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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Can We Trust Writers' Opinions on Their Own Work?

Today my Sunday School class on Flannery O'Connor welcomed William Sessions, retired Professor Emeritus at Georgia State University, and the author of forthcoming authorized autobiography of O'Connor.
As we were discussing O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" I asked about the character of the Misfit, saying that O'Connor had written she felt he was also capable of receiving Grace.  Sessions cautioned that many authors - notably William Faulkner, Sessions said - are notoriously poor at discussing their work, and we shouldn't take an author's opinions or her intentions work too seriously.
When he said this, my first thought was that this is the kind of thing you say when you're not the author, but Sessions has a point.  Art, if it means what I think it does, implies something greater than craft; art transcends the creator's intentions. Did Twain really know what he had a hold of with Huck Finn?  Did Melville suspect where the Pequod would take him when he set off with Ishmael on the hunt for Moby Dick?  Did Cervantes comprehend Don Quixote?  Moreover, authors, like any human, are likely to embellish in situations where reputation is at stake - naturally, the want to sound smarter, more compassionate, more interesting than they really are.  Last of all, writers - at least fiction writers - are liars by avocation.  Why should we trust them when they speak of their intentions?
The misleading thing may be the word intentions; the intention of any writer worth reading isn't to give a message; it's to tell a story.  Yet each writer is different, with his or her own preoccupations and predelictions.  These - not intentions per se - determine the stories that writers create.  When, say, O'Connor sets to write a story, she is drawn to certain situations and characters rather than others.  Margaret Mitchell and O'Connor might read the same news article about a senseless murder, but only for O'Connor does it become the mental irritant that finally turns into a story.  Even within the material, different aspects will appeal to different writers. Capote's treatment of a homicide will be different than O'Connors and both different from McCarthy's.  Writers, good ones, reflect on their work while it is in process.  "Why is it I wanted to write this?  What is it in this situation that intrigues me?"  If the writer is critically perceptive, as not all writers are, she will detect themes and symbolic patterns within her own work.  Not that writers write to theme, but once a writer discovers a theme, she naturally may choose to elaborate on it; at the least it will guide her in choosing what to excise and what to keep.
Writers have thought more closely and carefully about their own work than any reader ever could. Writers are "in on" the inception of the work as well the shaping and recrafting.  The writer has an insight on her own work that no one else could ever match.  So William Sessions aside, we MUST consider the author's own opinion regarding her work.
But we must not consider only that.

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