Friday, May 8, 2009

What we talk about when we talk about authorial intent

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about writing--its purpose, its impact, its permanence/impermanence (the last quality especially troubling given the ephemeral nature of blogging). I'm in the middle of a fantastic novel by Chris Bachelder, a contemporary writer whose work I'm just nuts about (his 2002 Bear V. Shark is painfully funny and prescient). Though perhaps I should reserve comment until I've read it all (again, the perils of the internet! ah! I have a thought! I can write and publish it instantly!), but given the structure of his narrative (really more of a pop-cultural-critique than a traditional plot), I feel I can hijack his work for my purposes here. The novel in question, U.S.!, is set in a world where the Socialist muckraker and prolific novelist (and fan of exclamation points!) Upton Sinclair is constantly resurrected and inevitably assassinated by folks afeared of his politics (would that Bachelder had written this in the post-Joe-the-Plumber era! The result of reading it now, of course, is that I picture all of Sinclair's assassins to be bald-headed and brain-deprived). This isn't a zombie novel; it's a trenchant critique of the resilience of ideas both unpopular and popular, the tension between adherents on either side of a debate, the meaning of politics in an increasing apolitical age. It's also a comment on the purpose of writing (and bear with me, because this is where it all relates, I promise). Reanimated Sinclair, in Bachelder's hands, continues to write treacly and formulaic screeds (with hilarious imagined titles like The Devil's Ears! -- about genetically modified corn, natch) but his novels fail to incite revolution. In an assessment of Sinclair's Pharmaceutical!, the reviewer comments: "Sinclair has never understood that art and polemic do not mix, that great and lasting art has no authorial agenda." And that struck me as completely true. Which off course made me think of my little writing project here. (Narcissism, it seems, is not suppressed by BRCA. It's amazing how completely unrelated things can now be linked linearly back to my breasts. My world is like a big game of six degrees of Steph's boobs.)

Why write? Well, on a practical level, I want to document. I want to help others. I want to inform. I want to promote awareness. I want to effect change. But on a more selfish level, I want to be remembered. I keep coming back to a line from the late genius David Foster Wallace's commencement speech at Kenyon College in May 2005 (now available, in the inevitable onslaught of postmortem cash grabbing following his September 2008 suicide, which left me wracked with grief for a week, in hardback). He said, "Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of." We are hard-wired (his line, hope you don't mind, DFW) to see the external world as a film projected on our personal screen; we experience life by processing how all that out there affects me in here. He continues, "Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth." I digress here as a bit of an absolution: DFW has cleared me of the charges of being so full of myself.

And really, who could be more full of themselves than writers? Especially writers who write about themselves? (I hesitate to include myself here, only because to call myself a writer is a little bit like calling a Tiger Woods fan a golfer. I'm a spectator, a wannabe, an aspirant.) I've attempted to write fiction before; I even got a graduate degree in it. But I'm not comfortable writing fiction. Perhaps it's the trained journalist in me, but I can't write about anything I don't feel reasonably well-acquainted with. Liberating though it may occasionally be, fiction involves making shit up. And that makes me squirm a little. I'd really prefer to do a little research, experience what it's like, before I write, say, a first-person narrative from the perspective of a seven-year-old boy. But oops. The laws of physics prevent that from being possible. I've never been a seven-year-old boy and never can be. So I can't present my story narrated by him with much confidence. What do I know well, better than anyone else? What it's like to be me. And that, truth be told, is a subject I'm more than comfortable writing about. At my core, I'm a non-fiction writer. But before I was hurled into this pre-cancer world of tests and surgeries and decisions, I was a writer with no subject. Now I've got one. And, conveniently, it's a story that stars my favorite character: me.

It's teeth-grittingly painful to admit, but when I found out about my BRCA status (well, fantasies swirled before I even had been tested) one of my first thoughts was: I'm going to write a book about this. Wait. That's not entirely true. My first thought was I'm going to write a popular book about this. Almost there. Deep breath. My first thought was I'm going to be famous because of this. There. I said it. Feel free to sneer. I would sneer at me. But how else was I to process the news if I couldn't find some possible positive outcome from it? So I imagined myself on Oprah's couch (which is patently absurd, considering I work in the book publishing industry and know how impossible it is to get on Oprah's couch), I imagine my book cover, I imagine the headlines ("Tragedy befalls moderately talented, reasonably well-liked not-so-young-anymore woman with formerly great tits. She fought back with this book."). And so I started writing this.

BRCA gave me a subject, BRCA is my muse. But there is such a heavy, pastel-pink cloud that hangs over cancer memoirs. Even the term makes me shudder a little (although mine would more appropriately be called a "pre-cancer memoir). It evokes charity-walks, ribbons, Oprah. And I'm not that kind of gal. I hate pink. I'm not about bite-sized self-help strategies parceled out by a television billionaire. I'm much too cynical to buy in to any of that. Yet with this blog, I'm trying to carve out my own corner in the crowded cancer-memoir market; I've decorated it with tones more eggplant than pink, sprinkled it with profanities rather than aphorisms, encouraged laughter rather than tears. But can it work? I'm not sure yet. This blog, like my health and my body, is very much a construction project; blueprints might scrapped, plans may change. I know I have a challenge ahead of me. Can I, as Bachelder says, create art despite its very obvious agenda? (That agenda being to promote awareness of genetic testing and mutations -- not, though the line may be perilously blurry, to talk only about the world as a film in which I am the star.) It remains to be seen. But at least I can declare my intention to try. Even if I fail.javascript:void(0)

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