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Reflections

The Power of the Text

On craft-consciousness and how values work in texts

By Chelsey Shannon, editor

At their best, texts emanate a mysterious and even thrilling strength, what we might call their aesthetic power. It’s a power that inevitably alludes to the piece’s author. As BoJack Horseman once put it, “You’re hearing my voice in your head because that’s how reading works.” In The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes goes further, arguing that writing exerts an erotic pull on its readers: “…in a way, I desire the author: I need his figure […] as he needs mine.”

So, even if we focus solely on the internal, psychic mechanics of reading, instead of on the sociopolitical backdrop of the literary world, power dynamics are still important. As a reader, through whose lens are you seduced into perceiving? 

That lens might be about knowledge, what the writer wants their reader to know or learn. But it is also about what the writer values. Art is never without a context of philosophical values, which are in turn shaped by artists’ culture and place in society. For instance, does a text espouse compassion? Pragmatism? A sense of irony or of futurity? Is the focus on the individual or the collective? On repair or resignation? To take it right there, is the text, understatedly or otherwise, espousing white supremacy? Transphobia? Misogyny? Colonialism?

This wide range of possibilities demonstrates why W.E.B. Du Bois once described all art as propaganda. In his recent Craft in the Real World, Matthew Salesses points out that “[f]iction is constantly taking moral stances. It’s the author’s responsibility to take responsibility.”

Authors aren’t alone in these responsibilities. I think politically responsible reading—and editing—is about being responsive to and shrewd about the potentially catalytic, and often unconscious, power of texts. This practice needn’t supplant straight-up readerly pleasure, but it can be the sharp-eyed observer running after or alongside it. This observer discerns the values working in a text, then places those values beside the reader’s. That juxtaposition can then be contemplated in the context of whatever emotions the text viscerally evoked (or provoked) for the reader. Then, greater meaning can be made.

Art is an expressive recreation of emotion. So by its nature, art also contains aesthetic values, which are expressed through writers’ craft, or technical, choices. For instance, is the text aspiring to brevity or florid syllabic cascades? Does it like repetition or have an allergy to it? What about allusion? If yay, it is historical, religious, literary? Should a story’s conflict be simmering and then explosive, or oblique and understated throughout? In prose, is it showing over telling, or the reverse? Is artfulness about verisimilitude? Poetic license? Ambiguity? Polemics? The possibilities go on. 

While it might be tempting to say that all this is simply a matter of taste, whatever preferences we develop as individuals are in reality heavily shaped by forces much vaster, older, and more entrenched than ourselves. Ergo, in a given literary scene or culture, some craft choices are popularized while others are deprecated or suppressed. In fact, dominant aesthetic values are encoded via the norms of literary craft—and, because aesthetics are never neutral, they are encoded in tandem with specific philosophical, cultural, moral, and political values. 

These more abstract yet world-shaping values may be harder to discern than a given text’s penchant for symbolism or nonlinear plot. Yet, as Salesses argues, craft is always “in the habit of making and maintaining taboos.” When texts from the privileged few are systemically elevated into the timelessness of canon, the craft choices comprising those privileged texts become canonical in turn. The knowledge and taste of the few become the decree of the whole. In this way, the aesthetics of the most celebrated, commercially successful writing transmit the dominant group’s values. 

Even further, exalted texts and the craft behind them can be engineered to protect the interests of the nation-state from which they arise. For instance, Eric Bennett argues that creative writing MFA programs in the U.S. were first formed as a “democratic” response to the communistic aesthetic values of the Soviet Union. In choosing Iowa City for the country’s flagship MFA, Bennett suggests that program founder Paul Engle was drawn by “its embodiment of literary individualism, its celebration of self-expression, its cornfields”—its hyperreal embodiment, in other words, of White America’s manifestly destined, self-reliant fever dreams. Once instated, Iowa Writers’ Workshop began propounding craft norms that bolstered this worldview, with fluctuating degrees of self-awareness. 

Years later, Matthew Salesses problematizes the conventional understanding of plot as depending on the main character’s full agency and exceptionality. In an inequitable society, the supposed universal quality of individual agency is actually a privilege reserved for the few—but the common standards of fiction writing, blueprinted by Iowa, still don’t reflect this:

To enter the books of my youth was to enter books in which a world was ordered around an individual. The protagonist walks through a door into a kingdom that has been waiting for just his appearance. Fictional protagonists often have vast incomprehensible power, enough to save worlds, because the worlds are theirs.

While writing pedagogy and MFA programs both have changed since the 1960s, many of Iowa’s original craft norms remain current—and more, the program’s graduates are evidently “49 times more likely to win [literary prizes] compared to writers who earned their MFA at any other program since 2000.” It’s hard to believe that this is because Iowa attendees are just 49 times more better than all other writers pursuing writing MFAs, to say nothing of those who cannot afford or deliberately eschew the degree.

The very prevalence of craft norms obscures the fact that those norms, too, contain ideology. They are not objective or neutral, but rather designed to support oppressive hierarchies of identities, bodies, languages, communities, and cultures. Normative ideas of craft are reinforced through: 

  • the biases and fetishes of mainstream publishing
  • the way a book gets talked about (or doesn’t) in reviews, scholarship, talk shows, and book clubs
  • whether or not a book gets adapted into a streamable miniseries or garners awards
  • a book’s sales numbers, or the lack thereof
  • classrooms, from public school English to MFA workshops and community spaces where creative writing is taught

And, of course, through the editing process, which is also in many cases a monetizing process that applies craft norms to transform manuscripts into fruitful, legible products.

Capitalism aside, stories, along with the craft rules that shape and even police them, are powerful. They have the power to fuse ideas of morality, technique, beauty, truth, and worth until they become difficult to extricate. Per Barthes, the uncritical enjoyment of a text leads to a “congealing” of its most prosaic, status-quo-protecting values. If left unexamined, the correlations become calcified and unconscious—basically the opposite of reading (or watching, listening, etc.) in a politically accountable way.

In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison writes that “Writing and reading mean being aware of the writer’s notions of risk and safety, the serene achievement of, or sweaty fight for, meaning and response-ability.” Moreover and again, this awareness needn’t be some staid campaign of respectability or (shudder-sigh) moral correctness. Instead, as Morrison teaches, reading in such a way can be “an attractive, fruitful, and provocative critical project,” a literary praxis rooted in “delight.”

Delight in what? If I were to guess: Agency of imagination, feeling, and thought. Freedom. And creativity: the ability to tunnel toward entirely new meanings and then realities. It is both pleasurable and essential to permit ourselves full ranging access to the meaning behind language. And that’s a desire that reaches far beyond just the Author. 

Justice, both social and literary, needs editors’ red pens on its side. So, how to combat the hegemony of craft and address questions of literary values straight-on when working with authors? One way takes the form of, well, a form: an intake form that allows authors to share with their editors how they would like their writing to land in the world. More on that next time!

Image from Netflix’s BoJack Horseman sourced here.

By chelseykimberly

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