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Are writers ‘credible sources’?

September 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Here’s a slightly weird story.

Philip Roth – who’s pretty well-known as an author – wrote a novel, The Human Stain, published in 2000. No, I haven’t read it, but that’s not important.

Wikipedia has a page about the novel – not surprising, because it has pages on many novels. The page was generated in 2002 by a contributor and has been revised and added to on many occasions since. The page mentioned speculation by various critics that the principal character was based on the life of a literary critic, Anatole Broyard. Roth approached Wikipedia to offer a correction: despite the critics’ speculations, he’d drawn the events surrounding the principal character, and character elements, from the experiences of his friend Melvin Tumin.

The Wikipedia administrators refused to amend the entry on the basis that there was no second source to support this claim and he ‘was not a credible source’.

The entry has now been amended to reflect this exchange, but it raises interesting questions.

To what extent is any author a ‘credible source’ when discussing their own work? I’m not talking here about slips of memory or deliberately misleading statements – though those can happen – but the extent to which any literary work draws on material from a writer’s unconscious and perhaps touches on matters of which the writer was not consciously aware. I can give an old example from a piece I wrote and performed as a student: I was pleased with it, but the feedback I got after the event was that it was an interesting retelling of a Biblical story. One that wasn’t in my mind when I wrote it, and that I’d never consciously paid attention to since religious education classes in primary school. (I might add that I never kept a copy of the piece and couldn’t now tell you which Biblical story.)

What (or who) constitutes a ‘credible source’ anyway for a work of imagination? And with the passage of time, is it really possible for anyone – even with access to an author’s personal manuscripts and notes, etc. – to tell what was really in their mind when they wrote something? Does it even matter?  Because meaning is context-bound and if the book survives and is read years later, does the meaning even remain intelligible within the context of the time it was written?

As you may have seen in previous blog posts, I recently self-published a short collection of horror stories. And I’d hate to think what kinds of stuff people would find in there that I wasn’t aware I was writing, because a lot of my stories start from a single mental image, a fragment of life, or as much of a dream as I can remember when I wake up, and I try to re-imagine their contexts and consequences.

If you want to read the whole BBC story, here’s a link.

Ionesco and me: the quest for meaning

January 22, 2011 1 comment

Eugène Ionesco (born Eugen Ionescu, 1909-1994), was a Romanian/French playwright, known particularly for his 1948 play ‘The Bald Soprano’ (La Cantatrice Chauve).

Wikipedia describes the background to his writing of the play, which came about from his experience of learning English:

At the age of 40 he decided to learn English using the Assimil method, conscientiously copying whole sentences in order to memorize them. Re-reading them, he began to feel that he was not learning English, rather he was discovering some astonishing truths such as the fact that there are seven days in a week, that the ceiling is up and the floor is down; things which he already knew, but which suddenly struck him as being as stupefying as they were indisputably true.

This feeling only intensified with the introduction in later lessons of the characters known as “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”. To his astonishment, Mrs. Smith informed her husband that they had several children, that they lived in the vicinity of London, that their name was Smith, that Mr. Smith was a clerk, and that they had a servant, Mary, who was English like themselves. What was remarkable about Mrs. Smith, he thought, was her eminently methodical procedure in her quest for truth. For Ionesco, the clichés and truisms of the conversation primer disintegrated into wild caricature and parody with language itself disintegrating into disjointed fragments of words.

I came across this Wikipedia entry for essentially random reasons while researching something else. But it triggered a memory. A little over 20 years ago I started to learn German, using a series of workbooks with audio tapes. I ended up speaking a reasonable amount of German though these days I probably couldn’t do more than order a coffee or buy a train ticket.

The relevant thing is, though, that the workbook and tapes started with a German family – father, mother, son and daughter – who were returning to Germany after many years in Argentina. They rented an apartment, went to the shops, bought stuff and went to tourist locations. I don’t remember them having any visible means of income. There wasn’t any reason given as to why they’d returned to Germany, or what their plans were. Similarly, when their ‘uncle’ who was an ‘engineer’ arrived to visit them, it looked quite suspicious. Whose uncle was he, exactly? Since he was an engineer, that gave him licence to look at architecture, railways, and other facilities, but there was no indication of why he might have been interested in those things. Also, he had a number of packages in his luggage that weren’t easily explained.

So what was going on?

My imagination started to fill in the gaps. The parents might have been war criminals who’d emigrated to Argentina and lived a double life. Or they might have been part of some organised crime crime group, or terrorists. I was, after all, listening to the tapes only a few years after the Red Army Faction and the Baader-Meinhof group, while there were also stories circulating at that time about attempts to recover lost artworks looted by the Nazis.

So, I thought, they were returning to Germany with some nefarious scheme in mind. The fact they were a ‘family’ was just a cover, and they had to keep reminding each other of everyday details in order to keep their story consistent. The uncle was probably a minder, or handler, or courier, there to deliver items or have some part in whatever secret plot they were involved in.

And so it went on. My fantasy became far more elaborate than this and filled in many of the gaps in the language course ‘narrative’, to the point that it seemed the material in the audio tapes and workbooks were clearly there to mislead the reader about the real intentions of these characters.

This meant I learned a lot of German vocabulary that wasn’t in the language course, but ended up not paying a great deal of attention to the course itself… To this day I’m not sure whether an active imagination was a help or a hindrance. Possibly both, in equal measure but in different ways.

Unlike Ionesco I didn’t write a play about my experiences. Or even a short story. But since the Wikipedia entry triggered the memory, I might still write something about it, someday…

Anyone else have similar experiences?

Poorly sick, but still thinking (I think)

January 2, 2011 5 comments

It hasn’t, so far, been an auspicious start to the year. I picked up some kind of bug just before Christmas that really kicked in the day after Boxing Day, had several days more or less in bed, and today’s the first time I’ve been able to stay awake and concentrate on anything for longer than half an hour without being interrupted by coughing fits.

Meanwhile I found, purely randomly, an article on How Deaf People Think. The top and bottom of it is, it will vary depending on the type, profoundness, etc. of the deafness and the point at which the person became deaf. But those who have been profoundly deaf from a young age are likely to think not in terms of an ‘inner voice’, but in terms of sign language.

This started a chain of speculation, not least because I’ve spent a lot of the last few days either asleep, dozing, trying to rest quietly or otherwise in a semi-dreamlike state. And when I’m in that state I tend to ‘think’ (if it can be called that) in terms of images; if language enters into it, it may be just one word, or a short phrase.

I don’t want to draw any parallels between deafness and dreams/trancelike states. I just wanted to say that the article raised the point for me that I tend to ‘process’ a lot of ideas and experiences in ways that don’t seem to require a great deal of language or ‘inner voice’, but work on the basis of visual imagery, and at least some of my writing seems to be a process of bringing that processing into language.

It’s late, I’m tired and poorly sick, and I’m not going to pursue the thought right now. But I just wonder whether other people have the same kind of experiences?

 

 

 

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