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) 


Daniel said...

Interesting question, very deep. I wonder how it would translate across cultures. I read somewhere that Japanese audiences like movies with random digressions that aren't explained and don't really relate directly to the plot, just to enjoy that "Huh" feeling.

Also, how do you feel about (for example) experimental novels where it's clear the author means to say something, but it's not always clear what? I think that has the potential to be more frustrating than something that's deliberately non-specific.

Emma C said...

Yes, I often find the experimental novels frustrating, though in a different way. I appreciate that at least they're being intentionally obscure! It's still frustrating, but at least I know the author intends me to be that way.