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Monday, March 23, 2009


Doing it for the ship

I had an interesting conversation with a friend the other day, herself an aspiring writer, about whether or not a work needs to be read before it was complete. We found ourselves on opposite sides of the debate.

Her view was this: a work of art exists to create an impression in the minds of an audience. Therefore, a work of art that isn't read is like a firework that hasn't been detonated; it hasn't completed its life cycle.

My view was this: a work of art is complete when you write the last word or paint the last stroke. Whether or not it's read has nothing to do with that; it's still a complete work of art even if no one ever sees it.

She made a lot of arguments, but none of them convince me. I've been wondering why I have this opinion.

Part of it seems a question of mathematics: how much audience equals completion? Assuming you sell your work - and that's a big assumption - you have little say over whether anybody buys it. Maybe nobody will. Maybe only a few people will. Maybe lots of people will. Now how many people have to read it? One? Two? A thousand? A million? Is there a point beyond which completeness is reached, or is it a sliding scale - in which case, is a fairly crude bestseller more complete than a subtle and profound succes d'estime that sells far fewer copies? When you get down to specifics, the idea seems unworkable. Even the most obscure work of art is going to be read by one person: the author is always the first reader. It's impossible to write a work of art that no one sees. But to consider a work finished only if it's read by more people, you have to decide on a number, and any number seems arbitrary.

More than that, it's a question of outcome. Put simply, a book isn't a controlled explosion. The author can't influence how the reader reacts to the book. Maybe it'll detonate like a firework in their mind, but maybe they'll cut the firework open, mix the gunpowder into a cake for their least favourite auntie and use the cardboard to prop up an old chair leg - which is to say, the reader's response to the book is something the author can't do anything about. You can write the book as effectively as you're able, but once it's published people will always have their own opinions. Some of them will like it, some will hate it, some will fail to understand what you're on about, and some may completely misinterpret it and decide that you're arguing for a race war or the deification of gerbils. A pyrotechnician can control how a firework will explode, assuming people set light to it correctly: once the taper is lit, the explosion is pre-programmed into the chemistry within the rocket. But reading a book is a far more complex action than lighting a taper, and there's no way of knowing how it will turn out. Was Paul McCartney's work complete when the Manson Family stabbed Sharon Tate?

Furthermore, in the vast majority of cases you'll probably never find out how people reacted. I can tell you the reactions of maybe fifty to a hundred people to my first book, but that's a very tiny fraction of the number of people who've read it. For the others, I just don't know. I probably never will. Which means that there's no point worrying about it. If the readership of those people completes my book, I'll be completely in the dark about whether my book is complete or not; for all I know, thousands of people bought it and never read it. Looking to a book to be completed by its readership is ceding validation to people who care nothing about you, and that's a dangerous business.

I think, from the author's point of view, validation may be what it comes down to. Of course, there's an element of validation for the reader too; being told that you complete a work is very flattering. But 'completing a work' can come uncomfortably close to 'validating a work', and if you depend on other people to validate your work you're in trouble for two reasons: one, you're giving other people too much power over your emotions, and two, you're not actually concentrating on the work - you're not looking for it to validate itself. The first is an issue of self-preservation, but the second is an issue of art. If you consider that a reader validates the work, there's always the chance that you could consider a work complete when it gets a good response, even if you know that you're capable of writing better and some further drafting could have made it more 'complete' artistically. If it's dependent on the reader, why not put in as little effort as you can get away with? I've mentioned before that readers have a tendency to Do The Author's Homework (especially when they're heavily invested in the project because they've spent a lot of emotional energy anticipating it, because all their friends like it, because it presents a view of people that's flattering to them or other reasons that have nothing to do with quality), and an author who believes that readers complete their work can rely on that, the the detriment of their output.

Writing is a self-centred activity. By this I don't mean its selfish, but that it is literally centred on the self. You do it alone; no one can help you in the process unless you have a co-writer, in which case you're centring on two selves. There's always a relationship going on, even in solo writing: the relationship between the artist and the work. Writing advisers often urge you to consider the audience, and they're right insofar as you shouldn't be boring, have the whodunnit revelation depend on clues you haven't bothered to write about or ramble on about stuff that has nothing to do with the plot. But that's just a way of saying 'Make sure your work is interesting.'

I like my audience; the ones who have contacted me about my work have all been very nice people, many of them with lots of interesting things to say. But I don't write for them. I hope they enjoy what I've written, but that's a by-product; that's what happens to the work after it's finished. And I don't consider I'm doing them a disservice by taking this attitude; on the contrary, I think the best I can do for them is to produce the best work I can, and I'm mostly likely to do that when I'm not writing for them.

On the other hand, I don't think I'm exactly writing for myself either. If I want to do something for myself, I take some exercise or have a hot bath or cook something with fresh vegetables. All these things are straightforward to accomplish and produce predictable rewards. Writing is far more complicated.

What comes to my mind is a group of engineers Susan Faludi interviewed in a shipyard that was being shut down despite its good quality of work for her book Stiffed. Despite knowing their jobs were on the way out no matter how well they worked, the men nonetheless finished up with all the patient care and skill they had always shown, benefitting the people who were firing them. When she asked them why, since they might have got some payback by slacking off, she got this reply: 'No, no. Because we don't see it that way ... We were helping the ship.' They loved their work, they took pride in their identity as skilled workers; they didn't work to please their bosses, they worked to created a fine finished ship. That's the artist's attitude. You don't write for the audience, you don't even write for yourself: you write for the book.

To take another line, I'd consider myself an agnostic but the best way I can express the thought is religious: whether or not the book is finished is between you and God. Any audience is always going to be mostly invisible. But the absence of an audience doesn't make the work any the less: Emily Dickinson was still a great poet in her lifetime, even though the vast majority of her poems were locked in a box, and when she sent her friends poems along with bunches of flowers she'd cultivated, 'they valued the posy more than the poetry.' Her works were always beautiful; they just weren't widely called so.

From a writer's point of view, I believe considering your work incomplete until it's read is unwise. It requires wanting something of your audience of strangers that they may never be inclined to give; it also takes your focus off the process and puts it on the effect, something that's always beyond you anyway. Build it well and it'll hold water, but you should never do it for someone else, or even, in the end, for yourself. You do it for the ship.

This comment has been removed by the author.
This seems like a very strange concept to me (to consider your work unfinished until it's read). Was it being accidentally conflated with (I'm going to screw up my vocabulary now, bear with) the communications concept where the communication is looked at as a process, taking place between speaker and listener, not exclusively in the mind of one or the other?

I mean, it's a given (I think) that what your book becomes in someone else's hands/brain/opinion isn't going to be exactly what it was to you, but that's not quite the same as being unfinished (or invalid) because you're the only person who's read it (yet).

(I will always be identifiable by my parentheses abuse...)
Have you read Jorge Luis Borges' short story "The Secret Miracle"? He takes your view on art, very much so. The story focuses on a Jewish playwright who's given up writing his art down, since the only readers he needs are himself and God (with some additional complications thrown in, this being a Borges story).

My view is that the art is recreated every time it's read, seen, smelt, or tasted. The reader (or whatever) necessarily interprets the art threw his/her own experience and knowledge, finding new connections and ideas, creating backstory and afterstory that may never have existed for the author. In other words, the Benighted I read a few months ago is not the one you wrote, nor is it the one I read last year.
I agree with both of you. No, really.

I describe the notion as the Fifth Beatle Theory. In short, the Fifth Beatle is the listener, and a Beatles song without someone to hear it is just meaningless noise.

However, as you point out, the moment a work of art is physically completed, it already has a witness in the form of the creator. (So when Paul McCartney hears a Beatles song, he's being two Beatles at once, if you will.)

My four completed NaNoWriMo efforts provided the raw material for two complete works. One I am in the process of revising for publication. The other is locked away on my computer and I have no plans to show it to anyone until after I'm safely dead. I still enjoy digging it out and reading it now and again, because it was an utterly indulgent wish-fulfilling romp. Anybody who wasn't me would probably find it ridiculous and boring. So I spare them and just keep it to myself. And when I read it, I consider that completed.
You are both wrong and you are both right. A piece of fiction does not exist until it is read. But as soon as you write it, you have read it. It is physically impossible to write without reading, and you never quite know what you have written until you read it.

verification: orprec (A cartel devoted to controlling the price of deformed elves)
A piece of fiction does not exist until it is read.

Nah. A computer could randomly generate a piece of fiction, given sufficient technology. The story would exist sitting in the printer tray before anybody actually picked it up and read it. It might not be a very good piece of fiction, but it would exist.
If the computer can write, it can "read." After all, we speak of "reading in" a file or a piece of data that no human eye has ever seen, and the machine-generated story would have to be "read" by the machine in the process of printing it out. It wouldn't be a very meaningful reading, but it would exist.


I like the ship analogy better, though. After all, there is no Frigate like a Book...

Writing and reading are two different crafts, as much as shipbuilding and sailing. It's not under the shipbuilder's control whether a finely-made sailboat sits in drydock, or putters around the harbor, or travels across the Atlantic. And a skilled sailor is going to get a better performance from the boat in the same way that an educated and perceptive reader is going to get more out of a book.

Or perhaps we should think of the two crafts, reading and writing, as two parts of a greater craft? If the writer's task is to record a piece of human experience (including the truths found in fiction), and the reader's task is to remember it (whether or not they've personally experienced anything equivalent, and yes, I have been reading Alberto Manguel), both are needed to preserve the human experience, to save us from species amnesia, from beginning the world again every morning.

verification word: uncesse. No luck at all?
If the computer can write, it can "read." After all, we speak of "reading in" a file or a piece of data that no human eye has ever seen, and the machine-generated story would have to be "read" by the machine in the process of printing it out. It wouldn't be a very meaningful reading, but it would exist.

Or more meaningfully, any AI sophisticated enough to write fiction at a human level, would presumably be able to read like a human as well. And would probably count as a person by most reasonable standards.
I don't think reading is a craft at all. I mean, it's a skill, insofar as people have to be taught how to decipher the designated shapes on the page, but once basic literacy has been hammered into your infantine wiring it's hard not to read letters when they're placed in front of you. Responding to a work, analysing it or being influenced by it, is something else, but you have to speak or write for that to be any kind of contribution to humanity. It's a separate activity; it becomes essay-writing or debate. And some things I just read, and I don't think that reading puts me in any kind of collaboration with the writer.

Someone recently quoted at me something to the effect that any book is only half-written by the author, but I simply don't buy that. For one thing, while it took me two years to write In Great Waters I seriously doubt it'll take anyone two years to read it, so this 'half' business seems to be apportioning things rather unevenly, but I'm also suspicious of the motivations of whoever came up with the saying. As I understand it, it's a descendent of the twentieth-century branch of literary theory that argues for the death of the author and the indispensability of the critic, which has subsequently filtered down into certain sections of popular culture.

Which is all very well - criticism is a noble profession when practised properly - but I can't help feeling that it's far from being a disinterested argument. The people who argue this line tend to be either professional critics or people for whom amateur criticism is a hobby, which is to say two groups of people who stand to benefit greatly if one elevates the reader to the status of co-creator. I can't help feeling that as critical theories go, this one is the argumentative equivalent of a self-promotion masquerading as a disinterested search for truth, which I find dishonest.

Incidentally, I don't just think this because I'm a writer rather than a critic. It was an argument I heard a lot from literary theory essayists when I was an undergraduate writing far more essays than stories, and it never convinced me then either.
I do not believe that a computer could be capable of writing fiction. It's capable of surrealist poetry (there was a book of poems written by a computer called "The Policeman's Beard is Half-Constructed" that was published back in the 1980s, as I recall) but fiction requires a bit more than stringing words together.

I am familiar with the notion of reader response theory (I took a class in Victorian Children's Literature that was run through that particular filter) and while I wouldn't go as far to say that the reader is the equivalent of the author, the reader is still, to a degree a participant in the work, because it is the reader's mind that translates those words into the sounds and images that play in the mind, and each mental vision is going to be unique to the reader.

("You are the magician" as Tanith Lee wrote, when she signed my copy of Don't Bite the Sun.)

I kind of understand where you're coming from. I'm sure I'd be grumpy if people are telling me what my book means when I'm the one who damn well wrote it. And I agree that when you write, you should write for yourself, first and foremost and let the readers decide afterwards if it works for them. But I also respect that every work of art is completely unique in the mind of every single person who perceives it and I feel that a work of art is not fully a work of art until that particular alchemy happens in the mind.
But I also respect that every work of art is completely unique in the mind of every single person who perceives it and I feel that a work of art is not fully a work of art until that particular alchemy happens in the mind.

Those are two separate issues. Everyone perceives a work of art differently, but that's an act of perception, not creation or completion. We don't create things with our perception; all we create is our own impression of them, and that's not the things themselves. An apple is ripe whether I taste it or not; I don't complete its ripeness by eating it. If I don't taste it then its ripeness isn't present in my experience, but to argue that it's therefore not ripe is to treat my own perceptions as synonymous with reality. And I'm not that big. I don't contain reality; reality contains me.

Again, this isn't arguing for the primacy of the writer because I write. It's more arguing for the location of the reader because I'm a reader too; I read far more books than I write, and being told I complete them feels alien to me. Any sense of participation I feel with the the books I love is simply a participation in my own experience. It doesn't act on the books themselves. They're beyond me.
No, I think reading can be considered a craft, in its own way, beyond the mechanical skill. There's a difference between reading the back of the cereal box over breakfast, because you can't help decoding the letters your eyes encounter, and reading War and Peace with any kind of intention or understanding or benefit.

I was actually intending to disagree with the notion that reading, at least by a reader who is not also the author, is necessary to somehow "complete" a book. Nor would I ever claim any kind of parity between author and reader, or author and literary critic, in terms of the work itself. I wouldn't call it a collaboration either. Again, two separate realms.

Responding to a work, analysing it or being influenced by it, is something else, but you have to speak or write for that to be any kind of contribution to humanity.
Does it matter whether it's any benefit to anyone else, in terms of considering it a valid craft in its own right? ("Craft" meaning suppose, a combination of skill and creativity?) After all, didn't we just agree that a book is "complete" when the author writes the last word, even if no one else ever reads it, or even if the author never reads it again?

You build the boat. I use the boat to go somewhere. Whether that voyage is any "benefit to humanity" or to anyone besides me, or even to me at all, is a third issue.

verification: glodevo. A kind of Russian steppe famous for the brilliance and variety of its wildflowers.
So, by your argument, a work is complete before it is read by anyone besides the author. But a work is not complete before it is finished - that is, before it is possible for it to be read. Am I following correctly?

Or, what would you say to the following thought experiment: a person writes a novel entirely in their mind. They craft paragraph after paragraph, memorizing each one, so that if they were inclined they could speak or write out the whole thing without error. But the novel exists only in their mind. Is the novel complete when it is fully formed in the mind, or only once it is written out?

If the latter, then it seems that the work as a physical artifact that could potentially be experienced by someone other than the author is part of what you mean by completing a work.

It also might help to distinguish between art-as-activity and art-as-communication. Art as an activity produces artifacts that are done when the creator says they are. Art as communication necessarily has at least two parties involved, and the audience does have a role (not an equal role, but a role) in reconstructing the ideas the author intended to convey - not necessarily in the way the author first imagined them, either.

To the extent that I make art, I do so with communicative intent. I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing to create work with the intent of conveying ideas to others, though it may be a bit egotistical of me to assume my ideas are worth trying to convey to others. As such, I would be dissatisfied with creating a work that would then be locked in a vault and never read by anyone else. On the other hand, I wouldn't say that wanting to create art for the sake of creating an artifact satisfying to you, without regard for whether it will be read, is wrong.

verification: wasta. Er, no comment...
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