Tag Archives: Greatly Exaggerated

Video Killed The Radio Star (?)

I was at a lost for what to write about this week. Rather than spend a few paragraphs gushing over the essays in Supposedly Fun Thing (of which I have many favorites – Michael Joyce, David Lynch, E Unibus Pluram, the title essay, and Getting Away are all fantastic), however, I wanted to take a moment to return to our old debate on the Death of the Author, as mentioned in Greatly Exaggerated. The title isn’t coincidence, of course – it’s pretty obviously a reference to Twain’s famous quote – but certainly underscores where DFW stands. But the question remains: is the author dead? Why do we need authors? Obviously the postmodernists and the poststructuralists are of the opinion that the work is the work, and the nature of the Intentional Fallacy plays to that point, but what’s the point behind the author in the first place?

As a writer myself, I would disagree with the poststructuralists on the lack of need for an author. For one, writing is a frequently personal art. As depicted in these essays, DFW is writing from a personal position – his tragicomic experiences in “Supposedly Fun Thing” and “Getting Away” underscore this, even though he himself noted that the character he created in his essays was different slightly from his own personality. In this example, it’s fairly clear that the author has something to do with the work. But there’s another way to approach the question of the author:

We’re all familiar with the “monkeys banging on typewriters writing Shakespeare” story. But what would the meaning be behind, say, Hamlet had the work been written by a room of monkeys? While it would be the same text, it’s fairly obvious that monkeys have no sense of, say, irony or drama – so why would we expect the same from monkeys’ copies of Shakespeare? Of course, the poststructuralists would at this point start hollering about how the Hamlet of monkeys would still have meaning to the readers in question, but would it have the same meaning? Of course, they’d lob this metaphor back: imagine we were handed a copy of Shakespeare – how do we know this is actually Shakespeare rather than, say, monkey-Shakespeare? Well, for one, it’s pretty clear that we couldn’t know whether it was Shakespeare at all unless we had read it before. So, let’s chop this example down to a very literate five-year-old living in a bubble. Would the author then matter?

Maybe. The poststructuralists would probably argue at this point that the dialogue between author and reader must be the same between monkey and reader, and because the monkey can’t carry on a dialogue, there’s no dialogue actually happening – it’s all the reader’s monologue. But there are a few problems with this theory. For one, the metaphor presented above (very literate five-year-old living in a bubble being given a fake-Shakespeare by monkeys). For another, how would the people creating this fake-Shakespeare know that they had a monkey-Shakepseare on their hands? Only if they were comparing that monkey-Shakespeare to the real thing, at which point it isn’t a new work but rather a copy, and if there was something different about this monkey-Shakespeare it wouldn’t be a Shakespeare, would it?

I know this isn’t really a fair way to go about things. Let me explain. The nature of a book is that there was intelligent design that went into it. Were books written by computers, they would lack the personal touch that goes into the art. As an abstract art fan, I can say that a random person throwing paint at a wall isn’t necessarily stupendous (and, indeed, that 10-year-old who produces marginally horrifying works of art and selling them for thousands of dollars isn’t a savant, either, thank you very much) – our works are not randomly generated, because they have meaning independent of that. Inthe same way, if the author was dead, the dialogue would still be happening – otherwise, the works loses all meaning. Any work that can create dialogue is art, and works without authors are frequently without dialogue. There must be an author, lest there not be a work any more. This is why people still make (a little) money writing, rather than being supplanted by monkeys.

Fiction and Non-Fiction and The Death of the Author

After reading “Greatly Exaggerated,” I decided to look back at my first post of the semester when I wrote about “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky” and the intentional fallacy (http://machines.kfitz.info/166-2009/2009/02/01/the-intentional-necessity/). In that post, I claimed that “in the age of self-referencing and meta-fiction, the intentional fallacy is essentially already committed by the authors themselves. The author has already done the probing for the reader, so the reader doesn’t necessarily have to do any extra work.”

But, at that point in the semester, we hadn’t really started reading Wallace’s fiction quite yet, only a few of his non-fiction essays. Now having read a pretty substantial amount of both, I’m having trouble completely agreeing with my earlier comments. My issue with my previous post arises in the fact that making such a statement as “the necessary fallacy is built right into Wallace’s own text,” seems to completely conflate all of Wallace’s writings, fiction and non-. But can we? When we talk of the Intentional Fallacy and the death of the author, is there a different in terms of Wallace’s (or anybody’s) fiction or nonfiction?

At first glance it sure seems like it to me. My previous comments were based on Wallace’s non-fiction pieces, and after reading more of his non-fiction I do still stand by the assertion that in his non-fiction essays, Wallace writes himself right into the text. Therefore, no probing beyond the text is even necessary, meaning no commitment of the intentional fallacy is possible and “the whole question seems sort of arcane” (GE, 144). Wallace’s footnotes in his non-fiction are like T.S. Eliot’s notes as mentioned in “The Intentional Fallacy” (16). Because they are a part of the text itself, the information they provide is not considered “external” (IF, 10) evidence.

But, what can we say about his fiction? Just because DFW is not writing about himself, we don’t have to immediately claim that the work has no author. But I’m not sure we can claim that the self-referencing and meta-fiction that occurs in the Wallace’s fiction allows us to gain insight into Wallace’s intention in the same way the self-referencing in his non-fiction clearly illuminates all of his inner thoughts. Yes, the narrator in “Westward” talks to the reader just as Wallace talks to the reader in “A Supposedly Fun Thing,” but analyzing the intention of the narrator in the fiction and DFW in the non-fiction will be two completely different things. Might we need to, as Wimsatt and Beardsley say, separate the narrator of “Westward” from DFW himself?

All this being said, though it doesn’t seem like it, I still don’t completely agree with “The Intentional Fallacy” or the idea of the death of the author. I am definitely one of those “civilians who [knows] in [my] gut that writing is an act of communication between one human being and another” (GE, 144). I guess my point is that by reading “Greatly Exaggerated” in the midst of several hundreds of pages of non-fiction where DFW talks directly to the reader, it is easy to be convinced that, of course, the author is not dead; he is on this page talking to me about this time he went on a cruise. But, I do think it’s important to remember that the issue maybe different regarding fiction. And I say “maybe” because I don’t really know. That’s why I wanted to bring this up. Is there a difference? What do you think?