Monday, February 23, 2009

Musing: On the Responsibilities of the Author

I'm almost finished reading Finding Beauty in a Broken World by Terry Tempest Williams, and I thought I'd throw out a topic that has come up for me while reading it:

How much responsibility does the author have for making sure her work is understood and has meaning?

In Finding Beauty, Williams uses a very...journalistic writing style - not in the news-writing sense, but as if she's writing in her diary. The entire book is make up of short snippets that could very well have been transposed directly from her journal. They are descriptions of she's seeing in front of her, momentary impressions, and random thoughts. Open the book to any given page and the writing feels scattered and disjointed, but read it from beginning to end and you see the progression of thoughts.

My problem with this approach is that I'm not always sure what I'm supposed to be getting out of the writing. I'm not sure what Williams intends for me to understand or what her point really is. It's as if she's just laying out her experiences and then stepping back and telling us, "There! Make of that what you will!"

I felt this especially in the middle of the book when Williams really is just transcribing her field notes from the two weeks she spent observing prairie dogs. I understood that by following her exact notes, we were also making a journey as readers where the prairie dogs are transformed from wild creatures into individuals with stories and characters. 

But then I wondered if I really was getting it.  I wondered what I was supposed to do with this information once I had it. Is Williams asking me to take up the cause for prairie dogs? Is this a metaphor for how we should be acting when faced with other cultures and communities that we don't understand? Am I supposed to simply love the inherent beauty of the prairie dog and move on? I don't know. I don't feel like Williams really makes it clear why she's talking about prairie dogs at all, much less what lesson we should be taking away from it.

On the one hand, I like this hands-off approach. It gives the reader the bare facts of a matter and allows them to find their own meaning. It makes the reader work instead of just handing them the answer. I like the indirect approach, and I like looking for meaning within myself.

But on the other hand, I're the writer. It's your job to make me understand what you're trying to say. That's why I'm reading your book in the first place instead of just having a conversation with myself. If I, as a reader, get confused or lost or bored, that's the author's fault for not giving me enough to go on. 

With writing like this, I sometimes wonder if it's the author who is being lazy. If the author doesn't actually know what his or her own writing means, so they leave it "open to interpretation" in hopes that the reader will extrapolate the meaning.

The other problem that I have is the feeling of assumption, that the author is assuming that I'm on the same page as them so they don't need to explain things. I've felt this a lot in Finding Beauty. Throughout the book, Williams presents particular images - a prairie dog saluting the sun or fragments of bone on the floor of a church - as representative of meaning, but without explaining what it is. I think she feels these images have universal meaning, and assumes that we understand what what that is. But...these aren't necessarily universal images. These images can have a lot of different meanings and then more nuances within those meanings. 

One of the big reasons why we read books is to learn how the author has interpreted those images and to understand someone else's perspective. We read books because we think the author has something new to teach us. Without a context or a structure in which to understand them, I tend to feel that the images actually lose meaning. A prairie dog saluting the sun is just a prairie dog standing on its hind legs in the dust and the bones are simply the remainders of a tragic event.

I'm torn. As I always am when I read books like this. I really like Terry Tempest Williams and I want to understand her writing. I also want to give her the benefit of the doubt and so I question my own role as the reader. Am I expecting too much? Or am I right in feeling that authors need to work to be sure their work can be understood by their audience?

What do you think?

(Image: Lawrence of Houston via Flickr Creative Commons) 

Monday, February 16, 2009

Shorty Reviews: Origin, Samaritan, Twilight, and Finding Beauty in a Broken World

I never really settled on a good, solid, can't-get-off-the-couch book, but I have been passing the time quite pleasantly by reading several books at once. A chapter here and there, and suddenly I seem to have finished all of them! I thought I'd share my thoughts on those while they're still fresh in my mind...

Origin by Diana Abu-Jabar (fiction)
This is a CSI-type crime drama, complete with a crime-scene analysis, sexual tension between characters, and a crazy serial killer. I couldn't put it down, and by the end, I was reading it in great gulps just to find out the next piece of the puzzle. I had some initial trouble with the whole "Ape Mother" thread of the story - the narrator reveals very early on that she was raised by apes before being rescued and adopted to a family in New York. This felt out of place and a bit forced (on the part of the author) in the context of the story's unfolding mystery, but it made more sense and started feeling more natural as the story progressed. I definitely recommend this one next time you're in the mood for some good edge-of-your-seat action.

Samaritan by
 Richard Price (fiction)

This ended up being a good follow-up to Origin. It's another mystery-type novel, but this one is much more focused on the characters and their personal psychologies. It's less gripping, maybe, but more thoughtful. Ray, the main character, returns to the New Jersey projects where he grows up and winds up volunteering at his old school. As the story opens, he is in the hospital after a brutal attack but refuses to talk about who attacked him. The rest of the novel is spent figuring out how and why this has happened. The story deals with a lot of race-related issues as well as class issues, showing how fiercely knotted the two can be.  At the end, I felt less of a sense of redemption and more a sense of inevitability. Definitely worth a read.

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (fiction, young-adult)

I got such a kick out of this book. Sure it's about vampires and teenage love, and at times it feels like a very thinly-veiled rip off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But's
 just a good, fun read! I felt like the writing was fairly solid - Meyer does a good job of setting the scene and really making the reader hear the hiss of the rain and feel the marble touch of Edward's hand. The plot is pretty obvious, but it engaged me and pulled me along until the end. If you're an adult thinking about reading this book, just remember that this is very much a young adult novel written for a young adult audience - while some of the subject matter might seem childish to us, it's very real and relevant to teenagers.

Finding Beauty in a Broken World by Terry Tempest Williams (non-fiction)

At first, Williams' use of mosaics as metaphor didn't really work for me. Her opening story about learning the art of mosaics while vacationing in Italy felt a bit self-indulgent and not entirely relevant, except in in a vague "ok, I'm with you...I think" kind of way. But give it some time (and another 50 pages) and the disparate pieces start to make some sense. Not unlike (I admit) stepping back from a mosaic to see the whole picture. 

The book takes a vignette approach with short paragraphs of prose strung together like poetry. There are no chapters or sections, but the narrative shifts from learning mosaics in Italy to a discussion about the roll of prairie dogs in North American ecology to the work of rebuilding a Rwandan village in the aftermath of genocide. The three stories feel disjointed and unrelated at the outset, but they share a common thread of violence and beauty living side by side. All in all, an interesting book and worth the read. 

I have about six books waiting for me at the library right now - all my "on-hold" books came at once! I'm looking forward to picking them up tomorrow and sinking into some new stories.