme floating around social media sites, I was pulled into a discussion about interpretation of texts and the source(s) of meaning.  As usual in such discussions, the question of authorial intent arose, predominantly in the role of intending to shut down conversation and insist upon the “One Single True Meaning”™ of the text.

As both writer and literary critic/scholar (or so some tell me I am), I’m inherently suspicious of authorial intent.

Why?

Because authorial intent is only one aspect of interpretation and meaning.

It can be a great starting point, perhaps to ask questions and generate discussion.  For instance, asking “Author A says that Text B was intended to be about C, do they succeed in that intent?  Discuss.”  However, more often than not authorial intent is used as a stick to beat others, as a means for someone to say, “Aha!  You’re wrong, I have the One True Meaning, because the author said so!”, e.g. to shut down discussion and “win” in some way.

I always recall a Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA) listserv discussion of exactly this issue.  During the course of things, Michael Levy (University of Wisconsin) stated, “The idea of the Intentional Fallacy grew out of the realization that authors are often not the last word on their own work. Authors often work intuitively and can be blind to things in their writing that are quite obvious to other readers. Thus, the Intentional Fallacy, which should be seen in these terms: the author is a valuable point of entry into her/his text but, again, not the last word. His/her intent can’t necessarily rule out other interpretations.”  That has always stuck with me, as both a literature scholar and a writer.

So, why is the Intentional Fallacy (e.g. appeal to authorial intent/authority) dangerous or problematic?

First, relying solely on authorial intent removes the reader’s agency (reader response theory; Stanley Fish, et al.).  Writing is a two party relationship: writer and reader.  Readers inherently bring meaning to a text through their experiences, history, previous reading, education, and a host of other factors.  This is why a person can read the same book several times at different ages and get very different things out of the book.  The book has not physically changed, the author’s intent has not changed, but the reader has changed and therefore brings different things to the book and sees different things in the book.

Second, it removes the influence of socio-politico-historical context (new historicist theory, Stephen Greenblatt, et al.; any cultural studies), implying that the author wrote in a vacuum.  Simply, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, an author cannot write in a vacuum, at least not for very long.  Every text is, consciously or otherwise, the product of a particular socio-politico-historical moment.  If Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote the “I Have a Dream” speech in 1953 or in 1983, it would be a very different speech than what he wrote in 1963 because the context would be different.  Whether we like to admit it or not, we are the products of our environments and we bring certain assumptions and influences from our environment with us when we write, whether fiction or non-fiction.  Unless we are writing from a point in the vacuum of space (which won’t last more than a couple seconds at best), things are going on around us that influence how we think, our inspiration, and how we approach topics.  And those things are going to have an influence on our writing.  That said, as writers, we’re usually too close to recognize those, often subtle, influences.

Third, it removes the possibility, really probability, of unconscious or subconscious influences and insertions on the part of the author (Jungian archetype theory, Carl Jung, et al.; semiotics, Umberto Eco, et al.).  Similar to context, there are a host of factors that unconsciously influence writers, from half-remembered (or completely consciously forgotten) childhood experiences to subconscious recognition of archetypes.  And that is a good thing.  When we consciously try to incorporate and use archetypes, for instance, they invariably fall flat.  They become non-archetypal, because archetypes are inherently unconscious and hold unconscious signification.  Used consciously, they often become fads.  This sub/unconscious influence is, I think, unavoidable.  I think it is an inherent element of how the brain and mind function.

There are, of course, a whole host of other factors that can come into interpretation of texts that the insistence on authorial intent as the end all and be all of interpretation simply kills.  Ultimately, there is never going to be a “One Single True Meaning”™ to any vital, living text, that is, any text likely to outlive its reader and, in fact, culture.  This openness of interpretation, I know, drives some people crazy because they want the one, correct, true answer.  But, literature, writing, is organic.  Like everything organic, this means writing and literature are messy.  And that messiness is what makes literature, writing, all art really, so interesting and awesome.

Any creation, primary or secondary, with any vitality to it, can ‘really’ be a dozen mutually exclusive things at once, before breakfast.” -Ursula K. Le Guin, Language of the Night, 1982

Interim Thoughts

Problematic week this time, so late, somewhat off topic, post today.

 The preview for STARZ rendition of American Gods came out yesterday and I’ve been thinking about the book and Neil Gaiman in general.

 One of the things I love about Gaiman is that he’s going against the stream, so to speak.

 In an era in which it seems everyone in the genre, whether professional or amateur, is writing extended series of books, he does exclusively single, stand alone novels. When everyone else is doing trilogies, quintets, and open-ended series, I can only think of two books from Gaiman that go together—American Gods and Anansi Boys—not counting a couple novellas associated with American Gods and Neverwhere. Not only that, but each novel essentially has its own world. A case could be made for all his novels being in the same world, but I wouldn’t want to be the person who has to develop the internal world consistency between them.

Confessions of an English PhD

I hold a B.A. in English, an M.A. in English Language and Literature, and a PhD in English Language and Literature. My specialties are officially medieval, early modern (Renaissance), and speculative fiction literature. My confession: I think most “great literature” is awful.

Chaucer, I like. But, I prefer Marie de France, Chretien de Troyes, the Gawain-poet, and several anonymous writers. Beowulf, I enjoy.

I read Shakespeare and think he’s important to look at for his influence. However, I don’t particularly care for him. There are others from the era that I like better.

I don’t see why Hardy, Dumas, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and scores of other canonical “great” writers are considered so great. I don’t think it’s because I’m not smart or knowledgable enough, after all I read Beowulf in the original Anglo-Saxon.

That said, there are classics I enjoy: Poe, Dickens, Wright, Bierce. But, they are pretty few and far between after the 16th century.

I’m much happier reading, researching, writing about current genre greats, or those I consider to be great or even good. Quite frankly, I’ll take Pratchett, Rowling, Heinlein, Gaiman, or Brust over Dumas any day and I’m not ashamed to say it.

Werewolf Story

Last night I read “The Rabbi Who was Turned into a Werewolf” from The Mayse Book (1602).  There are a lot of parallels to Marie de France’s “Bisclavret” and William of Palerne.  More Marie than the other, but there are still a few echoes.  It is also a lot more mysogynistic than its predecessors.

That said, I find it rather interesting.  What I find most interesting is that it is an early modern sympathetic werewolf tale and story-genre fiction.  The early-17th century accounts are all “monstrous werewolf” or “lycanthropy as mental illness” in form, as are their 16th century predecessors.  So, based on that alone, I find this sympathetic story stands out.  The genre is also an interesting thing.  Every discussion of werewolves after the 14th century, at least based on my research (dissertation and book), is a treatise, court document, broadsheet, memoir, or play (in fact, I can only think of one play).  This story, hearkening back to both the subject matter and form of the 12th and 14th centuries, seems to be a throw back.

In fact, I wonder how much it predates The Mayse Book.  Based on its components, I suspect it is probably a 13th or 14th century story, although it could be older, that managed to survive long enough in popularity within Europe’s Jewish community to be transcribed into the 17th century book.