On Authors and Books

I remember, when I was in “literature” class in my first year of junior high, the teacher said one thing that surprised me: “The writer, and specifically the question, ‘what did the writer mean’, has no place in literature.” The goal of literary analysis, she explained, is to understand what the book means — when the author was done with the book, his ability to affect it ended. It surprised me, as I imagine it surprised all of us back then. But it made sense, when you think about it — the writer expressed his ideas in the book, but the book, as a work, stands apart, and needs to be understood on its own merits.

Then the exceptions started. First, even when we analysed books in the same class, we had to research the writer. Not, of course, that he was relevant — but knowing what kind of world he grew up in would give us further insights to his metaphors. Then, there are sequels, where it’s not completely obvious, but the general agreement is that you’re allowed to use what’s said in a sequel to understand the previous book. We enter a murky world of “what’s canon” when there are many books, some written with the approval but not the scrutiny of the original author. And then, there’s “Dumbledore’s gay”…

…you knew it would come to that, wouldn’t you?…

JKR specifically chose to say this after the series was over. The speculated motivations for that are anywhere from “she didn’t want it to overshadow the series” to “she didn’t want to lose the money from the Christian demographic.” It does not matter why, however, she said it. Now, is it canon?

No? What if she wrote a paragraph on her blog, where Dumbledore contemplates his gayness? What if it was a short story? A prequel? A sequel? At which point does it become “canon” in HP mythology?

What if it wasn’t “Dumbledore’s gay” but something less politically charged, like “Harry and Hermione are actually distant cousins, which is why they got along so well”? Would that be easier to come into canon if it was in a sequel?

A lot of these thoughts came to me reading Sanderson’s commentary on Mistborn (1+2) on his web sites. Many chapters’ comments were “it might not be obvious, but that character was just in such-and-such-place and that’s why he could do this-and-that.” Are these comments completely dismissable in understanding the Mistborn books? Would they become canon if they were in a sequel? A world-guide?

I submit that we stop pretending. An author is inseperable from his work. While sometimes it has allegorical meanings even when explicitly protested (see the “Cheese Man” analysis claiming the Cheese is a metaphore for Buffy), it is nonsensical to stick our fingers in our ears and hum loudly in order to ignore the author trying to explain.

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4 Responses to On Authors and Books

  1. For some reason this makes me think of Ridley Scott trying to ‘declare’ that Deckard was a replicant all along.

  2. Adi Stav says:

    The fact that the division between canon and other statements by the author can have borderline cases does not necessarily mean that the division itself is invalid. Therefore it cannot be used as an argument that any statement by the author is canon of all their writings (which is, I think, what you’re trying to imply here).

    • moshez says:

      Specifically, what I want to imply is “it’s canon if the author says it’s canon”. And maybe to imply that in the absence of an absolute canonicity meter, we understand that canonicity is relative…

  3. Jonathan D. says:

    We all loved Liora, didn’t we…
    And by class cannon, Liora is gay.

    On a more serious note, I wonder if we can use this line of thought to create the following philosophical (argh!) conjectures:

    Math+Science is all true statements that “stand apart” from the author.

    Math is all true statement that “stand apart” from nature.

    I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to define the exact boundaries of “nature” and “author”.

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