On Writing and God Complexes

There’s a discussion happening at Smart Bitches right now about the writer-as-god, with the corrollary that it is tantamount to sacrilege to question or critique the way a writer decides to take a story, or the arc of particular characters. This is in response to writers like Anne Rice, Laurell K. Hamilton, Robin Hobb, and other authors (most recently, Charlaine Harris, apparently) who have taken flack for a variety of reasons over their authorial choices. Rather than go into the whole thing, you can read it here if you’re really interested:

http://www.smartbitchestrashybooks.com/index.php/weblog/a_book_is_not_a_child/

Since I have an interest in folklore, fairy tale retellings, and fanfic, I find these kinds of conversations very interesting and sometimes a little frustrating. In this case, I responded most strongly to the following quote, pulled out of Harris’ blog entry:

“The writer is determiner of fate for his or her characters. Writing is a lone pastime, not a group endeavor. It doesn’t take a village to write a book. It takes one person, shut up in a room for hours on end.”

I vehemently disagree with this (as do the Smart Bitches, although we disagree for different reasons). A writer is constantly drawing from the public domain of collective stories, imagery, assumptions and archetypes. The writer’s contribution to this is to spin all these ingredients in new, interesting and engaging ways. There are more great writerly quotes about writing taking the familiar and making it unfamiliar (or vice-versa) than I could list here. The imaginary of writing as some noble, solitary endeavor divorced from the world or lived interactions is a very popular one that some writers like to trot out, but I think that “bullshit” can be called through the pairing of these two quotes. They come in sequence on my favorite quote site, and the gender-theorist in me loves the irony of it:

What no wife of a writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he’s staring out of the window. ~Burton Rascoe

The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes. ~Agatha Christie

Who the fuck is Burton Rascoe? (answer: a little known turn-of-the-century literary critic and journalist who is best known for writing about other writers). I’d much rather be like Agatha Christie. Writing is no more a solitary process than living is. If I had to acknowledge everyone who contributed to even my smallest piece of writing, I’d go mad.

But that is only one end of the process. There is also the entire aspect of reception and reading of a text. As much as the process of writing is a conversation between the author and the world she inhabits, the process of reading is a conversation between the reader and the text the author has produced. The idea of claiming that I (or any writer) should have some control over that conversation, that process of interpretation, seems to be laden with hubris.

I feel some proprietary interest in the particular ways I construct a story. I don’t think it is right that other people should economically profit from the products of my labor, but I think it is hypocritical to try to shut down all dissent, alternate readings, or reinterpretations (whether that be in the form of literary critique, audience disappointment, or fan reimaginings). This comes from the way I understand the text. I see it as a conversation between the people who inspired the story, and the people who read the story, with myself not as a God/Creator, but as a mediator, a translator, a worldwalker.

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11 thoughts on “On Writing and God Complexes

  1. only you love, if you ask me someone woke up somebody and alerted them to your plights and they are rapidly trying to shift and pull the strings of Fate in your favor.

    Speaking as your frien dto these fine creatures : Thank You!

  2. I don’t disagree with your point, and I haven’t actually read the blog entry you pulled that quote from. But just based on those words, I’d also say you can take a different reading away from it — not that the writer is supposed to be a Solitary Genius, untouched by other influences, but that novels aren’t written by committee, and a writer is under no obligation to let readers dictate how the story will go. In fact, if movies-by-committee are any basis for comparison, that generally ends badly.

    I thought about this when people were petitioning J. K. Rowling to write more Harry books. My response to that was, c’mon, people. You love the books so much because of the choices she has made in telling the story. Trust her to make the right choice now, too.

    (Writers can make bad choices, of course, that violate the trust of their readers. We all know examples of that.)

    Anyway, I won’t try to delve further into this because I’m sick and that means I’m halfway to brain-dead.

    • Reading the blog entry, I believe that Harris is more in line with your point about readers not dictating how the story will go or characters will act, but she also expresses great surprise at readers getting angry over authorial choices, and she does not acknowledge that there might be an agreement or responsibility between the author and the readership.

      My understanding is that Harris’ post is at least somewhat in response to reader reactions over the direction she has taken her characters recently, and might also be related to the well-known backlash against Laurell K. Hamilton (who I understand is a good friend of Harris). In other words, I think there’s a balance between staying true to the story you’re telling, and listening to long-term readers who are disappointed because they feel like you’ve drunk some kool-aid along the way.

      If Mirei started bopping around in fetish lingerie and screwing every supernatural guy she ran across, I imagine your readers would have a strong negative reaction, and I don’t know how much I would support an argument of “she’s my character. I’m god and I created her. I can do whatever I want with her” from you.

      Okay… massive dejá vu here.

      I won’t try to engage you any more over this, because this could end up being a back and forth that means you’ll never get any rest. Get some rest. I’m going to go play God.

  3. I think the plot is ultimately in the hands of the writer and no one else. BUT that said, I think the author has a responsibility to deliver the best possible product they can, just like any other manufacturor. When authors just begin to churn out conveyor belt crap like Hamilton because it makes money, or get in over their head with overcomplicated plots and too many characters (friends don’t let friends read Robert Jordan), then we as readers are fully within our rights to say “Hay, bitchz, ur doin it rong”.

    But I don’t think readers should or need to have any dictation over what an author chooses to do with his or her characters or plot, other than to say “this is crap and I’m no longer buying it”. Still, it’s their story. We don’t have to like it – for that we have fanfic.

    So I sort of agree and disagree with the sentiment (the question in discussion, not your answer, I mean). I think we have a right to demand quality of books we purchase, but I don’t think we have any right to dictate details. It gets out of hand, like that one fanfic author who “wrote a better book six than Rowling”.

    If I ever get anything published, let alone become famous for it, I think I’d view fanfic and the whole community as flattering, but I would get upset if people started dictating what should happen in the next book. I think obviously that sort of things comes with the territory – when you create a world and characters that become a part of people’s lives, you have a responsibility to that.

    So in my mind, it is like a God/Creator relationship, in its fullest sense – you’ve got a responsibility to maintain what you’ve created, and to “answer prayers” as it were, to the best of your ability. To quote Spidey: “With great power comes great responsibility”.

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