Sunday, May 23, 2010

Writers Beware

I have been thinking lately about the contract between readers and writers - if such a thing exists - and the ways in which it is upheld by different writers and readers, whether it is clear cut, whether it is sacrosanct, whether it can be broken and what happens when it is.

Behind the scenes there are those who accuse me of violating some unspoken contract with my readers. In my previous post for instance. I began with a few general thoughts on the nature of the term autobiographical and its contrast with the confessional. Then I launched into an example of the autobiographical, first with my experience of going to confession as a child, and my struggle to understand the nature of sin. Then I outlined what some might consider a traumatic experience that I wound up taking to confession.

My adult self looks back and sees the incident as potentially traumatic but my memory of the event is one of bemusement. It is tricky because I cannot remember the events from my childhood as accurately as I might like. I have written about these experiences before and never once have I felt satisfied with my writing. Somehow the telling of this story defies me.

Could this be one reason why it slipped into my previous post the way it did last week, unbidden? I had not intended to include it in the post when I first began my argument about autobiography and confession.

It popped into my mind as I wrote, in the way thoughts often do. I did not plan for it. It lodged itself there and it seems to me that it had a right to be there as it had insisted itself upon me.

Then I wrote the post. I edited for typos and grammar before finally posting it on line. I had thought about it over the course of the afternoon on the day in which I wrote it and then I posted it.

Is this wrong? Should I have sat with it longer? Should I have left out the disturbing vignette. If I had sat with it longer would certain of my readers then not be offended as I understand some have been, that I have perhaps breached the writer’s contract with my reader, that I have foisted an experience onto them into their minds that they did not invite, and that they did not welcome?

Philippe LeJeune wrote about the autobiographical pact years ago. He argued that in autobiography the writer whose name appears on the cover of the book must be the same person whose life is described in the text and that the account of the life so described must be basically truthful.

There have been countless examples wherein writers have played around with this notion before and since. Some have led to significant reprisals for the author. But the autobiographical pact so called is no longer held to be gospel.

Fiction writers also enter unspoken pacts with their readers. This might in some ways account for the obsession we have in seeking to classify a book’s genre before it hits the bookshelves. This desire to identify genre may not simply be in order to place the book into its correct category in the library and book shop, it may be because people in the main like to have some degree of confidence in what they imagine they will encounter along the way.

Taken in its extreme, we come to formulaic writing, the likes of Mills and Boon where we can know before hand how the book will end without reading the last page to check it out.

Even as an autobiographer I prefer not to know where my writing will take me. I prefer to be surprised at what will come up for me. But in the process of surprising myself I might sometimes surprise my readers even more.

Is this because, although the thoughts that rise to the surface of my mind can sometimes surprise me, they are thoughts that have rested within me and although I may not have been consciously aware of them, they are still my thoughts. Others who later read about them might well be troubled by the arrival of such thoughts when they had least expected them.

To me the element of surprise is important in performances of all kinds, in art, in theatre, and in writing.

But how can I talk? I make unspoken demands on other writers, too.

Years ago I read A S Byatt’s Still Life. I won’t outline the story other than to say there is one central character in it, Stephanie Potter whose unfolding life I followed with pleasure. Shortly after the birth of her first baby, Stephanie described in poignant detail her baby’s accidental scratch as ‘the first wound on new skin’.

Perhaps Byatt here was attempting to warn her readers.

At the beginning of a chapter, three quarters of the way through the book, in the most glorious writing, Byatt kills Stephanie off.

I read this section over and over. I refused to believe it at first. Byatt must have had it wrong. I howled and howled. How could she have done it? How could she have killed off one of her main characters?

I was in analysis at the time and talked it over with my analyst who interpreted what now seems predictable to me, a reliving of my devastation as a twenty-one month old child at what must have felt like the loss of my beloved mother when my younger sister was born.

At the time of reading Still Life I considered Byatt had broken an unspoken writer’s pact. But I realise now, she had made no such pact with me, nor with anyone. The pact was of my making, and it was one sided.

I am a creature of the happy ending. I want happy endings. I know they do not exist. The only thing that exists for all of us in the end is death. I know this, but as Salman Akhtar said at a conference I attended yesterday, we all have to realize that ‘not one of us can get out of this life alive’.

Perhaps this is a good point at which to end this discussion in the knowledge that I cannot get out of writing and being read in tact and alive. There will always be a part of me as a writer that is challenged by readers disappointed in my take on things, as if I have killed off one of their beloved beliefs. I have transgressed the reader/writer’s pact.

And so I end by saying: Writers beware. It is a dangerous and demanding world out there.
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