Friday, December 18, 2009

Major Authors vs Major Texts

For my final project I focused on the religious controversies surrounding Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy and the way in which those issues may fit into a long standing dialogue between radical fundamentalist Christian readers and the genre of fantasy fiction. I drew a lot from Roland Barthes' essay "The Death of the Author" to pose the argument that most of the controversies are the result of the projection of a real or perceived authorial identity, agenda or intent onto the text. The ultimate effect is the disenfranchisement of the reader and the reduction of a complex text to a singular meaning. I mostly focused on Pullman in my paper but I also brought in Tolkien briefly so I think that for a comparison of the authors in this course I can extend some of the concepts of my argument to each.

As far as Tolkien is concerned I focused primarily on how his identity as a Catholic author could cause readers to focus only on themes in the text that are consistent with Catholic ideology. To do so would be to ignore the ways that those issues are dealt with in a subtle and complex way and also to ignore the various other different kinds of ideology that may appear in the text inadvertently. One simple example is the destruction of the ring. While one interpretation could be that Frodo gives into temptation in the end because everyone is flawed and no one person could accomplish the task alone (which may be consistant with Christian or Catholic ideas). However, it is Gollum who ultimately destroys the ring, which could be read as the only way to finally defeat evil is to give into it fully and completely. I also think that Tolkien's elevation to the status of a major author or at least one of the most influential fantasy authors of all time colors the reader's perception of the text. As a reader you go into the text with the notion that it will be just about the greatest thing you've ever read because Tolkien has received so much praise and credit for his work, which may cause you to elevate the positive aspects of the text while ignoring its weaknesses.

For Pullman I obviously discussed the religious controversies surrounding the series and the projection of the atheist author identity on the text. In my research I found that a great number of conservative Christian readers centered their arguments about a supposed "atheist agenda" that Pullman had with the series. This criticism extended to and seemed in many cases to be inspired by the production of the film adaptation of the Golden Compass. I felt that the projection of this agenda essentially reduced the series to propaganda and ignored its positive elements as well as its complexities. In order to prove this I provided examples of liberal Christian reading which found evidence in the text that supports their worldview to some extent. I also provided my own interpretation of the text in which the death of the Authority is a parallel to the death of the Author and the result was the empowering of individuals in the text which represent the readers themselves. In this way I used Pullman's texts to show that there is a complex system of ideologies in every text and though Pullman may have indeed intended to subvert religion with the series, as a reader you could potentially use the text to subvert Pullman (as an author) himself.

Ok....Donaldson. I did not include a discussion of Donaldson in my paper and I can only hope that this is the last time that I have to think or talk about him. After this post I can just try to forget that my experience with his work ever happened. That being said I think that my argument does extend to his work to some degree, at least in the context of how our class read the texts. This is a major authors course so there was already a notion that the texts we read were the works of significant and competent author figures. More importantly though this is a major authors course that focuses on fantasy fiction. We read Tolkien first and used his work to develop a kind of idea of the things that major fantasy authors are supposed to do in their texts. Tolkien set the bar high and as a major fantasy author we expected a lot from Donaldson. As we all know, he didn't deliver. I think that it is also interesting to note that as the Donaldson unit went on we sort of developed our own authorial identity for Donaldson and may have projected that onto our readings of the texts. This is the identity of the incompetent author or the hack. Since it was generally established early on that Donaldson sucked, we may have read the text looking for the more negative aspects and ignoring anything that the text may or may not have been doing that was interesting or valuable.

I didn't really realize the irony of my project until writing this post. For a final paper in a major authors course I wrote about the death of the author and the ways in which the construction of the author concept is harmful. Perhaps it is a mistake to teach a major authors course as it inevitably restricts the abilities of the reader and colors interpretations of the texts. What makes an author a major author? Perhaps its irrelevant. Maybe instead we could require English majors to take a major texts class in which we all strive to become major readers.

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