February 1, 2007

Don't Look Back

In class tonight, Dr. Jerz posed the question (or something similar, as I can't recall the exact phrasing), "What do we need to know about an author to appreciate his or her work?" Several people finished the exercise quickly, simply writing down "nothing". Others practically composed an entire essay on the importance of the author's history in relation to understanding their works. Although I don't think that knowing the background of an author is impairative for reading and appreciating a work, the study does have some merit. I'm a bit on the fence, just as Keesey seemed in places in his "Introduction".

"We naturally expect that the investigator will get around to telling us something interpretive about poems...Critical procedures using the life to explain the work can easily get entangled with biographical procedures using the work to explain the life, and the result may be a vast tautology" (10).

Readers or literary scholars often want to know the "why" for a writer. We are never content with making our own inferences, but want to delve deeper and get to the "true" meaning the author intended, even when he or she had no (conscious) meaning at all. And since most of our favorite players in the literary world are dead, we turn to their lives for clues. Scholars dig up everything about an author: where they lived, what they did, where they went to school, the name of their dog when they were 8, and the first person they kissed. And if this information cannot be found, researchers move onto looking at the time period and what the average person would have done, lived, named their dog at age 8, and who they would have kissed. It is believed that by knowing every little nuance about an author, this should give insight into why they wrote a certain line, or used a certain figure. However, as interesting as all this is (hey, I want to know who Dickens met on October 24, 1843), is it important to the overall piece?

I am in no way discrediting the study of authors and how this may have affected their works. This is where I take two stances, if possible: while I think that in some ways, the economic, geographic, and political history of a writer largely impacts his or her works and can shed some light onto various symbols or allusions, I don't think it should be initially considered when forming a criticism on the work. When reading a piece for the first time, I don't want to know that the author was a Communist right away. I think we should make our own inferences about the piece and what it represents before looking at the biography. The background information should merely be a support for the reading. A kind of "Ah! That's why they mentioned this!" moment. Literature should be looked at with fresh eyes from the start and allow us to make our own assumptions.

Assumptions here being the key word, of course. How do we ever really know? Will we ever really know? We are simply assuming that the author meant this when writing a story or poem, and use the background evidence to support our ideas. Yet, as Keesey points out, we are again assuming that the author was "typical" for his or her time. It's a lot of assuming on our part, and you know what that does...makes a confused lit scholar.

Keesey, Ch 1 (Introduction) -- Jerz EL312 (Literary Criticism)

Posted by VanessaKolberg at February 1, 2007 10:16 PM | TrackBack

I suppose we do not all have the power to talk to the dead, as I have trained myself, but we can make do with some biographies, letters, and books about the time period, right?

Kinda. Sorta. Huh? I don't think you're the only one of us riding the fence on this. One cannot say that it's meaningless to know why or how the work came about or was thought up.

However, one also cannot say that the author's biographical and historical information is why it was written as it was. I mean, maybe it was, but I think we put more stock in the concept than we should.

Posted by: Valerie Masciarelli at February 4, 2007 10:21 PM

I think that the crux of author intent is that a True meaning exists for each text. It's like there's a list posted somewhere telling people about all the great works and what they mean... which is what I think some non-English major types think we all do in lit. classes (discuss meaning that is already determined, thus producing a thick din instead of meaningful conversation).

Focusing so closely on one perspective is difficult. I sometimes get the heeby-jeebies thinking about trying to apply just ONE theory to a text (since I'm more of a "let's be well-rounded" kind of gal). Evidently Val is the one to talk to for this author intent stuff... no wonder she got so much info. on Chaucer... she can talk to the dead. Sheesh. Now THAT gives me the heeby-jeebies for real.

Posted by: Karissa at February 7, 2007 12:46 AM

Karissa I'm with you on the Heebie-jeebies about applying just one theory to a text as I too am all about being well-rounded. Actually sometimes I think people get frustrated with me because I seem very "on the fence" on so many issues. I am all about trying to see the pros and cons of each side and have a very difficult time standing up for one thing or another when it comes to controversial stuff (such as which literary theory is best to apply to a work). But, in the case of literature, and this class especially, I think (and hope) that it is a good thing to be weary of ALL the schools of thought and be open to the good things and bad things about each approach to literature.

Posted by: Lorin Schumacher at February 8, 2007 8:26 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?