The Fictional Author

by Dan H

Dan Muses About Authorial Intent
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This is an article I've been meaning to write for over a year, but have never quite got around to. I've been partially inspired by the recent comments on my old article about canon.

Here at Ferretbrain we tend to be fairly strict proponents of the Death of the Author, as well as being dedicated anti-presecriptivists and generally opposed to anything which vests authority in some (possibly mythical) historical figure, be that history, tradition, or the author of a particular text.

On the other hand, here at Ferretbrain we also spend an awful lot of time thinking about what people are trying to say with their work, which on its surface seems contradictory. One of the most common criticisms Kyra and I have of texts (be they books, television shows, or whatever) is "I didn't know what I was supposed to think of this character" which, for people who staunchly insist that what the author intends us to think of a character doesn't matter seems to be a peculiar reaction.

What I've been mulling over for nearly a year is whether it's a peculiar reaction at all, or whether it's actually entirely self-consistent.

The Contrary Position

There's an old stereotype that people who are pro-life are also in favour of capital punishment (to which the left cries "if you care about life so much, why are you so fond of killing people") while people who are pro-choice tend to be against it (which leads to the right shouting "why do you care about the rights of murderers and paedophiles, but not about the rights of unborn children").

Ironically, both sides characterise the other side's position as contradictory, and fail to notice that their own position contains exactly the same supposed contradiction. In both cases, the answer is simply that people's beliefs are far more complicated than they seem, and cannot be reduced to a single rule.

(Of course I'd also point out that there are lots of people who are pro-choice and in favour of capital punishment, or pro-life but against it, but those aren't the oh-so-popular stereotypes).

The Death-or-Otherwise of the Author creates a similar dichotomy. People like Kyra and me insist that authorial intent is of no importance, and spend all our time trying to work out what the hell the author is saying. By contrast, people who believe in Authorial Intent (who, eschewing the spirit of impartiality, I shall refer to hereafter as "author cultists" for brevity) tend to hang on everything an author says in interviews and essays, but have no interest in analysing the things the author is actually saying through the text. Again both of these positions seem to contain contradictions – if I'm so dismissive of the author, why do I care what they're saying? If the cultists are so interested in the author, why aren't they interested in the author's presence in the text?

Of course in fact both positions are entirely self-consistent, and the self-consistency is somewhat easier to see in the position of the Author Cultists, which is why I'm putting them first.

Starting from the assumption that you do, in fact, believe in Barthes' Author God you can work your way fairly easily to a position where questions like "what is the author telling us about this" are moot because the Author God, unlike the real God, is quite likely to give interviews. If you're not sure about a particular point in a text, you can simply check and FAQ or if the author is alive – which they are in most big fandoms – send them an email or leave a comment on their website. If you make the author your authority on textual interpretation, there's no need for you to make those kinds of analysis of the actual text.

If you accept the existence of an Author-God, then the text becomes a wholly ineffective means to communicate. There's nothing the author can say in the text which they cannot say more effectively in an interview or a blog post. The text becomes a kind of sugar coating over the author's description of their intent, a way of making it more palatable, or of deriving some entertainment from consuming it. Analysing the text is a meaningless exercise, becuase it's always quicker and less ambiguous to go to the Author-God. As a result the important exercise instead becomes absorbing details about the text, which of course includes the words of the Author-God because, hey it's their story, they invented it.

Interpretive Space

Another way of looking at the issues of authorship and authority is in terms of the difference between interpretation, comprehension and speculation. Reading comprehension is an important skill, and one which children are tested on at primary school. Consider the sentence:
When I told my mother I was getting married, she cried

There are a great many things about that sentence which are clearly questions of comprehension. Who is getting married? The narrator is getting married. What did the narrators mother do when she was told that the narrator was getting married? She cried.

Of course there is also room for interpretation of the text. Is the narrator's mother crying because she is happy or sad? Crying could indicate either, but which it indicates is something that would need to be judged from context. Crucially, though, it can be reasonably assumed to indicate something - which is what makes interpretation diffierent from speculation.

There's a lot to speculate about in this example sentence. Who am I marrying? Am I a man or a woman? Is the person I am marrying a man or a woman? All of these questions are implied by the text – insofar as we can assume that the narrator has a gender and the person they are marrying has a name – but none of them can be answered by reference to the text, they all exist in the realm of speculation. Further, there is nothing in the text (limited as it is) to suggest that the answers to any of these questions matter.

A lot of arguments about "canon" or authorial intent, or the extent to which an author's interviews are part of the text can – I think – be traced back to people confusing the three things. To stick with Harry Potter as the most tried and tested example: "Harry Potter is the Chosen One" or "Albus Dumbledore spent a summer in the company of Gellert Grindelwald" are questions of comprehension. They're simple facts which are stated unambiguously in the text. "Ron eventually gets a job with the Ministry of Magic" is a question of speculation. There is no evidence in the text at all to say what Ron does after he leaves Hogwarts other than that he apparently takes a Muggle driving test and cheats. Questions of interpretation on the other hand are usually more abstract – questions like "why did Dumbledore find the idea of world domination so attractive" or "to what extent can the events of the books to be said to resolve the flaws in wizarding society."

One of the big differences, I think, between those who care about authorial intent and those who do not is whether we consider speculation to be remotely interesting. I literally cannot imagine a reason that somebody would care what Harry Potter does after the books finish. I understand the desire fanficcers have to create a post-epilogue world as a way of interacting with and interpreting the text but I cannot begin to understand people wanting to know the "real" answer to those sorts of questions.

What interests me is interpretation, looking at the text and asking why characters behave a particular way, what this tells us on an abstract or metaphorical level about the world they live in. When Buffy beats up a vampire, I don't care what it implies about the relative capabilities of slayers and vampires in the Buffyverse (I don't even particularly mind how much weaker the Ubervamps got in series seven, although it did stretch my suspension of disbelief a little bit when Anya and Giles were one-shotting them) I care that it tells us that evil can be fought and defeated.

To be able to properly interpret a text, one requires interpretive space. "Space" – in any context – is a difficult idea. It isn't simply the absence of concrete information, there needs to be enough of a framework to build something around, but not so much that it excludes too many possible interpretations. Taking our very simple sample text, if instead the sentence was simply:
I told my mother I was getting married

Then there would be no space for interpretation in the text. Yes, my hypothetical mother presumably still had an emotional reaction to my telling her I was getting married but there is now no indication in the text that it is important, putting the whole issue into the space of speculation rather than interpretation.

For a more specific example (and again I'm still going with Potter, sue me) look at Severus Snape. In the early books, there is a great deal of space to interpret his character and the character is interesting and subtle – both loyal to the side of Good and basically horrible. There was a lot to work with in early-book Snape. Unfortunately the progression of the character eventually closed down a lot of the space the reader originally had to interpret him – his reasons for protecting Harry so zealously were defined and narrowed, and many features of his character were simplified to the point at which they became uninteresting.

Of course this is an inevitable part of any long-running series – characters lose potential far more frequently than they gain it, and it's inevitable that when "the truth" comes out it's going to close off people's favoured interpretations. Where it becomes a problem is when an interpretation which is closed off by the text is one which was allowing you to not hate something. The most common issue here is when a particular character, plotline or other element of a text is in some way disturbing or offensive, and the text does not provide you with the imaginative space to read it as disturbing or offensive. Twilight would be a much less problematic book if there was space within the text to read Bella and Edward's relationship as unhealthy, if there was interpretive space to read the book as being about two people in a mutually destructive relationship.

When Kyra and I, or people like us, talk about how we are "supposed" to interpret something, what we are really talking about is what we feel that there is interpretive space to take from a text. Interpretive space can be created or closed in a variety of ways, by mentioning things or not mentioning them, by the consequences events in a narrative have or are shown as having. Amusing as it is to interpret Star Wars as being about a group of terrorist religious fanatics who overthrow a legitimate progressive government to restore an unelected monarchy, that interpretation is not supported by the text. Even though tens of thousands of people died on board the Death Star, it is not a legitimate reading of Star Wars to see its destruction as an act of mass murder, there is no space in the film to read Luke Skywalker's actions as anything but heroic.

Who Is J.K. Rowling

In my previous article on canon, I pointed out that the question "who is Harry Potter" was a complicated one, that Harry Potter was not somebody who lived in J.K. Rowling's head, but rather was a composite entity created by Rowling, Daniel Radcliffe, and for that matter fandom.

What's interesting is that I could make the same statement about J.K. Rowling.

I've written a lot about Rowling on this site, and my attitude towards her has veered between "grudging respect" (that one letter she wrote to the Guardian about single parents was genuinely awesome) and "outright hostility" (muttermutterdumbledoreisgaymuttermutter). Actually, though, a lot of the time it isn't J.K. Rowling that bothers me, rather it's the narrative voice of the Potter books.

To take a concrete example, there's a – well celebrated isn't the right word – there's a bit in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince where Dumbledore exposits the backstory of Voldemort's mother Merope Gaunt, and indulges in some skeevy victim-blaming, talking about how she didn't love her son enough to stay alive for him, and then informing Harry that he shouldn't "judge her too harshly". Now I absolutely don't believe that J.K. Rowling the person believes that abuse survivors are to blame for not having the courage to get out, nor do I believe that she thinks that if your parents die when you're young, it's because they don't love you enough, but that's what the narrative voice of the book says. Because there is no space in the text for the interpretation that Dumbledore is being a victim-blaming douchebag, the only conclusion is that the voice of the book (which, for the sake of convenience, I tend to refer to as "J.K. Rowling") agrees with him.

So when I talk about "the author" of a book, I'm often really talking about a fictional construct within the book itself. There's an extent to which this is the same person as the actual author, but there's an extent to which it isn't – this way lies a crazy mess of philosophy of identity which I'm not entirely sure I want to get into (Deathly Hallows was, after all, released four years ago, and you can argue that none of us are now the people we were then) but the point is that when I talk about what [AUTHOR X] expects me to think about something, I'm not really talking about a person at all, I'm talking about a set of signals I expect to get from a text which clue me in to the ideas behind it all. "The Author" is a convenient name I give to those signals on the (potentially entirely false) assumption that there is a guiding intelligence behind them.

To put it another way, when you are learning about narrative devices in GCSE English, you often get questions like "how does the author achieve X" – to take two examples from a 2010 paper "How does Ayckbourn make this episode so funny" or "Explore how Keatley vividly reveals Doris' feelings in this scene" – now obviously to answer those questions you don't need to actually know what the author intended, indeed it's entirely possible (perhaps even probable) that the authors methods and thought processes were entirely different to the ones behind the GCSE mark scheme. It seems extremely unlikely that, for example, Charlotte Keatley explicitly decided to "convey [Doris'] happiness through ... short sentences, the way the information is spilled out, her breathlessness, the amazing detail and the final words 'this is the beginning of my life'." It is certainly true that the devices cited in the mark scheme are ones which could achieve the effect of conveying happiness, but it is neither possible nor relevant to know whether the author consciously chose them for that purpose. When a GCSE question asks "explore how the author achieves X" what they really mean is "explore how X is achieved in the text," the fact that the effect was created (intentionally or otherwise) by a particular person makes no difference. That said it is still useful to use the "how does X achieve Y" construction if only because it saves time.

To bring it all back to me and my various issues with artefacts of popular culture, what this means is that when I say "I don't understand what Joss Whedon is trying to say with Dollhouse" I don't really mean that at all, it's just a convenient shorthand for "The television series Dollhouse contains a variety of narrative devices the effects of which seem to contradict rather than complement each other, creating a show which is uneven in tone and which raises many issues about sexual consent, free will, identity and human trafficking but fails to adequately explore them."

I'm not saying that everything has to have "a message" – I'm a big fan of entertainment for the sake of entertainment – but to my mind you can't tell a story unless you have some idea of what you want your audience to take away from that story, even if all you take away is "Jedi are freaking awesome and that Darth Vader guy is scary."
Themes: Topical
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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 10:17 on 2010-08-25
Great article, Dan.

Another thing which I think happens a lot with this sort of thing is that people get into this weird place where they adopt the idea of the Author God, but then they engage the text as though they were atheists, if you see what I mean: they'll observe the ideas presented about the author's setting but they'll treat them as though they are just facts jotted down in a guidebook, rather than being indications of any sort of agenda or bias on the part of the author.

I've seen Howard apologists, for example, insisting that he wasn't racist, it's just that he was writing about a world where there happened to be an awful lot of stone age savages with dark skin who needed beating down by Conan. That's an extreme example, of course, but you do still get a lot of people who tend to see authors as people who discover things rather than actually creating them - narrating things they've uncovered exploring some world of the imagination, rather than actually coming up with the ideas themselves - and tend to resist pondering why an author would choose to create this particular character or place with these particular attributes.
http://fintinobrien.livejournal.com/ at 13:30 on 2010-08-25
Excellent article. I especially liked the stuff about interpretive space. I've started to get tired of the tendency of franchise plots to start filling in every hole they can find in previous installments. We wouldn't want people to try to fill in the gaps themselves, after all! Metroid Other M is the current ball of fail I'm annoyed about (for a bunch of other reasons as well actually). The Metroid series always allowed plenty of space for the player to put their own spin on the mythos, but the new game is all about exploring Samus' character by having her share everything about her previously vague backstory (with poor dialogue and acting as a bonus!)

you do still get a lot of people who tend to see authors as people who discover things rather than actually creating them


I've encountered this kind of attitude so many times when discussing texts. It's always stumped me. I might criticise some part of a text only to be told that, "Yes, but character X had to do that because plot event Y," or something, and all I can do is stammer something about how the author had to actually think all this stuff up. Stories don't happen because of the in-universe rules, they happen because the storyteller set them up to happen a certain way.
Sister Magpie at 16:47 on 2010-08-25
That's an extreme example, of course, but you do still get a lot of people who
tend to see authors as people who discover things rather than actually
creating them - narrating things they've uncovered exploring some world of the
imagination, rather than actually coming up with the ideas themselves - and tend
to resist pondering why an author would choose to create this particular
character or place with these particular attributes.


So very true. And sometimes I think it comes from just not thinking it through--the text presents itself as a "real world" even if it's imaginary, so some people have to make a conscious effort or have it pointed out to them that it isn't. I remember someone once telling me that when they got frustrated about this their husband had to sit them down and tell them that most people didn't interact with fiction the way they did, with one eye always on the author. I think the "discovery" method is probably more common.

Or as another person put it to me once, it's where people talk about fiction and explain away an interpretation that seems troubling by acting as if the book is a documentary and the author just didn't have the footage to show that that interpretation was wrong!

But I agree-great article. It really nails it, I think. Especially what to me always seems like the ultimate slippery slope of the author god, that it makes the actual story a secondary, poorer way to communicate with the author. To me as a member of the other camp, the story is a far better form of communication because it communicates far more than the author could say consciously. Which is made even more obvious to me in interviews when authors are clearly hit with things they had never considered or who can't really give explanations that truly answer the question. It sounds mystical to talk about texts "writing themselves" or characters taking on a life of their own, but it's also kind of accurate. There's a lot of instinct that's going to go into a story that's going to disappear in an interview. For instance, JKR can try to give explanations for Hermione's behavior concerning house elves, but it reads to me more like Hermione does what she does simply because it's what Hermione "would do." Beyond that it's fuzzier to figure out exactly how the author feels about what she's doing, if that makes sense. Sometimes the author might seem to share a characters' blindspot or prejudice, sometimes not.

To use another example, Matt Weiner often gives interviews about each episode of Mad Men after it airs, and he has a habit of giving an interpretation that seems to shut down the interpretation that I had watching the show. But then subsequent developments wind up seeming to validate my original interpretation. I have come to assume that his "answers" are perhaps intentionally stunted, that he talks about what he sees a character consciously wanting only in exactly that time and place in that scene. But that doesn't mean it's "right." Consequently, the only time I find the interviews really helpful are for those few times when it answers some factual question.
Andy G at 17:31 on 2010-08-25
So when I talk about "the author" of a book, I'm often really talking about a fictional construct within the book itself. There's an extent to which this is the same person as the actual author, but there's an extent to which it isn't – this way lies a crazy mess of philosophy of identity which I'm not entirely sure I want to get into


I remember reading a theory which goes full-hog and has three levels: the real-world author, the author-in-the-text, and the narrator. The intentions of the author do matter, but it's the intentions as revealed in the text, not off in the author's head (The same applies to other art actually - it's always interpreted in terms of intentional creation or arrangement). The really interesting thing about the theory was that it also said there were several levels to the audience - the voice of the narrator is directed "as if" towards a certain audience, as is the author in the text - which may have nothing to do with the author's own intended audience. An author might intend to captivate a smug, lucrative middle-class audience with an authorial voice that flatters their pretensions of avant garde sophistication by using a narrative voice that confides the story to an imaginary friend.

I don't how that analysis would look applied to JK Rowling.
Jamie Johnston at 22:33 on 2010-08-25
I second the particular liking of 'interpretive space'. I think it also helps me understand my very flinchy reaction to encountering authors' comments on their work. Basically as soon as I realize that's what I'm seeing or hearing I cover my ears, change channels, scroll up again so I can't see it, or whatever. Especially when it's work I like. Now that you've put forward that way of describing it, yes, it's because I feel like someone's suddenly trying to throw a net over me or trap me in a box: take away my space. I suppose the fact that I have that reaction to authors more than to others is a sign that I still have an unconscious instinct to accept what authors say about their work, or at least a desire to feel like my interpretation is what the author intended. And then sometimes the author's interpretation turns out to be one I don't like, and I'm like, 'Oh, look, now why did you have to do that? Now you're forcing me to either accept your interpretation and therefore like your work less or disagree with you and suspect you of being less awesome than your work suggests. Why couldn't you just have kept your trap shut and let us all be happy?' Or if it isn't that I want the author to agree with me it's just that if the author is offering an interpretation I assume they're doing it in the expectation that I'll accept it as definitive, so it feels more like actually closing down my space in comparison to a random person offering an interpretation, which wouldn't necessarily be closing down the space but just coming along and sitting in a different bit of it.

I especially hate it when the author's comment or interpretation ambushes you immediately after the thing itself has finished, like Sister Magpie mentioned with Mad men or like the little comments you get at the bottom of the page with some webcomics, because then I haven't even had time to enjoy my own experience of the work before someone starts telling me what my experience should have been.

The thing about the closing down of interpretive space by the text itself as it goes on is interesting, too. There's something in that idea that's going to sit at the back of my mind for many months waiting to attach itself to some other idea, I can tell.
Viorica at 02:47 on 2010-08-26
Fabulous article, Dan. I especially like the bit about the narrative voice, because it's something I try to define fairly frequently- for instance, you can write a piece about a historical society in which the society is sexist but the piece isn't, or you can write a piece set in a historical society which is inherently sexist and tries to hide behind historical accuracy. *coughDominicMinghellacough* It's all in the narrative voice. Dumbledore as a character is supposed to be infallible- therefore, if he says something the narrative expects you to believe it. Whereas in something like "Taxi Driver," Travis Bickle is clearly supposed to be off his nut, so his word is not meant to be taken at face value. It's all in the weight the characters' words are given.
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 04:17 on 2010-08-26
But guys, relying on the narrative voice and the author-suggested-by-the-text to delineate interpretive space is just as fallacious as relying on the meatspace author to do it! Surely a true Death of the Author advocate realizes that only the reader has the authority to close off interpretive space. After all, perhaps we can come away with the conclusion that the authorial voice itself is fallacious, and in fact a bit of a tit. Sure, the meatspace author probably didn't intend for the narrative voice and author-implied-by-the-text to be misleading, but why should we care?
Arthur B at 10:17 on 2010-08-26
Surely a true Death of the Author advocate realizes that only the reader has the authority to close off interpretive space.

Two things:

- Even if only the reader has the authority to close of interpretive space, that doesn't stop it being maddening when authors try to exceed their authority.
- I would argue, in fact, that although the reader might be the one to close off interpretive space, the reader is unable to open it up in the first place - for that you really need the author. Without the data points offered by the text, there's nothing to interpret in the first place, and it's the author-in-the-text and the narrative voice that primarily offer such things. Yes, of course you can find things in the text that the author didn't intend to put in. But you can't read between the lines until someone comes along and draws the lines in the first place.
http://ruderetum.blogspot.com/ at 12:07 on 2010-08-28
Nice article on a really annoying but common issue. When it comes to the death of the author, I've always tried to hang on to a midway position, which probably stems from my great interest in the classics and my own education as an historian. When reading a text I think its clear, that though the author is the one giving the information, it's equally clear that the authors presence is limited to the text itself. Actually, why write a text that can't be interpreted on its own? So this trend of filling plotpoints in interviews and restraining the narrative space is very frustrating.

On the other hand, I've always felt that taking the death of the author to its logical conclusion is very fruitless. All texts should be understood on its own merits and without reference to the author. And this illustrated in nicely by this article, with the example of the Harry Potter books, but if we discuss something older, ignoring the author becomes problematic, because we will lose information which might be important for the understanding of the text itself. For example,reading the Decamerone as I'm now, I can enjoy the stories as they are and just wonder at times about the values dissonance in some of them. But does it not deepen my understanding of the stories to know that it was written my an Italian humanist in the 14th century and further knowledge of him and how he differed from his contemporaries further give more to the text rather than narrowing it down. But I guess this is rather tangential to the point the article was trying to make.

So, annoying author commentaries and canon fortifications bad, deeper understanding of historical matters good.

I remember that Quentin Tarantino said on one of his movies's DVDs, when introducing cut-out scenes, that he didn't edit them in to the movies as a directors cut because he made the movie just as he liked it the first time. I think that's an attitude that all creative artsts should take regarding their works, after it has left the desk, it should cope on its own.
Frank at 16:27 on 2010-08-28
All texts should be understood on its own merits and without reference to the
author.


This was also briefly touched upon in Back to School when Rodney Dangerfield's character hired Kurt Vonnegut to write an essay on one of his, Vonnegut's, books. The essay earned less than a stellar grade, so Rodney fired Kurt. The message reinforced Readers interpretation over Author's intention quite effectively, I thought, though I'm not sure nor care what the screenwriters' intentions were.
Jamie Johnston at 18:11 on 2010-08-28
For example,reading the Decamerone as I'm now, I can enjoy the stories as they are and just wonder at times about the values dissonance in some of them. But does it not deepen my understanding of the stories to know that it was written my an Italian humanist in the 14th century and further knowledge of him and how he differed from his contemporaries further give more to the text rather than narrowing it down.

That sounds like an interesting point, but since I'm totally unfamiliar with the Decameron (beyond knowing roughly what it is) could I cheekily ask you to say a bit more about what it is that you gain from knowing about the author?

The specific example aside, I suspect part of the issue here is related to the way reading a text shades into thinking about a text as a historical artefact, and to what extent the two activities interact. Setting aside the question of the author for a moment, it's clearly true that it can often be helpful to understand something about the culture of the contemporary audience of a piece of work. But helpful in doing what? In reading it ourselves, or in working out how it would have been read by others, or in working out how (to use Dan's expression) we are 'supposed' (by the narrative voice) to read it. Are they separate activities at all? Does my knowledge of some contemporary readers' responses to The woman in white (which is something we occasionally referred to during TeXt Factor) actually change the way I relate to the content of the book, or does it just let me draw independent historical inferences about Victorian readers? Hmm.
Sister Magpie at 19:02 on 2010-08-28
I would say one way it helps to know something about the author--and this is probably true for the Decameron (while I was reading it I went to an exhibit of Italian art from the period. Looking at a scene painted on a wedding chest I thought it reminded me of a story in the book I was reading...and of course it turned out that's exactly what it was--fanart FTW!)--is that it helps to know something about the society they live in or what things they would consider a given.

This, to me, is more about the nuts and bolts level of interpretation that may or may not infringe on the reader's interpretation. For instance, there are people who will give an interpretation that just doesn't fit with what's written in the text. As an example, in HBP a lot of theories about Snape being evil depended on changing the facts of Dumbledore's death to add moments for communication that wasn't there. That's what I mean by a nuts and bolts level of interpretation.

And that, I think, can be effected by things an author would take for granted. For instance, certain phrases might be misunderstood if you're not familiar with them as colloquial speech, or there might be veiled references to some current idea of the time.

I remember an acting teacher (a good one imo) explaining really well why a lot of modern Shakespeare adaptations didn't work well for that reason. It was fine to set the play in a different time period, but there were certain Elizabethan ideas that you had to keep or else the play wouldn't work. There were certain things the Elizabethan audience would react to that effected the plot of the play--like the idea, for instance, that class distinctions were important. It would be like watching a 20th century American play and not getting the unspoken racial tension.
http://ruderetum.blogspot.com/ at 16:03 on 2010-08-29
@Jamie. Hmm, I'll try to give an example then about the Decamerone. So basically it's a collection of 100 stories held together by the premise of ten Florentian aristocrats, seven women and three men, fleeing Florence from the plague to the countryside to hang around having a vacation and telling stories to pass the time. For a large part the stories are no doubt folk tales, but are not fairy tales and it is unknown how much the author, Giovanni Boccaccio changed them as there is very little to compare against. I guess it would be safe to say that there are some themes there which are no doubt the authors intention to underline an issue in real life.

Boccaccio himself considered the Decamerone in the Florentian dialect of italian to be an inconsequential book of amusing stories for the ladies and his serious work was his latin poetry. Some say that the book is also the birth of prose short stories and novellas.

The stories' main subjects are the hypocrisy of the church in the form of greedy clergy and horny nuns and monks, the unfairness of arranged marriages and the position of women in society. This is achieved through an unsettling amount of adulterous stories where the husband is stupid or old or greedy or whatnot. Sexual freedom is presented as good and natural and even the one story featuring homosexuality is accepting of the fact. Cleverness and intelligence seems to carry the day as most problems are solved through all sorts of clever plots. On the other hand there seems to be the general sense that aristocrats actually are better than everyone else and apparently covert adulterous affairs are preferable to fidelity even if the husband is shown to good and loving. Also, tricking a woman to bed masquerading as her husband after she has refused you is not only a justified form of showing your love and wits, quite likely will convince the woman to continue the affair after finding out the subterfuge.

Well anyways, the stories are fun enough by themselves, but knowing the context of late middle age/early reneissance Italy helps to appreciate the humanistic values of the stories, which seem to us to be taken for granted. For example the huge power of the church and the stringent sexual morals which people had to follow at least in public. Also it helps to understand those parts of the stories, which shows the quite cruel sense of humor of that time.

Actually, using the Decamerone as an example illustrates the fact that the text always references the historical context of its creation, where the author is an integral part of that context, as important as its chronology or the ideological background, as the author is also a creation of his/her time. Hmm it also occurs to me that as the text is never separated from its context, all contemporary interpretations will interpret the text in its own context and even as it offers interesting new interpretations, it might be useful to acknowledge these different contexts rather than try to ignore it by invoking the death of the author and the texts original context.

I guess that's the historical mindset speaking. And I guess it is true that this sort of thing is more nuts and bolts than a significant portion of readers' interpretation, although it seems that the more time and difference there is between cultures, the more important it is. Well, anyways, I guess what I'm trying to say I agree with Daniel's article and that total death of the author is more detrimental to interpreting text than beneficial.

I always get the feeling of stating platitudes when I'm writing in english, but I guess I just need more practice.
Arthur B at 16:40 on 2010-08-29
Actually, using the Decamerone as an example illustrates the fact that the text always references the historical context of its creation, where the author is an integral part of that context, as important as its chronology or the ideological background, as the author is also a creation of his/her time.

But what is there that you could get about the Decameron through knowledge of the author that you couldn't get simply through knowledge of the historical time period? After all, the period of composition is as much an attribute of the text as it is of the author.
Melissa G. at 18:04 on 2010-08-29
An example I can think of relating to how knowing information about the author can color/affect an interpretation of his/her work would be Tennessee Williams "The Glass Menagerie". There is a very popular interpretation that the main character, Tom, is gay, and I'm pretty sure the main reason for this is because the play is (while fiction) very autobiographical and Tennessee's real name is Thomas and he was a gay man. There's very little in the play that specifically points to Tom being gay, but by having knowledge that he is (in some ways) meant to represent Tennessee, you can read into his behavior. Does he really go to the "movies" late every night? Or is he doing something else? Without knowledge of the author, this interpretation might never have gained popularity.

Though knowledge of the author coloring a text can also be negative, I think. For example, I know a lot of people who are huge fans of the Ender's Game series, and after finding out about Orson Scott Card's, er, somewhat narrow-minded viewpoints in real life can't really read the books without getting a sour taste in their mouth. It's possible that none of his homophobia made it into the books, but it makes you pick up on certain things and read them a little differently. He was the writer for Ultimate Iron Man, for example, and the fat, gross little kid villain came off a little gay at times, and I couldn't help but read into that in a negative light because I know Mr. Card's feelings toward homosexuals.

This has always been sort of a complicated issue for me. I want to enjoy a book regardless of the author's personal viewpoints or lifestyle, but I can't deny that it can soak into the writing unintentionally or subconsciously. So, for me, it's very hard - for example - to ignore that Stephenie Meyer is a hard-core Mormon when I read Twilight. It colors my interpretation of her text, and I interpret things differently than I might having not known that. I guess the issue here is whether or not that's a good or bad thing when interpreting, and I'm honestly not sure which it is.
http://ruderetum.blogspot.com/ at 18:57 on 2010-08-29
@Arthur: A good question, but isn't that a bit of hair-splitting? We can of course acquire information about Decamerone that it is an early reneissance viewpoint and embodies this and that humanist thought and everything, but that knowledge of the historical time-period and the author aren't really separate. Information on Giovanni Boccaccio is that he was an early reneissance Italian humanist actually gives you the same stuff, so I don't see how these two things are actually, in effect, different.

What I'm trying to say, is that information on the author might be the same as information about the time-period, but essentially there is no reason to separate information about the author from the other context, because in some cases there might be more information to be achieved from the author.

As I wrote the last post I realized that the choice of Decamerone as an example would lead me to this problem, since it is hard to give an example where Boccaccio as an author is so underlined, but I remain by my argument that trying to remove the author from the picture is as senseless as arguing that the time-period is not important at all. Sure you can do much interpretation about it, but context deepens and opens interpretations, similarly as knowledge about the author does, because knowledge of the author and knowledge of the time-period are the same thing.

A better example in addition to Melissa's above is Marcel Proust. In Remembrance of things past, I would claim that as in Tennessee Williams's case, the knowledge of Proust's homosexuality does put things in another perspective. And in the Wizard-Knight tha allusions to catholicism are pretty clear, but knowledge of Gene Wolfe's catholicism can help, I guess, though I guess that is not as good an example as Proust.

Arthur B at 19:01 on 2010-08-29
Information on Giovanni Boccaccio is that he was an early reneissance Italian humanist actually gives you the same stuff, so I don't see how these two things are actually, in effect, different.

Exactly my point though - knowledge of the author and knowledge of the tradition he's writing in gives the same information. I think a more compelling example is Melissa's, actually, where there are some things you genuinely might miss in The Glass Menagerie if you didn't know Tennessee Williams was gay, and in your Proust example.
http://ruderetum.blogspot.com/ at 19:59 on 2010-08-29
I guess the point about the whole death of the author applies more to more modern works, because we have more information on the author. I'm forced to admit that in the case of Boccaccio I don't really know enough. Perhaps that's something for me to find out, but I would argue that separations between different sorts of information is not the way to go. Text provides information about the author and of the time-period where it was created. The time-period provides information about the text and about the author and the author provides information about the time-period and the text. If information about the author and the time-period seem to be the same, it still doesn't mean that efforts shouldn't be taken to make sure whether information about the author or the time-period offers some insight to the text in question. Singling out the author as something to exclude is not beneficial for the interpretation of his texts.

For example, to jump to political science, Macchiavelli's The Prince is often assumed to argue that ruthless autocracy is the way to go. But if we read his Notes on Livy's History of Rome, a work he mentions in The Prince as being his take on republics, it becomes clear that the Roman Republic was Macchiavelli's preferred form of government. This puts The Prince in a different light, more a cynical overview of real politics in an autocracy.
Arthur B at 20:47 on 2010-08-29
I think the thing about all these examples is that the new interpretations you come up with can all be supported purely by recourse to the text - you can look at the Glass Menagerie and say "ok, here's the evidence that there's something about Tom's personal life that he's hiding", you can look at Ultimate Iron Man and say "yeah, the portrayal of the kid villain is probably a bit homophobic". Even though your knowledge of the author provides a big slab of evidence for those interpretations, the interpretations don't collapse like a house of cards if you take that fact away.

Whereas "Slytherin came back and fought for Hogwarts" or "Dumbledore is gay" or even "Dumbledore possesses some form of sexuality in the first place" are things which people struggle to construct decent arguments for through relying solely on textual evidence.
http://ruderetum.blogspot.com/ at 21:27 on 2010-08-29
For sure! On the authors part that's the same as admitting that they wrote an incomplete book or that they wish to do something differently now. And that sounds like lack of art. Like a craftsman that comes to whittle at a table corner three months after giving the object to you as complete.
Sister Magpie at 22:14 on 2010-08-29
A better example in addition to Melissa's above is Marcel Proust. In Remembrance
of things past, I would claim that as in Tennessee Williams's case, the
knowledge of Proust's homosexuality does put things in another perspective. And
in the Wizard-Knight tha allusions to catholicism are pretty clear, but
knowledge of Gene Wolfe's catholicism can help, I guess, though I guess that is
not as good an example as Proust.


Actually, having read Proust before learning that he was said to be gay, I'd say it doesn't really add anything to the text. Because reading the text made it completely unsurprising that he might have been gay. I'd say Tennessee Williams works the same way. Whether or not either author was gay or not, both of their works deal with homosexuality blatantly. Since Tom's trips out of the house happen off stage and are a little mysterious I'd say him being gay is written into the text as a possibility.
Andy G at 23:30 on 2010-08-29
Just to chip in and second something Jamie alluded to - I think it's important to distinguish between the importance of an author's *intentions* to the interpretation of a text, and the importance of other details about the author. The latter could be relevant to the interpretation even if the former are not.
Melissa G. at 00:08 on 2010-08-30
Since Tom's trips out of the house happen off stage and are a little mysterious I'd say him being gay is written into the text as a possibility.


It's definitely a possibility, but I don't know how quickly people would have jumped to that interpretation without the knowledge of Williams' homosexuality. You have to admit that knowing his history causes a reader to go there far more quickly than they would if they didn't know his backstory. Which Arthur sort of went into when he said that taking knowledge of the author away doesn't really change the validity of the interpretation. I just think that "Tom is probably gay because Tennessee Williams is gay" is the biggest and most convincing argument people have in favor of that interpretation. Which brings knowledge of the author into the equation rather strongly.
Arthur B at 01:25 on 2010-08-30
I just think that "Tom is probably gay because Tennessee Williams is gay" is the biggest and most convincing argument people have in favor of that interpretation. Which brings knowledge of the author into the equation rather strongly.

But there's a difference between saying "It is possible that Tom is gay" based on the text, which is a legitimate interpretation even if we didn't know anything about Williams (and would be legitimate even if Williams had been straight), and saying "It is extremely likely that Tom is gay, because Tennesee Williams was gay", which seems to put one interpretation head and shoulders above others.
Melissa G. at 04:09 on 2010-08-30
@Arthur: Yes, I agree with you. I just think, in this case, that the interpretation of "Tom is gay" is accepted more strongly because we know that Tennessee Williams is gay. One could still make the argument that Tom is gay based on the text of the play, but there honestly isn't much evidence for it. Without the knowledge of Williams, many people would consider that interpretation a stretch, in my opinion. So I feel like there are cases when knowledge of the author can play strongly into how well-accepted or how believable an interpretation can be, if that makes sense?
Arthur B at 05:28 on 2010-08-30
Um... isn't that exactly what I just said? There's some furious agreement going on here. :)
http://ruderetum.blogspot.com/ at 07:53 on 2010-08-30
Actually, having read Proust before learning that he was said to be gay, I'd say it doesn't really add anything to the text. Because reading the text made it completely unsurprising that he might have been gay. I'd say Tennessee Williams works the same way. Whether or not either author was gay or not, both of their works deal with homosexuality blatantly. Since Tom's trips out of the house happen off stage and are a little mysterious I'd say him being gay is written into the text as a possibility.


I haven't read Williams' text, but I agree, that Proust's gayness is really not required to understand the novel's theme of homosexuality, but that theme is more strong in the later parts. Also the narrator's heterosexuality and his love interests names and a lot of subtext have inspired much research to the text, in connection with Proust's life. Also, Proust never publicly came out of the closet during his lifetime, so for me at least, this is interesting when considering the narrator and his voice. I'm not saying that it is required, or that you need the information to understand the novel 'correctly'. But I do not agree, that the information gives nothing to the reader.

If nothing else, additional information on Proust's life gives the opportunity to speculate further and perhaps in new ways(new for the assumed reader) some aspects of the novel, just like any biographical information about Proust, as the novel has some parallels to it apart from homosexuality. The sheer amount of literary criticism dedicated to the discussion whether Proust's life matters to the interpretation of the novel is proof that the issue is not easily answered.
Melissa G. at 20:29 on 2010-08-30
@Arthur: Oh, okay, we were agreeing, lol. I honestly wasn't sure; I thought my point wasn't clear or something. No worries then! :-)
Jamie Johnston at 11:35 on 2010-09-01
Hi all, sorry for falling behind with this discussion. Ruderetum, thanks for explaining. I think I'm inclined to agree with Arthur that a lot of what you mention is information that has more to do with the historical period than with the author as a particular individual, so it doesn't necessarily add to either side of the question 'Does the author's personal opinion matter?'

Because it's probably useful to remember that that's what we're mainly talking about here. As Andy says, it's possible to argue that the author's opinions or intentions about the text are irrelevant without saying that all information about the author is irrelevant. So I don't think anyone here has been 'singling out the author as something to exclude': it's just the author's opinions and intentions about the text that some of us are proposing to treat as irrelevant. (And even then it isn't a matter of excluding them, just of giving them no more weight than anyone else's.) So I don't think we really disagree.

Speaking of people not really disagreeing, I find the Proust / Williams discussion rather interesting because you can say 'knowing the author was gay is helpful in interpreting the work' for different underlying reasons. One is that you're still on some level interested in what the author intended, and therefore 'Tennessee Williams was gay' leads you to 'This makes it more likely that he consciously wrote Tom as gay and probably intended him to be read as gay' and that in turn takes you to 'This influences me to read Tom as gay' or even 'This makes me believe that Tom ought to be read as gay'. Which is similar to 'Dumbledore is gay because Rowling intended him to be' except that with Rowling the evidence that she intended Dumbledore to be gay is that she says so, whereas with Williams it's an inference drawn from his biography. (Of course the other difference is the one Arthur points out about whether there is actually support in the text, but I'm comparing the two ways of thinking about the author). That's an approach that Arthur and Melissa agree in rejecting.

But if we do reject that way of connecting Williams' sexuality to our reading of Tom, how do we connect them? Melissa, you seem to be saying that the connexion is something like this: 'Even though I don't believe Williams' homosexuality makes it any more or less reasonable to read Tom as gay, a lot of other people probably would, so although it doesn't make that interpretation any more appropriate, it does make other people more likely to accept it as appropriate.' Is that right? If so, it seems a very fair point, but I'm not sure where it gets us with the question whether knowing about the author should influence our own interpretations.

Another way of looking at the point is to say that Williams' homosexuality is useful as a trigger to remind us to be open to a queer reading of the text, which is something we should be open to anyway but which we can easily forget about because of our unconscious heteronormative assumptions. Which may possibly be what Arthur has in mind. From this point of view, biographical knowledge about the author is actually of no inherent relevance to anyone's interpretation, it justs acts as a prompt to try a different reading. It therefore has the same status as any number of other things that might prompt the same reading, such as having personal homosexual experience that chimes with Tom's behaviour, or knowing about the experiences of gay men in United States in the 1940s (which is the historical context point again), or having already heard someone suggest that Tom is gay before watching the play, or indeed seeing a particular production of the play that adopts that interpretation and makes it more prominent. In this way of looking at it, we can accept knowledge of Williams' life as a legitimate jumping-off point for an interpretation without claiming that it makes that interpretation any better than any other (just as no one could sensibly say 'I am gay, therefore my interpretation of Tom as gay is correct' or 'The director of the production I saw made it seem like Tom is gay, therefore my interpretation of Tom as gay is correct).

If we take that approach, then we can relate it back to Dan's original topic and find, if we want, a legitimate but non-normative place for the author's opinion in our intepretive process: as a trigger, or jumping-off point, for seeing whether the text can be read in a certain way. Which we may conclude it can't (e.g. the 'Slytherin came back' reading).

Incidentally, Garland Grey's recent guest-appearance at the Rejectionist blog has some good stuff on this, as well as being generally interesting and entertaining.

Finally:

I always get the feeling of stating platitudes when I'm writing in english, but I guess I just need more practice.

On the contrary, I had no idea English wasn't your first language!
Dan H at 13:11 on 2010-09-01
Gosh there's a lot of comments on this which I haven't replied to...

Starting with webcomocon up the top:

Surely a true Death of the Author advocate realizes that only the reader has the authority to close off interpretive space

Not quite. Only the reader has the authority to declare that interpretive space has been closed off.

For example: it is perfectly possible (barring interviews) that J.K. Rowling *really did* intend "Harry is a whiny shit with a messiah complex" to be a letigimate and more subtle reading of his character, but there is still no support for that in the text.

I do, in fact, have a real life example of this. I always disliked John Sheridan in /Babylon 5/ because I always thought he was a self-important dickbag, and was infuriated by the way the entire galaxy kept lining up to suck his dick. I was explaining this to a friend of mine, and he replied that he'd always thought Sheridan was "A brilliant portrayal of a madman". I replied that I didn't think that there was room in the text for that interpretation, and my friend replied that when he'd met JMS (he's one of *those* sorts of people) he'd agreed.

So here we have a situation in which there is a straight reading of the text (Sheridan is a hero) and an alternative reading of the text (Sheridan is a madman) in which the second reading would be more interesting and more subtle but lacks, in my opinion, textual support. Here the fact that - according to something he said to a bloke who likes to talk about having met celebrities - the author claims to have intended the *second* interpretation makes no difference.

@Everybody else

On the whole Proust/Williams/etc thing.

I think part of the issue here is that studying literature is only partly about studying the texts, it's also about studying the texts in a wider context. I think this is very different from appreciating the text on its own terms, and I think it's *extremely* important to remember that the "academic" or "literary history" approach to a text is not a better or more valid approach.

Knowing about Proust or Williams is important because Proust and Williams are on some level interesting historical figures in their own right, but an interpretation of their works which takes their homosexuality into account is not more valid than one which doesn't.

Indeed in many ways I'd argue the opposite. An interpretation of a classic or historical text which is interested only in what that text might have been supposed to say to its original audience, rather than what it currently says to a modern audience, actually misses the whole point of what literature is *for*.
Amusing as it is to interpret Star Wars as being about a group of terrorist religious fanatics who overthrow a legitimate progressive government to restore an unelected monarchy, that interpretation is not supported by the text. Even though tens of thousands of people died on board the Death Star, it is not a legitimate reading of Star Wars to see its destruction as an act of mass murder, there is no space in the film to read Luke Skywalker's actions as anything but heroic.


This is certainly true in the movies, but I hear that in the Expanded Universe the galaxy was later invaded by the warlike Yuuzhan Vong, and that Emperor Palpatine knew of their coming, and this was the main reason he built the Imperial Battlefleet. The rebellion probably made the situation a whole lot more bloody than it might have been otherwise.

When Kyra and I, or people like us, talk about how we are "supposed" to interpret something, what we are really talking about is what we feel that there is interpretive space to take from a text. Interpretive space can be created or closed in a variety of ways, by mentioning things or not mentioning them, by the consequences events in a narrative have or are shown as having.


The problem with that idea is how do you measure the degree of interpretive space? I am still not sure if any text can be said to have a single "meaning". Sometimes it seems to me that, to quote Wittgenstein, "the sense of the world must lie outside the world." While certainly a messed-up man, the insomnia guy once posted a somewhat amusing parody critique of Pong that draws wild but still possibly 'valid' interpretations of that simple game.
https://profiles.google.com/Iaculoid at 00:06 on 2011-08-12
This is certainly true in the movies, but I hear that in the Expanded Universe the galaxy was later invaded by the warlike Yuuzhan Vong, and that Emperor Palpatine knew of their coming, and this was the main reason he built the Imperial Battlefleet. The rebellion probably made the situation a whole lot more bloody than it might have been otherwise.

I should point out that other writers, meanwhile, roundly mocked this notion, with their characters pointing out the Empire's lengthy list of atrocities and fondness for resource-inttensive, hilariously impractically superweapons. To quote Han Solo:

"What the Empire would have done was build a supercolossal Yuuzhan Vong-killing battle machine. They would have called it the Nova Colossus… Galaxy Destructor or the Nostril of Palpatine or something equally grandiose… And you know what would have happened? It wouldn't have worked. They'd forget to bolt down a metal plate over an access hatch leading to the main reactors, or some other mistake, and a hotshot enemy pilot would drop a bomb down there and blow the whole thing up."

Then the whole thing devolved into one long series of 'nuh-uh's and 'yuh-uh's, and Karen Traviss had to stand in the naughty corner for pulling Timothy Zahn's hair.

Never change, SWEU. Never change.
Arthur B at 11:11 on 2011-08-12
/reads Yuuzhan Vong.

So, they're ugly Dark Eldar with Tyranid technology? D'aww, the Expanded Universe is trying to be all grimdark!

Either way, I fail to see how the existence of some villains from a tie-in novel series written decades after the fact offer any meaningful insight into the movies.
Robinson L at 20:00 on 2011-08-12
Iaculoid: Then the whole thing devolved into one long series of 'nuh-uh's and 'yuh-uh's,

Wasn't that also how the Jaina Solo shipping war among the writers went down?

Arthur: D'aww, the Expanded Universe is trying to be all grimdark!

Oh, most definitely. They also killed off 1/2 to 3/4 of the established Expanded Universe cast (plus Chewbacca), and wrote a nine-book series which revolved around one of the main characters falling to the Dark Side and becoming Darth Recycled-Prequel-Trilogy-Plot and the rest turning into 90s Anti-Heroes

... In a franchise based off of Star Wars. It went about as well as you'd expect.

Either way, I fail to see how the existence of some villains from a tie-in novel series written decades after the fact offer any meaningful insight into the movies.

I think they can offer insight into the stories the films tell (for instance, Karen Traviss has written a couple of long-winded angry tracts books exploring the morality of the Jedi Order effectively creating and maintaining a slave army of clones to fight the Separatists for them. Conclusion: it's a bit of an iffy move).

But I agree with you that it doesn't open up any new interpretative space within the films. Just because the spin-off novels have a different take on the morality of the Jedi or the motivation of the Empire, doesn't mean the films themselves support those interpretations any more than they did before.
https://profiles.google.com/Iaculoid at 23:00 on 2011-08-12
Wasn't that also how the Jaina Solo shipping war among the writers went down?

And then Traviss tried to take a third option with a bisexual threesome. Again, went as well as you'd expect, though to be fair, the rampant 'Mandalorians iz so wonderful' culturewank surrounding it didn't help much.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 01:47 on 2011-08-13
I think they can offer insight into the stories the films tell (for instance, Karen Traviss has written a couple of long-winded angry tracts books exploring the morality of the Jedi Order effectively creating and maintaining a slave army of clones to fight the Separatists for them. Conclusion: it's a bit of an iffy move).

But I agree with you that it doesn't open up any new interpretative space within the films. Just because the spin-off novels have a different take on the morality of the Jedi or the motivation of the Empire, doesn't mean the films themselves support those interpretations any more than they did before.

The Trek EU has been doing stuff like that for years now, though in that case it's more of an attempt by various writers to knit the disparate elements and inconsistencies of the franchise into a vaguely cohesive whole, or just to perform salvage operations on badly-handled elements (e.g. Peter David's efforts to make Capt. Harriman something approaching a decent captain).

Robinson, would I be right in assuming that the whole Yuzaan Vong arc was the Star Wars version of Star Trek: Destiny? If so, then...well, I feel for you, man.
valse de la lune at 12:58 on 2011-08-13
Arthur: I must admit, I've always thought of SW as the drooly little poodle that's trying so hard to emulate bigger dogs by yipping really loudly.

I've also just read an SW fan post today where the fan defends the core of Star Wars' profound message. What profound message is this, you ask? "Evil is bad and evil." And, uh, traditional two-parents families.

My contempt has no bottom.
Arthur B at 14:09 on 2011-08-13
Well, the message of the prequels is clearly "never trust anyone born of a virgin birth".
https://profiles.google.com/Iaculoid at 18:00 on 2011-08-13
Or possibly 'shoot slitty-eyed foreigners on sight before their superior manufacturing capabilities doom you all'.
Given the casting, the OT message must be "The British Empire was bad, and had Nazi uniforms (Nazis: also bad)." Or "listen to the voices in your head; they will help you blow stuff up." Also, "if you are an orphan, don't bother to ask about your mom, because your dad is way more important." Harry Potter tried to follow this advice even though his mother was actually the reason he lived, not his father, which he knew since book 1.

The whole six movies say that only one woman in the entire universe can be doing anything important, sometimes including speaking, at any given time. The Clawdite bounty hunter dies after a single chase scene so Padme can get dressed and keep doing stuff. Padme's scenes with her family got cut due to them being utterly irrelevant. Breha Organa holds baby Leia and never speaks. Aunt Beru tried to bend this rule in A New Hope, which is one reason she had to die. Otherwise how would Leia ever get out of her cell? Mon Mothma probably only got away with it by being a redhead - they seem to have some sort of special protection in the Lucasverse. And she got shuffled offstage pretty quickly anyway. So you're left with background characters like a random pilot, Aurra Sing, the pasty girls in the cantina, random Twi'lek arm candy/dancers/rancor food, and... uh... that woman in Echo Base in ESB who is checking her email or something. And Jocasta Nu, the Jedi librarian who is way too confident in the completeness of their records; that scene was also irrelevant, considering Obi-Wan could have just done a search himself and then gone to tell Yoda they must have misplaced a planet somehow without affecting the plot.
valse de la lune at 20:43 on 2011-08-13
Iaculoid: Or possibly 'shoot slitty-eyed foreigners on sight before their superior manufacturing capabilities doom you all'.

Sunnyskywalker: The whole six movies say that only one woman in the entire universe can be doing anything important, sometimes including speaking, at any given time.


Why do pretty much all the messages turn out to be really terrible? :( And, oh god, all the Twi'lek. I can't decide if they or Bioware's Asari are worse.

I've never felt positive toward the women in Star Wars, though I suppose in tie-in novels they are marginally better off than, say, women in WH40K.
Robinson L at 18:00 on 2011-08-15
Iaculoid: And then Traviss tried to take a third option with a bisexual threesome. Again, went as well as you'd expect

That actually doesn't sound too bad in theory, especially since I consider the first two options to be in competition over who can be the blander character. But yeah, I can definitely see such a scenario going badly, especially with Traviss' Mandalorian culturewank thrown in. (So glad I got out before that point.)

Pyrofennec: Why do pretty much all the messages turn out to be really terrible? :(

Oh, there are some positive messages to be gleaned from the movies, too. The message of the original trilogy is something about redemption and winning out through love rather than violence. The message of the prequel trilogy is that strictly enforcing abstinence only on a hormonally-charged, emotionally unstable young adult is so profoundly stupid it'll cause the collapse of your entire organization. Oh, and while Big Government and Big Business seem to be perennially at odds, at the top levels they're secretly working together to oppress you.

… All right, we can debate whether that last message was in fact positive or not.

Pyrofennec: And, oh god, all the Twi'lek. I can't decide if they or Bioware's Asari are worse.

Not having played Mass Efect, I can't comment on that, but in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, the Zeltrons are much worse than the Twi'leks. (Interestingly enough, their original presentation wasn't nearly so offensive, but the recent revisitation has been pretty nauseating.)

Alasdair: Robinson, would I be right in assuming that the whole Yuzaan Vong arc was the Star Wars version of Star Trek: Destiny?

From what I can make out of the synopsis, basically yes, only with a couple more prominent character deaths, a bit more sexism, and spread out over twenty-one books.

Then there's the nine-book series I mentioned, Legacy of the Force (plus a set-up trilogy). How to explain? Imagine Ben Sisko comes back from communing with the Prophets as an extremely rough justice, ends-justify-the-means character. Then he runs into Sela (the Romulan commander played by Denise Crosby), who convinces him in short order that the Pah Wraiths were right after all, and it's his destiny to serve them by turning the entire galaxy into a totalitarian dictatorship. A civil war breaks out in the Federation, and Sisko wastes no time in slaughtering hostages to take out the hostage-taker, torturing and killing prisoners, blowing up retreating enemies, and generally turning the Federation into a police state, while Kasidy Yates and the rest of the DS9 cast sit around saying “Gosh, Ben's been acting ever so faintly off since he got back from communing with the prophets; one of these days I must really get around to making a mental note to one day maybe talking to somebody about just possibly giving him an admonishing slap on the wrist sometime.” Sisko gets more and more extreme, to the point of killing his own allies who tumble to the real plan, eventually including Worf, Seven of Nine, and Beverly Crusher, and in the grand finale has to be killed off by Major Kira. In the meantime, Sisko corrupts Nog to his side (which culminates in Nog killing Martok) and tries to corrupt Jake (which ultimately fails, but not before Jake assassinates a major opposition figure and almost leaves a group of hostages to die whilst on a mission for Sisko). Oh, and Picard saves Sela from getting sucked out of an airlock just so he can personally blow her head off, under the mistaken impression that she killed Beverly.

… Yeah, all-in-all, the grimdark in the Yuuzhan Vong arc didn't bother me nearly so much as the Let's-Recycle-Darth-Vader's-Fall-to-the-Dark-Side arc.
https://profiles.google.com/Iaculoid at 21:55 on 2011-08-15
@Robinson: Yeah, tackling LGBT issues in an expanded-universe setting is an interesting idea in theory, but when the only person interested in doing it insists that of all the galaxy only her Mary Sue race of murderous psychopaths truly ''understands'' homosexuality et cetera, you may just want to back off in order to avoid the inevitable, hilarious fail.
I am so glad I quit the EU after the second New Jedi Order book.

Having different cultures have different values, and the "good" guys not being as tolerant on one particular point as the "bad" guys is interesting in theory, but hard to pull off. Especially in Star Wars.

Also, in my list I forgot Shmi, Mom Who Exists to Be Fridged. Because you can't go to the dark side if your mom is still around to say how disappointed she is in you, and of course dead moms are great motivators for either true villainy or heroism.

Robinson L at 18:15 on 2011-08-16
@Iaculoid: It's true, when Traviss gets into discourse, my reaction is generally Get Off My Side already. (Though in this case, I wouldn't want to refer to it as my side, as that sounds too much like straight appropriation.)

@Sunny Skywalker: I actually enjoyed New Jedi Order up through the Edge of Victory duology (Anakin and Tahiri are adorable) and even certain parts thereafter. But yeah, it only goes downhill from there.

Having different cultures have different values, and the "good" guys not being as tolerant on one particular point as the "bad" guys is interesting in theory, but hard to pull off. Especially in Star Wars.

Oh, Traviss is too infatuated with Mandalorians to treat them as bad guys (in quotes or otherwise). As far as she's concerned, they're Proud Warrior Race Guys, and often more enlightened than the Old Republic (as seen in her Republic Commando series) or the Galactic Alliance of "Legacy of the Force" (admittedly, part of the point of the latter series is that the Alliance is slipping into despotism because the authors felt they hadn't ripped off the prequels enough already).

Good point about Shmi, there. Too, too true.
I'm glad at least some of the books were okay. I was too irritated by no one noticing that Jacen had completely stopped telling corny jokes and became holier-than-thou during the - what, few months? - between Young Jedi Knights and NJO, and only made occasional vague comments about how he seems to have gotten a new philosophy lately. (Among other issues.) If that happened to anyone I know, everyone would be joking about pod people and then discussing how they actually were a bit concerned at such a sudden and drastic change, even for a teenager. And you'd think that SW characters would be especially sensitive to personality changes as a potential really bad sign. At least the equally bad Courtship of Princess Leia* was so cheesy it was funny (singing Threepio! how is that not an animated video somewhere yet?). But it sounds like I'm not missing much with all the Mando stuff.


*"Gosh, what could possibly go wrong with leaving everyone I know to marry a guy I don't know from a heavily armed isolationist government who admits he fell in love with my appearance without ever talking to me? Especially if I also think this will encourage the Empire try a lot harder than usual to assassinate me, and oops, looks like one of Prince Charming's fellow countrymen just tried to kill me too, and I know his brother and former fiancee also ended up dead? Sounds like a perfect alliance! Even though nobles from different nations marrying has almost never in the history of the universe actually created a lasting alliance, so probably I'd just be marrying him for a one-time payment to the New Republic!" This is the same Leia who thought Lando was up to something because he seemed a little too friendly, and has supposedly spent several years honing her political skills.
Melissa G. at 20:10 on 2011-08-16
I loved Young Jedi Knights so, so much. I think that's why I had such a hard time with New Jedi Order (I've only read the first two or so). I just wanted to go back to seeing the kids having fun adventures and being awesome. Not super angst-ville. :-(
Robinson L at 20:45 on 2011-08-16
I would just like to point out that I was not the one to bring the Star Wars Expanded Universe into this discussion. When somebody notices just how much we've managed to derail the topic, I want it on record that it was in no way my fault.

I just wanted to go back to seeing the kids having fun adventures and being awesome. Not super angst-ville. :-(

Me too, although I'll admit I found the fun adventures from Young Jedi Knights less exciting than those in the adult books, including New Jedi Order. The antagonists never seemed to pose a serious threat.

But yeah, get lost super angst-ville, we don't serve your kind. (And it only got worse from there.)

There were actually a lot of changes in personality between the New Republic era and New Jedi Order - Jacen's was just the most noticeable, and I did rather grow to like him in the end. Then hilariously (read: infuriatingly) they completely changed his personality again between New Jedi Order and Dark Nest, and landed us with a murderous, self-deluded arrogant prick for the next twelve books.

To sum up then for Sunny Skywalker: No, you're really not missing much.
Melissa G. at 22:43 on 2011-08-16
Continuing to derail for a moment (apologies).

The antagonists never seemed to pose a serious threat.


Yeah, I guess that didn't really bother me because then I wasn't sitting there going, "Why are you letting a bunch of kids handle this, you irresponsible morons!?" It kind of worked for me since they were just kids. And there were real consequences for things, i.e. Tenel Ka's arm getting chopped off. But I do see what you mean.
Right, the original topic... um, I would venture to say that the EU does not leave interpretive space for us to say that many of these books are in fact the novelizations of trashy holovids from within the Lucasverse (neatly explaining all the personality changes - it's different authors in-'verse too) and not "documentary" accounts of what "really" happened. And I also don't see any interpretive room to, say, write off a few books as some sort of hallucination one of the characters has during whichever torture session/Force vision of a possible future/whatever you want to choose as a branching off point. Yes?
Robinson L at 05:00 on 2011-09-15
I found this quote from China China Miéville in valse de la lune's recent Playpen post quite apt:

And I think arguments about “what the writer really means” or thinks are very point-missing, because this stuff isn't reducible to “intent.”
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