Semiotics of Criticism   8 comments

A critique-reader sent me her thoughts recently, about a love-scene that was actually a small part of a chapter I’d recently submitted to one of my writer’s groups.  In short, she said she liked it very much.

Mind you, I’m not talking about pornography, or even erotica.  Sontag defined the porn genre by observing that the intent was to “glorify the act,” comparing such writing to religious tracts whose sole purpose is to glorify a deity.  A word-search of my scribblings will not yield a single instance of any of the more popular words in the vocabulary of porn, nor will a close reading expose any explicit scenes.  My intended focus, at least within the intimate scenes (admittedly, not all are in the confines of the ‘bedroom’), is to unmask the interpersonal effects of something that is kin to our very humanity, where key aspects are hard-wired: the human drive for, and response to, physical contact.  This is the sphere where every established couple converses in subtext, with private meanings well known to each other and sometimes shared with the reader (in the case of fiction) but otherwise obscure.

What struck me about my readers’ comments was, at least to me, eye-opening.  I noted that the women who had read my works – particularly the ‘nasty-bits’ – liked it.  The men were a mixed lot with many disliking those few scenes, while my own wife of many years was completely ambivalent.  This distinction reveals a divergence of expectations.

Can an author write about sex – or for that matter, anything approaching deep emotion – without having their own personality leak into the work? 

If the answer to that question is NO, which I suspect to be the case, then there is a plausible explanation for this divergence.  Given a male writer known to the reader, female readers may be excused for having some (possibly subconscious) curiosity about the author’s sexuality.  Male readers, who are mostly heterosexual (if that matters), would find that information less interesting. The author’s spouse, on the other hand, would be bored reading about something she experiences first-hand and may even feel that confidences have been breached.

The complete stranger who happens across a work and sits down to read it will have little or no knowledge of the author.  Take, for instance, Danielle Steel.  This is the nom-de-plume of a successful author who has spawned a genre.  Whether the author is male or female, young or old, or even only one person does not matter to the reader.  The characters are the only thing that matters – who they are, how they act, and how they ultimately resolve the central conflict of the novel itself.  The only expectation on the part of a genre-reader is that the work will follow the precepts of that genre.

In many cases, I say, personal knowledge of the author will not increase the reader’s pleasure; instead it may jeopardize it, sort of like the fictional Melvin Udall (played by Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets).  The character Udall was a highly successful author but – certainly in the opening scenes – a highly unlikable individual.  Thus the question becomes kind of a literary equivalent to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

Does knowing, or meeting, the author alter the expectations of the reader in such a way it becomes impossible to know how that reader perceives and relates to the author’s work as being independent of the author?

The act of reading fiction implies a certain amount of voyeurism on the part of the reader.  It is simply human nature to wonder how someone else’s life differs from ones own, and good fiction leads the reader into an alternate reality.  Or perhaps, to escape into that other world.

My contention here is that once the author is known by the reader, even if only slightly, the curtain falls open and the wizard is exposed as being merely a person writing about him or herself.  This, of course, can be taken to the next level, one that is closely linked to the study of subtext.

Can a reader comprehend what is on the page – any page –  without interpreting the words through the filter of their own life experiences, preconceived notions, and private expectations?

For that matter, can any artistic work (written, visual, or performance) exist in a vacuum?   Is it possible for us, as artists, to create a work that does not relate to the wider world in some way?

I didn’t think so.

Posted June 19, 2011 by JD Rule

8 responses to Semiotics of Criticism

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  1. You ask: Does knowing, or meeting, the author alter the expectations of the reader in such a way it becomes impossible to know how that reader perceives and relates to the author’s work as being independent of the author?

    Writers not yet come to grip with “VOICE” in narration are easily uncloaked by readers, specially the ones known to them.

    (I do hope that didn’t sound like an aphorism!!! )

  2. Sam: Are you suggesting that if I read something that I know you authored, that your adoption of a narrative voice will make me forget that you wrote it? Or will it perhaps make me marvel at your skill but still wonder how much of you is in the character? Or is the difference in how well I (the reader) know you (the author)?

    ‘Knowing’ the author may mean having slept with him/her, while ‘meeting’ the author may mean getting an autographed copy at a signing.

  3. You don’t know and have never met Shakespeare. We don’t even know if the man called Shakespeare actually wrote that body of work attributed to him. What is your experience of reading, say, “Hamlet”? Would it be any different if you, being a Time Lord (I noted today your reply tomorrow to my post of today,) actually knew the Bard?

  4. I don’t know if it would or not. I do agree it is unlikely I’ll ever have the opportunity to apply an empirical test to your question, but I do suggest your choice of authors was made to preclude such a thing. Did you ever meet the author of Beowulf? But if either of us would meet and get to know, say Anita Shreve, then we would be able to test this.

  5. Some authors are front-and-center in every page they write: consider works of Tom Robbins and Kurt Vonnegut for example. Other authors try to mask their identity behind a narrative voice – some with great skill, some not.

    You wonder whether authors can be sufficiently objective – “Can an author write about sex – or for that matter, anything approaching deep emotion – without having their own personality leak into the work?” But, objective works are truly boring (try Encyclopedia Brittanica;) Instead, we crave subjectivity in authors – that’s what makes them interesting to us. Actually, objective writing is very, very rare since even “voice” becomes a subjective pseudo-author. Look at how authors of history, though they strongly profess objectivity, are easily unmasked in their writing.

    Like objective writing? Try the Farmers’ Almanac.

    We get sidetracked with concerns of objectivity and subjectivity. We only need to keep in mind one rule in writing: Don’t be boring. Have an interesting story and tell it captivatingly. That’s all any reader asks for: be interesting. In that, I suggest, subjectivity helps.

  6. You wonder “…can any artistic work (written, visual, or performance) exist in a vacuum? Is it possible for us, as artists, to create a work that does not relate to the wider world in some way?”

    Abstract Art … Jabberwocky … Is that the kind of art you’re interested in? Go for it.

  7. Jabberwocky? I’ll leave that for Tom Robbins or Neil Gaiman. But what I prefer to write is not really the point. For me, I want my characters to feel like the person living next door, not really sure they want their inner thoughts and passions exposed, but not able to stop it either. That’s who I want my characters to be; whether or not I succeed is up to the reader to judge. But that’s just what I want to write. Creating a mythical ‘person’ with magical powers is fine. Stephanie Myers got rich that way. So did J.K. Rowling.

  8. Your commitment is admirable as is your output.

    I’ll stop now, since we’ve digressed.

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