Wednesday, 12 January 2011

No books today

I think the flood of books may be ebbing. Time to read some.

Meanwhile, I read Sean O'Hagan's review of Saul Bellow's Letters today. His point is essentially that there were two Bellows: the great author and the petty man, to whom we are introduced in the letters. To O'Hagan, the publication does Bellow and us a disservice to some extent: the letters don't illuminate the literature in any way.

I can see what he's getting at. Bellow wasn't writing with an eye to publication as many authors do, and wouldn't have subscribed to the idea that anything from the author's pen deserves to be published and pored over.

There's a wider angst in literary circles about the decline of the letter. In an age of text messages, tweets, emails and Facebook pages, the author's ephemera aren't likely to survive. Previously, an author keen on posterity kept copies of his letters (when would one start? doesn't this imply huge self-confidence or arrogance) or his recipients would do so. There was a fair chance that notebooks and diaries would be found, preserved, sold (usually to the Harry Ransom Center). Now, so much of this is on a vulnerable hard drive or left to the tender mercies of The Cloud. The author could, if s/he wanted, delete or alter much of this material.

I'm not so concerned. Yes, it's interesting to learn that Saul Bellow wasn't a wise, generous, confident intellectual outside his writing, but it's not essential. I read the letters between Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin and found them fascinating, provoking and hilarious but they don't help or hinder my interpretation and enjoyment of the texts, though they may add context. A degree of background knowledge is often useful, but fetishising an author's shopping lists is part of an outdated critical practice. If you link every line in a poem to the author's diary entry ('bad hangover today; wrote depressing poem'), you limit the meaning of that poem to a particular person, moment and mood. You assume that the poet's consciousness at that moment fully controls what he wrote.

That's not the current critical approach. To us, any text is a process of active creation. It's a product of the poet, and his background and cultural position, but it's also influenced by the circumstances of production, by the reader's cultural position and outlook, and by the reader's context. Essentially, meaning is created in a space between the reader and poet, crystallised round the words. The reader can't just dream up meaning: s/he should be looking for significance, and have a sense of the poem's origin, but should also be alive to it's current status. You can't read a Rupert Brooke war poem, for instance, without being aware of your own attitudes to war, and of the various wars which have occurred in the intervening period. The poet can't restrict the work's meaning, and the reader's knowledge of the poet's dinner the day it was written shouldn't reduce the text's scope.

So I'm not actually that bothered about losing the diaries and tweets of authors. They're always interesting, but they're literary history rather than literary criticism. Just think: we manage to produce many thousands of critical articles and books on William Shakespeare, the Beowulf author and the Mabinogion each year, without having a clue what those authors thought of their work. We have no idea whether Shakespeare liked the versions of his plays we've inherited. Did he intend them to mean what we think they mean? No clue. Did he alter them as part of the theatrical process, or to sell more tickets, or to avoid getting his head chopped off? Search me. Did he think of himself as the Immortal Bard, or as a jobbing writer making a living? Who knows? Are we poorer for not having his teenage diaries? I don't think so. It would be fascinating to know all this stuff, and his draught manuscripts could clear up a lot of ambiguities, but it would reduce the texts to biographical evidence to some extent.

It's time to bury the cult of the individual.

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