The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author… or so says Roland Bathes in his essay Death of the Author. Are we talking about literally killing authors? No, this is figurative (like most uses of literally). Can Death of the Author include killing the author? Sure, but get a good lawyer first.
Let’s let Lindsay Ellis (and John Green) explain:
My take on Death of the Author is somewhat complicated. I think there is relevant information that the author has that doesn’t make it into the story (think Elvish languages from Tolkien*), but I also think that quite often if it isn’t in the story it doesn’t really exist. I think that stories are really up to the readers to interpret, as viewpoints and interpretations will change over time**, but that doesn’t mean readers always interpret correctly.
This is a hedged way of saying that Death of the Author is probably too simple a way of thinking about how stories should be interpreted. At least, that’s my interpretation of it.
*Let’s not get into how “relevant” I think those languages are, or a lot of that world-building from authors in general is.
**You may remember book reviews here where I’ve discussed how older books haven’t aged well due to changing societal standards. Sexism and racism are obvious changes that have happened in the last 50 years which make formerly acceptable, even progressive, moments in a story seem backward and unacceptable now.
Another thing that can occur is changes to society changes interpretations. E.g. The Baby It’s Cold Outside controversy can be summed up as an old song made references to things that we are no longer familiar with, so our interpretation changes. This makes Death of the Author a truly bad thing for any artwork that is “consumed” outside of the social and temporal setting it was made within.
It feels like only yesterday, but it’s actually just over a week since I finished my Fellowship at the KSP Writers’ Centre. What’s a Fellowship? I hear you ask. Actually, I didn’t hear you, but I do hear voices in my head – no, I have an adequate sufficiency of matches, so be quiet. Anyway, I applied for a writing retreat to focus on (finishing….) my novel Evil Corp. Twelve-and-a-half days to do nothing but writing in a purpose built hut.
The writing huts are modeled after Katharine Susannah Pritchard’s own writing retreat and are very much focussed on having a room to write in. Your desk faces out onto the garden – I had a view of a gum tree with a beehive in its trunk – you have amenities for snacks and drinks, a chair for quiet contemplation, and a bed for… well, you know what beds can be used for.
The hut was quiet and felt ideally suited to writing. Or painting. Or reading. Or slowly going mad and deciding to live like a hermit. All good options.
The best feature was definitely the lack of adjoining accommodation for young children, who slowly steal your hopes and dreams as they consume more of your life than you’d ever imagine, such that you wake up at 40 wondering why you haven’t published a novel yet.
With the welcome letter in hand, my computer set up, I was ready to right write!
Getting my author on
For my stay at KSP I had set a few hard and soft goals. Hard goals were things like: relax and enjoy being able to pursue my hobby uninterrupted for a fortnight; not wake up at 5am because my kids weren’t going to be there; refrain from buying a beret and neck-scarf; write more than 1,000 words per day. Soft goals were things like: wake up before noon; eat properly; get some exercise; try not to feel guilty about leaving my wife alone with our kids; write 20,000 words during my stay. Try to guess which goals I achieved.
I didn’t want to place too much pressure on myself to, say, “finish my novel” or “write 5,000 words a day”, because that would have sucked the fun out of the Fellowship. Having previously won NaNoWriMo, I knew I could write 2,000 words a day for a sustained period, but I was surprised at how having more time to write didn’t necessarily increase output. I’m going to claim that it was higher quality than NaNoWriMo writing though. A low bar I’m willing to jump over. But I did manage to write 20,000 words, do some plotting, create a few characters, outline several chapters for the future, review a couple of books, and come up with two plots for other projects, so it felt productive.
On the first weekend of my Fellowship the KSP Writers’ Centre held their open day. It was a fun event and well attended despite the threats of rain. As the above photo shows, I was asked to do a reading for the event on behalf of one of my writing groups. I read Werespoon by my fellow Fantasy Sci-Fi Horror group author Anne Forbes. Gillian Clarke read on behalf of my other author group, the Thursday Night group.
Another thing that made me feel authorly was mingling with other authors.
Surrounded by other authors
Writing is generally regarded as a lonely occupation. Well, unless you take your laptop to a coffee shop so you can tell anyone who has the misfortune of coming too close that you’re an author and that sitting in a coffee shop telling people about your WIP counts as writing. The KSP cabins were decidedly setup for writing. On your own. Uninterrupted. I brought a guitar. But I still managed to hang out with other authors.
Kaaron Warren and Rachael Mead were also at KSP doing a Residency and Fellowship respectively. Kaaron has been publishing stories since before I’d figured out Coco-Pops didn’t need extra sugar. She was shortlisted for an Australian Shadow Award while she was in residence, and just last week released Tide Of Stone. One evening we were discussing awards (she is a judge for the World Fantasy Awards this year) and she casually mentioned being beaten by luminaries Stephen King and KJ Parker… I’m not sure that counts as losing.
Rachael has a PhD in creative writing and, like Kaaron, an impressive list of awards to her name. She has published multiple poetry collections, including one that came out earlier this year, and regularly contributes arts reviews to magazines. She also writes short stories and was working on what appears to have become a collection themed around paramedics during her time at KSP.
Which made me the bumbling rookie trying not to sound like an amateur around the two pros.
It was invaluable to chat with them over dinner, or at drink-o-clock, or at procrastination time. For example, Rachael helped me with a chapter I was headed in the wrong direction with. But it was also good just to be able to have a chat and socialise, including catching up with an old friend who is a mutual friend of Kaaron’s. If that wasn’t enough wordsmiths to hang out with, we also had a lovely dinner out with some other KSP Fellows. See the blurry photo below that proves kids aren’t necessarily good with technology.
It was great to have the opportunity to feel like a writer and make some progress on (one of) my works in progress. I met some lovely people, got some writing done, and didn’t get woken up by a toddler wanting to find the teddy that is lying right next to them in bed even once. I very much appreciate the board and staff at the KSP Writers’ Centre for awarding me the Fellowship.
This week everyone was so pleased to have another chance to stick the boot into Britney Spears after the release of a recording of her singing rather terribly, allowing us to compare it to the auto-tuned album version. Britney is one of the celebrities people love to hate (South Park parodied this beautifully), and this “proof” that she is undeserving of her success is just the ammunition needed.
Now I’m not exactly the sort of person that would normally try to defend a pop star, because that would require me to listen to some of said pop star’s music, which would count as self-induced torture. But some of the comments that have been made are so intellectually lazy that I’ve felt the need to say something.
The common theme of the comments is that Britney lacks any actual singing talent, that she got where she is by being pretty or that she was manufactured as a pop star, and is undeserving of her success. Which is all utter crap. Spears has been in the entertainment industry since she was referred to a New York talent agent at age 8. Then she got her break after beating out hundreds of other hopefuls to become a Mouseketeer (along with Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, and Ryan Gosling). Spears’ move into the recording industry again required impressing people with her talent, and was noted for her vocal styling and ability.
The producer who recorded Britney’s crappy singing has already addressed the singing and auto-tune issue. I’m not a fan of auto-tune, but I understand its use. While the warming up suggestion could be true, I’d bet money that Spears hasn’t worked on her singing in a decade, thus between not being a teenager anymore, not singing regularly (dancing and singing is not something you can do easily night after night, so miming makes sense), and having had kids, her voice is probably nothing like it was. So it is perfectly understandable that Spears sounded terrible and needs auto-tuning, but that doesn’t mean she has never been able to sing, and as I’ve already pointed out that is a ridiculous claim/insult (see this analysis of her vocals for more).
Essentially, you don’t rise to the top of the heap without some modicum of talent, because there are lots of other hopefuls wanting that same shot at stardom. As for whether Spears’ resulting success is deserved is really subjective, depending upon how much you actually like the music she sings, and how you feel about the “hit factory” style of music creation.
This really shows just how lazy people are with their attacks on successful people. It is very satisfying to pretend that someone’s success is undeserved, that they were just lucky, or pretty, or shagged the right people, or whatever other excuse. Nothing makes you feel more superior than knowing you could have been just as successful, if only you’d been willing to shag that agent, or if you had bigger boobs. Meanwhile those we deem to be deserving artists, suffer in obscurity. But success takes more than being pretty, or lucky; it takes talent, perseverance, motivation, hard work, perseverance, and lots of hard work. For every successful artist (or any other field for that matter) there are hundreds of wannabes that fell at the first, second, third, fourth, or twentieth hurdle. Maybe they didn’t want to put in the vocal practice, maybe they didn’t make the right connections because they pissed people off, maybe they swapped the dream for a day job, maybe they never took their shot (watch Henry Rollins discuss taking his shot), or maybe the artist is too niche for whatever reason.
We all have that favourite band, singer, author, actor, painter, etc, that we feel is under-appreciated in their field. It is easy to wish that they had the success of the artists we see as unworthy. I doubt I have an artist in my music collection that has been as successful as Britney Spears, and I’d argue that most of them have more talent and write better songs. But the very reason I don’t enjoy Spears’ music is also the reason I love the music I do, which means that my favourite artists aren’t going to be as popular.
Which brings me to the argument I’ve raised before about worthiness (here on literature, here on genre vs literature, and here on good vs popular). It is perfectly okay for you to like what you like, there is no “guilty pleasure”. We should also stop pretending that our subjective taste is better than someone else’s. And as this latest furore about Britney shows, we should stop pretending that successful artists got where they are without talent, or hard work, or that their work is somehow inferior to something we prefer.
I’ve lifted weights for a couple of decades now. The challenge of lifting heavy stuff is cool and the added side effects of being stronger, fitter, healthier and sexier are awesome.
After being around gyms and fellow fitness junkies this long you start to realise that articles on how to get in shape are as numerous as new programs claiming to be the best program ever. There is nothing wrong with different programs with different ideals, they allow you to have some variety, or at least someone to laugh at. The biggest belly laughs come from the articles that are written by people who clearly don’t lift. They make statements that are naïve or ridiculous, they don’t understand what fit or strong are, and they don’t really remember past the last hot fitness fad. One article that caught my eye recently was this one on the “new” and “better than Crossfit” program that is all the rage. By all the rage, I’m sure it will be after enough of these promotional articles are paid for written.
The first thing that struck me about this exercise article written by a non-exerciser was just how many times this particular wheel has been reinvented. In the few decades I’ve been going to gyms I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t a circuit class on offer, well, except for the powerlifting gyms whose idea of cardio is walking from the car to the gym. I don’t know what is so revolutionary about another circuit class, which is essentially what this new program is. Circuit classes just have you move from one exercise to the next at timed intervals with little rest in between, so variations on this are not new, so they can’t be revolutionary. But you have to love a good celebrity endorsement!
Okay, I’ll admit that the article is a promotional piece on a new exercise program, so I shouldn’t hate on it too much. Instead I’ll get to the statements that I wish would disappear from fitness articles, preferably by having authors who know something about exercise write the articles.
Derp 1:“This isn’t about lifting 90kg weights…..” You mean, a warm-up?
Many fitness articles, especially those with a female audience in mind, pick an arbitrary number and decide that this weight is heavy. In this article it is 90kg, which is not actually that heavy depending on which exercise that weight is being used with. This just shows how little lifting experience the author has, or how lame they are at it.
Derp 2:“New scientific research…..HIIT…..” 2005 is calling, they want to tell you about this new thing called Facebook.
The article is trying to lend some credibility to the new program by citing science and by pretending this is all brand new. The problem is that HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) has been around as a method since the 1970s and modern science since the 1990s. So unless you are a time displaced quantum physicist, you can’t call this stuff new.
Derp 3:“Holistic, functional fitness….” So doing more than one exercise?
Advertising slogans are always funny. Holistic is all new-age-y and sounds comprehensive-y. Functional fitness is straight out of the Crossfit advertising material, so somebody thinks this term is meaningful. What the statement actually means is doing a bunch of things, but that isn’t as sexy or likely to impress the marketing department.
Derp 4:“We focus on strength, respiratory and flexibility….” By focus we mean unfocussed.
This sort of meaningless nonsense is rife in an industry represented by people who failed high school; you know, athletes. You either focus on one thing, or you aren’t focussing at all. The fact that using the term focus at the same time as holistic and functional fitness just shows how little the author understands exercise or writing a logical article.
Derp 5:“Chiropractors warn about…..” How chiropractic is pretty much a scam?
The fitness industry isn’t just filled with nonsense, it also likes to promote medical nonsense. Many of these fitness articles lend credence to quack medicine or use quack medicine to support their claims. The advantage of using quack claims is that it doesn’t require real evidence, which makes it easy to sell people on the new fitness fad.
Essentially there is nothing amazing or new about how you can get in shape, get stronger, or become sexier. Exercising in a progressive way (i.e. getting better) and eating healthily in amounts that match your energy needs/expenditure is how its done. So be wary of these marketing claims and articles written by non-exercisers.
1) Canned laughs
Either a joke is funny or it isn’t. Having the author or characters pointing out that someone has just told a joke – he laughed in response to the hilarious joke – is like beating the reader over the head with the complete Get Smart box set. (insert laughs here) Laugh tracks ruin everything.
2) Street directions
I have a map book and Google Maps works pretty well, I don’t need them included in my novel.
If it doesn’t fit in chapter one it shouldn’t be there. If chapter one isn’t exciting enough then the book has failed to start at the correct spot.
I will forgive this if it adds to the story, just as long as it is not just a chapter tying up loose ends. I really don’t care about the hero receiving medals from someone very important. The final chapter should be the end of the story, not a post script of lazy story telling.
5) Purple prose
There are few authors that can get away with flowery language and overly descriptive phrases. I wish authors would stop pretending that they are one of those few authors.
6) That wise old guy character
Why don’t authors just start naming this wise old guy Obi-Wan and be done with it. Sure, there is bound to be a need for a teacher, mentor, or knowledgable character in some stories. But so often the character may as well have been a cardboard cutout, just like Obi-Wan in Star Wars episodes I, II and III.
8) Including the details
This is similar to the street directions of #2. The excruciating detail that the author has researched is great….. for the author. The reader just wants a story. Accuracy is nice, but overkill is tedious.
9) Using overly common or overly obscure names for characters
Overly common names just blend into the background for me. Overly obscure names might as well be written as @#$%.
10) Having an author name that is very similar to a big name author
I’m looking at you Dale Brown. It really feels like the author has let the marketing department try to rip readers off with the mistaken identity.
* I actually understand why this one occurs. Often at some stage in editing the types of gun are changed around and ‘Glock’ has become synonymous with ‘gun’. Thus it is quite common for someone to decide that the type of gun originally referenced needs to be changed to a Glock/gun and the details around this aren’t changed to suit.