Bewildering Stories discusses...
Voices Bodied and Disembodied
with Patric Quinn
Patric Quinn is a veteran contributor and long-time friend of Bewildering Stories. In a congenial conversation, Patric raises a question of interest to authors and readers alike.
[Patric] A lot of finding you around the ‘webb’ today: Zomba and Zombo, and I still have to look at the Challenges... Your biography is extensive and impressive; you’re clearly an erudite guy that catches me in error... on those few occasions that happens!
But is it possible to know too much about a person? Do you think my writing would be better or worse because an editor knew I like T-bone steaks and a lovely dinner companion? Or is it better to have readers listen to a disembodied voice? These are some of the questions that have been scooting around in my mind.
[Don Webb] Thank you for the kind words, Patric; they’re always appreciated! And thanks, too, for the important question. It is a basic one, but it can’t be taken for granted; the answers are not always obvious.
Of course we don’t subscribe to the deterministic fallacy that one of my old professors satirized as: “How can you possibly understand Faust unless you know what Goethe had for breakfast on... some morning or other.”
As you say, Patric, why should anyone care what an author likes for dinner or what Goethe had for breakfast? At best, we can say that stories and poems are identified by who wrote them, and when and where. But that’s bibliographical information. The works are characterized by what they say, how they say it, and what it means.
Our bio pages give our authors a “human face” and an opportunity to be welcomed into the Bewildering community. We assume our authors tell the truth about themselves, even though the character Dogbert, in Scott Adams’ comic strip Dilbert, says, “On the Internet, nobody knows if you’re a dog.” Nonetheless, even if a bio were fictional, it might tell us something indirectly about the author.
My bio page is all true. It’s almost a short story in itself, and it illustrates a Bewildering Stories principle: “There is no story so truly bewildering as reality.” The implication is: “Try to top that one, writers.” Good luck with that: reality embodies all genres at once, including surrealistic farce.
Now, some editorial boards carefully remove authors’ bylines before circulating submissions for review. At BwS, that would be an exercise in futility. As Georges-Louis Buffon said, “Style is the man himself.” With experience, readers soon learn to tell by style alone who wrote what. And if the readers didn’t have authors’ names or pen names, they’d invent names for the sake of convenience.
And yet readers can be a curious lot, especially when they have a mystery on their hands. Possibly the most famous — and certainly the most puzzling — signature in literary history is the last line of the French heroic epic, The Song of Roland. It says, Ci falt la geste que Turoldus declinet. It tells us something, but what? “Here ends the epic that Turoldus writes”? Or “copies”? Or “because Turoldus is getting tired”? All are possible; take your pick. And who was Turoldus, anyway? If we had any answers, we’d have a tidbit of bibliographical information. But we don’t, and the poem stands on its own.
Non-fiction, especially, is different. Authorship can become vitally important. We want to know who an author is for the same reason we want to know who’s talking to us in a conversation. For example, the apostle Paul is a fascinating story all in himself, both as an author and as a personality. Who he was is inextricably connected with what he wrote.
But what did Paul write? John Dominic Crossan reports the scholarly consensus concerning the epistles of Paul: seven are definitely his; three may be his, at least in part; and three were definitely written by another author or authors. As a consequence, readers must decide for themselves, according to their own viewpoints, who the “real” Paul is: a conservative, a moderate liberal, or a radical. The three viewpoints are irreconcilable.
We happen to have quite a bit of information about Paul. But suppose we had less or even none. Logic alone tells us what Paul wrote and what he didn’t. If he had been a conservative or merely a liberal, the Roman authorities would not have seen him as a revolutionary, and we might never have heard of him. But no true radical will contradict himself, and only the “radical Paul” agrees with the message of the Gospels. The epistles that are not Paul’s tell us — no surprise — that some of his contemporaries and successors had cold feet and couldn’t quite get with the program. Case closed.
We need to know who wrote a work of non-fiction, but that doesn’t necessarily hold for fiction or poetry. If we know who wrote it, well and good; if not, we’ll invent a name. Either way, all literary criticism and, indeed, all reading consists in answering one or more of four essential questions: What does the text say? How does it say it? What did it mean in its own time? What might it mean in ours?