The Death of The Author and An Author

I planned to write an obituary on Terry Pratchett here, but if you clicked on this blog post because I mentioned Pratchett on Facebook or Twitter, you’ll find piles of better recollections of the man elsewhere on the Intertubes. I read The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic a couple of years ago and never found a copy of Equal Rites in any library I visited (and yes, one can read the Discworld books in any order, but I’m the kind of reader that doesn’t start in the middle of something, be it books, movies, or wars). I jumped into the funny and intriguing world those novels presented, and encourage you to do the same. But that’s not who Terry Pratchett is to me, like how I envision who Edgar Allen Poe is to me based on his history as opposed to the three or four stories of his I’ve read (note to self: read more. Also, come up with new words for ‘read’ so the word won’t turn mushy in the, err, booklover’s head). I see Terry Pratchett as a fighter of a writer. But that may be because that’s how writers see others like them as opposed to what’s actually true.

Pratchett appeared in the news many years before his death. Not for his writing, as he’s too prolific/reliable/not-groundbreaking-enough to warrant new articles about Discworld. Before his death, the news centered on his dedication to keep writing despite a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s in 2007. And yes, he didn’t want to be a poster boy for dementia, but the world loved him enough to want to put him on a poster and post them on every street corner and on every cat. He doesn’t regret making his illness public, though he says he’d rather talk about his books. To a degree, I agree with him: he chose to be a writer, not a motivational speaker or a politician. I’m a big supporter of Death of the Author, the literary practice of valuing the reader’s interpretation as much as the author’s and disregarding intent. Keep in mind that the idea first appeared in an essay in the 60s, before mass media became massive media. Authors, especially ones like John Green, realize how far personality can carry you, and use social media to promote themselves as well as their books. And when the author is so present and accessible and become someone you know (a word of advice- you only think you know them), distancing the author from the work becomes like distancing a flashlight from a dark room. The flashlight lights up only a portion, but how illuminated that portion seems.

I think this is one of the reasons the Cosby rape allegations took off in 2014 instead of 2005, among other factors. Through social media, Cosby continued to converse with thousands instead of easing out of public life like other has-beens. So the news about Pratchett and Alzheimer’s carries more weight in a twittering world, precisely because his readers love him and imagine a deeper connection with him than they could years ago. Do his recent books change in tone or message due to his condition? I can’t say. But the words “Terry Pratchett” mean more than just a writer of books in 2015. They convey an identity that many of us pigeonhole others in: the suffering artist. Pratchett is more than that- I assume so, since, like most of his readers, I don’t really know him- but even when he could talk directly with us, he couldn’t control our thoughts. And isn’t that the artist’s goal, to induce laughter when he means to, to put her hand on our thoughts and move them like a child with a toy train? That’s the hidden agenda of any creative mind you’ll meet. Bad artists are judged by when you laugh at their painted melodrama or groan for their clown nose, unless that’s what they intended. But, as we established, intent really should matter if it’s not on the page.

I placed one of my favorite anecdotes below:

“June 7th, 1942: Edward Hopper completes his best known painting, the seminal Nighthawks. When asked by a Chicago Tribute reporter about the philosophical meaning behind the diner having no clearly visible exits Hopper responded, “Shit. Fuck. I did it again. Goddamnit. Fuck. Not again. I did it again. Shit.” and slammed his hat on his leg.”

This summarizes in some concise swears why I believe in Death of the Author. There’s a preconception in popular culture that most art, or more to the point “true” art, reflects conscious choices by the author on every detail. At least, that’s what English teachers want you to believe (I feel like a conspiracy nut now- “He murdered His Last Duchess! Wake up, sheeple!”) A hole in a portrait reflects the emptiness and meta-awareness in the subject’s eye and the fact that the painter tripped while carrying a kebab. The dumb blonde is now a man because the studio executive didn’t like the cliché dumb blonde jokes. Sinclair focused on the horrors of the food industry since his publishers didn’t want him to be so anti-corporation. Factors influence the author beyond her or his own mind. In fact, I’d go as far to say that if an author ever took a suggestion for improvement from his peers and edits her work to meet those demands, than it’s no longer solely her work or his voice. Oh, he did all the sweating, and we’ll still put her name on the cover. But it’s not exactly a slice of her brain you buy when you pick it up. And even if it were a slice a brain you scanned when you read the author’s words, which part of the brain is it? I promised my grandparents that I’ll write a pro-life story for them, and believe me, it’ll be quite different from the screenplay I writing now about violent, sexually libertine anarchists that go to a Ferguson-like event to, to put it succinctly, fuck shit up. Is one of these stories a lie? Which one represents the real me? I’ll give you a hint: you won’t be able to tell just by what I write, because I’m a different person then, just like I’m a different person playing Apples to Apples with my family versus playing Cards Against Humanity with my friends. The intent’s still to win the game, but what I do in each instance reflects different parts of me. I plan to reveal nearly every dark secret of mine in the coming years, and even then I’ll guarantee you’ll only know a fraction of my personality based only on this blog. This is the case even if I tell you that these are my darkest secrets laid bare.

Most challengers to Death of the Author circle around one Orson Scott Card, author of Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead. He, too, wrote some fantastic works (seriously, if you’re a gifted teenager, Ender’s Game will become your new favorite book, and Speaker for the Dead is arguably even better), but he’s much less loved than Pratchett due to his outspoken homophobic beliefs. He also donates to homophobic organizations, which is why some people feel uncomfortable giving him money to do so via book sales. Lindsay Ellis, somewhere on the Webosphere, mentioned exactly why this tears his readers up; his two greatest works displayed such tremendous empathy (a skill every author should have) that his un-empathetic positions make him seem a cannibalistic social worker. But that’s exactly why you should read his books- or, rather, his good ones, and don’t bother with Xenocide on that note- if you think he’s talented. Yes, it is possible for the man to build great tension and performs great twists, and what does that have to do with his fear of Neil Patrick Harris? If he wrote a book about his hatred for sailors and male fashion designers, then it’s ok to throw copies at rats so they chew on something else. But people are complex: it’s possible to celebrate the Card that speaks to youth and compels readers while condemning the Card that speaks to rallies about burning and cauterizing the gayness out of society. And if you’re still bothered about where the money goes, borrow his books from the library or a friend instead.

Point is, Pratchett should be remembered as more than an Alzheimer’s victims in his death. He played many roles: a writer, a family man, a campaigner for assisted suicide. But just because you read all his books or he retweets that one retweet of yours, don’t think you understand why exactly he does the things he does. I’ll redouble my search for Equal Rites not to see what it’s like to be Pratchett, but to see what it’s like to be Rincewind or Granny Weatherwax or Death. The author may be dead, but the immortal legacy’s the only important part anyways.

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