Thursday, January 5, 2012

My Avocation and My Vocation

I’ve been asked a lot recently – and always in discussions about the academic side of my career – how working as a writer has affected my literary analysis, and vice versa. I appreciate the assumption that it does, with its implied understanding that I neither write nor think in a vacuum, and so in order to give the inquiry the respect it deserves, I’ve been thinking a great deal about how those two pieces of my literary life interact with each other.

I’ve always been someone who happily reads for symbolism. In second grade, after finishing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I was pleased, if a little astounded by the idea, to inform my mother that I was pretty sure Aslan was Jesus. So moving into literary criticism as a profession wasn’t too much of a surprise. And it wasn’t until I was nearly done with my dissertation – about 18 months away from defending – that I began writing creatively with any degree of seriousness.

So in some ways, I cannot explain how my interest in literary analysis has affected my writing, because it would be like asking how my ability to speak English has affected my writing: this is a thing that has been with me from the beginning. I can no more separate my fascination with allusion and metaphor and intertextuality from my writing than I could peel myself out of my skin.

But being a writer has definitely affected how I talk about and think about other people’s writing. One of the biggest things I have noticed, is that I no longer talk about what the writer means, when discussing something in the book, but what the text means. This isn’t because I think authorial intent is a myth – I know that it isn’t – but I know that it is an imperfect divining tool when trying to discover meaning in a text.

Let me explain. When I write, there are always things I am specifically and consciously trying to put into the text. But often my preoccupations while I am writing sneak in there, too. For example, if I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who, lots of things get described as being “bigger on the inside.” Most, if not all, of these descriptions then get removed during revision. But there are also things more subtle that work their way into the text, the quiet foundations of theme and metaphor, and sometimes those things speak to a writer differently than they speak to a reader.

Last fall, I taught Catherynne M. Valente’s astounding book, Palimpsest, in my course on the fantastic as place. Cat was kind enough to come in and speak with my students, and she generously answered their questions. At one point, a young woman, armed with passages from the book, began a question on the significance of the color yellow in the text. Cat stopped her, and said, “I’m sure you’re correct about that. But I put it in there because I like yellow.”

That episode really crystalized the way I think about literary criticism now, both my students', and my own. There is the realization that a careful reader may find one truth in the text, and a writer may have a completely different truth. Both are equally true, and equally valid, even though one might not be meant, and the other may not be seen.

It is not that I now have an "anything goes" attitude towards textual interpretation and criticism. I still believe that the beginning and end point of any literary analysis must be the text, and that any good interpretation must present evidence in support of its conclusions. But I do not believe that I am the definitive interpreter of my own writing, and I would hate for a statement of mine to close off someone else’s experience of my text. I want as a writer to offer possibility to a reader, not hard boundaries. So when I read now, I do not read because I am looking for the key to unlock a writer’s soul, but rather to see what the story – in this moment, at this time – has to say. It is a different truth than the one I used to think I was looking for, but it is a larger one.