Thursday, April 2, 2015

Who is the author?

The newest Island magazine is out now, and it features a schmick new old essay from Marshall McLuhan. (See the dashing cover model.)

It also includes an essay from me: 'Who is the author?' I'm discussing the longing some readers have to meet authors. Who exactly are they hoping to meet? And why? Here's the introduction:
‘In my first fifteen or twenty years of authorship, I was almost never asked to give a speech or an interview. The written work was supposed to speak for itself, and to sell itself, sometimes even without the author’s photograph on the back flap.’ – John Updike, “The End of Authorship” 
A publishing contract is now more than an invitation to write. It is also a request for performance. The author becomes, as John Updike puts it in “The End of Authorship”, a ‘walking, talking advertisement for the book’. The very year the American novelist gave this speech in Washington, a publisher told me in passing: ‘Of course, we’ll fly you to the festivals, get you reading at shops and libraries.’ Of course. One does not simply have talent, which Flannery O’Connor insisted was vital for a literary vocation. Now one is a talent: an artful player, with all the ambiguity of each word. 
My point is neither that there is anything necessarily vicious or vulgar about performance, nor that we have lost a literary golden age: from enlightened literacy to primitive orality. The Romans regularly held public performances, in which poets tested their verse in a public laboratory. (Or lavatory. ‘You read to me as I shit,’ complained first-century poet Martial in his Epigrams.) Pliny the Younger lamented that his listeners did not obey audience etiquette: ‘two or three clever persons…listened to it like deaf mutes.’ Greek philosophy itself began with public performance; with the need to grab interest along with intellect. Put simply, we are not the first era to ask writers to tap-dance, and this request does not automatically corrupt literature. 
Instead, Updike’s quip makes ubiquitous performance look rightly contingent, and so puzzling. The publishers’ motives are straightforward: selling stuff. But when readers book tickets for their ‘soirĂ©e with author’, what are they paying for?
Island is available in good bookshops across Australia. You can also subscribe, and have it delivered to your door. 

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