Sunday, March 10, 2002

On the Subject of Authorship

John Biguenet, author of the short-story collection, "The Torturer's Apprentice and the upcoming novel Oyster, from an interview in the Chicago Tribune--

One of our difficulties in fiction--and this extends the argument to the novel as well--is that from the inception of the Western novel in the middle of the 18th Century, one of its tasks was to communicate information. If we read Hemingway, we were reading about places we didn't know, and this was actually a very efficient means of learning about bullfights or about the experience of the first World War. But by 1960, that function had been usurped by various media. Radio began to do it. Large-scale, mass, non-fiction magazines went forth with that as well. And certainly with the introduction of television, there were much more immediate ways to communicate information to large audiences. I don't think fiction has figured out yet how to craft a narrative whose primary purpose is not communication of information.

We tend to vest authority in the non-fiction writer because of the expertise and research that he or she has brought to the project. In the case of earlier novelists, like Mark Twain for example, we all know how he acquired his expertise in the lore of the river, the piloting of steamships. So when we turn to a great novel of the river like ["The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"], we're all aware of his authority to speak about the information that's conveyed in that novel.

But no fiction writers today, with the exception of best-selling writers like John Grisham and the law, or Tom Clancy and military technology, have an acknowledged authority in the information they convey.

In that sense most fiction writers today write without any authority that their audience is willing to acknowledge. I think we see the first glimpse of that with the rise of minimalist fiction in the '80s and late '70s, when the writer basically says the only authority I have is over the self, and so all I can do is create--whether it's a first-person or a third-person--narratives about my own experience, because there my authority can't be questioned. But the effect of that is to admit I have no authority to speak about the world, and that means there are many subjects that have gone unexplored in the last 20 or 30 years in our fiction.

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