Tuesday, January 18, 2011

On Writing and Dermis

By Chester Campbell

My colleague Earl Staggs stirred quite a discussion last week with a piece about great writing and great writers. There seemed to be a rather general consensus that some people have an innate talent for writing while others don't. Any English teacher would probably agree. The question remained, who decides on the subject of greatness?

One answer was Posterity. When I started writing a new series awhile back, I decided to name my protagonist Sidney Lanier Chance. To research points that might be useful in the story, I got out my old textbook, A College Book of American Literature, copyright 1940. The section on Lanier (1842-1881) followed one on Walt Whitman. Here is the closing paragraph about the Southern poet:

"Although Lanier had great ethical earnestness and fervor, he was not a guiding influence in his own time. Fired with the romantic spirit, he came late, in a post-war, unromantic age. He achieved a distinctive manner; but his technique was too refined, his verse somehow lacked vitality, and the more virile Whitman, not Lanier, was to sway and inspire a generation. Yet an unusual interest attaches to him. His letters reveal a pleasing personality and his last years testify to his ambition and fortitude. A recent biographer describes him as fastidious, dreamlike, and high-minded, and makes much of his manliness, his charm, his antagonism to all that he thought despicable, and his courage in the face of poverty."

The Preface to the book contains this statement as part of the authors' explanation of their purpose: "An attempt has been made to present the individual and distinctive literary theories and aims of authors as a basis for interpreting and judging their work."

Which leads me to the conclusion that, at least in the realm of "literature," it's the critics in later generations who decide upon the greatness of writers. In reading some of the comments, it intrigued me how people interpret what writers "really meant," i.e. what they were thinking when they wrote a particular passage or book. I've had the experience of readers reading something into a novel that I had no idea of saying.

It leads me back to the conclusion that each reader comes away with his or her own interpretation of what they read, which, in turn, reflects on how they view the writer. As we learn with agents and editors and publishers, judging a manuscript or a book is a very subjective exercise. It's what causes authors to develop thick skins to survive.


Bill Kirton said...

With reference to readers finding things in your work you didn't know were there, Chester, I'd take that as a compliment. Good writing (I'm avoiding the word 'great' after Earl's last posting) always has layers, room for different emphases. On the other hand, it's very annoying when the person just doesn't get it and grafts a totally superfluous and frankly wrong 'meaning' onto it.

Chester Campbell said...

I'll take the positive side of your comment and feel complimented, Bill. Readers are free to interpret a character's actions in relation to their own personal experience, which may not be the way the writer viewed it.

Jaden Terrell said...

This reminds me of a story Ray Bradbury used to tell of speaking at a university. The students insisted on a particular interpretation of a story he'd written--an interpretation he felt was very wrong. He told them that was not what he had meant at all, at which point they insisted even more vehemently that he had. He couldn't convince them, and when the visit was over, he was so upset that, as he took his evening shower later, tears were streaming down his face.

I know we all perceive what we read through our own filters, but these students seemed to be taking it to an extreme.