Rowling, Tolkien, and Foucault: What is it to Hear the Author Speak?
Though it may seem hard to believe, the idea that a story’s artistic responsibility — as well as credit for its creation — rests on an individual author is relatively young.
For millennia worldwide, information has been passed along from storyteller to storyteller, bard to bard, and teacher to learner, by way only of listening and remembering. Before stories were written to be read, any existence of an author as “original creator” (with important exceptions) ordinarily either wasn’t known or wasn’t important to the ones listening; the oral-aural practice of storytelling was the prevailing feature, and the question of origin was left to tradition.
History, folktale, philosophy, and anecdote were heard and repeated, passing through social groups and families for entertainment and education. With the cultural shift toward the more capacious and seemingly permanent written word as the dominant medium, the concept of Literature emerged, and with it, the role of Authorship. Pictography, then scribes and recorded language have of course existed for as long as there have been people telling stories, but the uniquely double-edged sword of authorial identity was only constructed in the past few hundred years.
One of the most fascinating artistic relationships is that of fan interaction with a living author. Authorship by itself is already complicated, and the problem of intellectual property only grows ever more complex with the expansion of all forms of media. In light of the entanglement, how do we reconcile fan-made contributions to literary canons? What if the “author-and-creator” is in touch with these fans, and can speak about the creative process? Arguably the most widespread fan-author interaction of this generation occurs surrounding J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
Within the past few weeks, Rowling herself said in an interview that her character Hermione Granger may have been better-off in a relationship with Harry than with her eventual canonical spouse, Ron Weasley. Rowling herself, and the headline for The Guardian’s article, calls the comment “heresy,” almost implying that there exists a romantic, artistic, and literary “doctrine” of Potter appreciation as something apart from Rowling and her books — something that the original author herself can violate! To turn an overused phrase, the fictional Potter world has evidently come into a life of its own.
Granted, readers’ speculation and controversy over the lives of characters is nothing new. Anecdotally, Charles Dickens was often approached by avid readers of his serials who begged him to spare the lives of their favorite characters, or at least to reveal what his authorial fate had in store for them. Knowing Dickens, though, few of his characters ever led charmed lives, so it’s hard to know why anyone bothered. Readers’ deep investment in fictional worlds is a major enigma driving the creation and study of literature, and the existence of a speaking author makes the problem even more puzzling.
Rowling caused some earlier controversy when a law firm accidentally leaked her name as the writer behind the pen-name Robert Galbraith, “author” of The Cuckoo’s Calling. The novel itself, a crime-fiction, flew under the radar for three months in the Summer of 2013 before Galbraith’s identity was leaked. Rowling called the experience of writing under a pen-name “liberating,” and expressed her disappointment that she could not have remained incognito as Galbraith for longer. Sales of The Cuckoo’s Calling spiked after the revelation, naturally, which evoked frustration in struggling independent authors. Many felt that Rowling had used her security with publishers to unfairly stake out a niche apart from Harry Potter, citing the unremarkable pre-revelation sales as evidence that the book owed its success to Rowling’s name rather than to the quality of her writing.
Rowling desired the “liberating” feeling of pseudonymity (not quite anonymity), but what exactly did she want liberation from? Differing from the famous examples of the Brontë sisters, Mary Anne Evans (George Eliot), and Louisa May Alcott, who published under male pseudonyms in order to have their work taken seriously, Rowling assumed a man’s name for the opposite reason: Rowling wanted new scrutiny, independent of her past success. It seems as though Harry Potter‘s world got away from her, in a sense, while still being too closely tied to her name to allow for independent criticism of her new work.
After a monumental project like Harry Potter, any creative expansion outside its world would be difficult to view without the Potter lens. Here, again, we run up against the problem of authorship; the entire issue of Rowling’s controversy hinges on her identity as sole author, and in readers’ desire for consistency in the work of a productive creator.
“A Nonsensical Tower”
The implication of consistency makes an author’s name powerful. Being able to name a well-known author in conversation activates that author’s whole body of work for discussion: you say, excitedly, “I just bought some Dr. Seuss,” and it means something quite different from, “I just bought some Shakespeare.” Referring to bodies of writing by authors’ names treated like mass-nouns is odd — that’s a device called metonymy, where an associated figure stands for something greater. Not that a person can’t enjoy both Hop On Pop and Julius Caesar (I know I do), but authorial names stand for much more than the combined content of individual texts.
To say you are reading Shakespeare is to invoke sociocultural associations with the incidental things related to Shakespeare: intellectualism, Romance, and the Renaissance, to name the bare minimum. Dr. Seuss is at once associated with whimsicality, children, and social commentary. The practice of metonymy with authorial names and their work nearly argues that there should be some sort of consistency in ideology, content, or style within the literature produced by one person. Rowling’s case seems to indicate that the expectation of consistency is very real, even that it drives multi-genre authors to need more than one name. A genre is, after all, an agreement that artists will fulfill expectations.
Did you know that the existence of the Lord of the Rings trilogy depended upon demand from a fan-base? Allen & Unwin’s publication of The Hobbit in 1937 was met with such enthusiasm from readers that the publishers pressed Tolkien to write a sequel. Tolkien at first was reluctant, but eventually revisited the Baggins family’s storyline in light of larger-scale themes he’d been developing since before The Hobbit in his then-unpublished Silmarillion.
The “sequel” grew, then became a vastly different kind of story than The Hobbit ever was: darker, with higher stakes, and in a more mythological vein than its children’s-story-style predecessor. Against Tolkien’s initial inclination, The Lord of the Rings was too long to be published in one book, and had to be split into three volumes (ironic considering the reversal of circumstances in Peter Jackson’s film trilogy of The Hobbit). Though The Silmarillion, finished by his son, Christopher Tolkien, was published only posthumously, it stood as the foundation for all of J.R.R.’s writing on Middle Earth.
Along with a robust biography that is both humbling and inspiring, Humphrey Carpenter edited a published collection of Tolkien’s letters. These include correspondence with his family and University colleagues, with his publishers, and (arguably the most interesting entries) with fans asking questions. Tolkien went to extreme lengths to explain every last detail of his universe to loyal readers, fleshing out vivid mythical and historical minutiae without hesitation. Fans and friends would write to him in Tengwar (Elvish script), and he would write back. If any author in the history of literature strove for consistency across a body of fiction, it was J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien, though, was motivated by an uncommon creative impulse.
In Beowulf and the Critics, Tolkien wrote:
A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, and in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man’s distant forefathers had obtained their building material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal under the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said: ‘This tower is most interesting.’ But they also said (after pushing it over): ‘What a muddle it is in!’ And even the man’s own descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: ‘He is such an odd fellow! Imagine using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? he had no sense of proportion.’ But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.
According to Tolkien Scholar Michael Drout, Tolkien’s view of Beowulf as a historically complex and deeply cultural text packed with ancient and often “broken” references was a major influence on his creation of Middle Earth. The Lord of the Rings is packed with references to myths, cultural tropes, and stories that characters in Middle Earth would have taken for granted, the way the Beowulf poet and his contemporaries would have had immediate associations with all its allusions.
According to Carpenter’s biography, Tolkien went so far in internal consistency as to chart phases of Middle Earth’s moon and its weather patterns to better know what characters all over the land would be able to see at any given time. Not only was Tolkien driven by reverence for his most beloved Anglo-Saxon poem, but as a devout Catholic he also saw the act of creativity as a spiritual obligation, as an act of honor and gratitude humanity could perform in acknowledgment of its own creation. Little did you know, Tolkien had a strong hand in C. S. Lewis’ conversion to Christianity, and thus the creation of The Chronicles of Narnia.
Who is Speaking?
Some food for thought: What is it to quote an adage or saying, and what weight does it carry in contrast to quoting a nameable author? What if you hear the author speak?
Michel Foucault explored the implications of the question, “What Is an Author?” in his 1969 essay by the same name. Among many “author-function” properties, he ascribes creditable identity as non-essential:
Even within our civilization, the same types of texts have not always required authors; there was a time when those texts which we now call ‘literary’ (stories, folk tales, epics, and tragedies) were accepted, circulated, and valorized without any question about the identity of their author. Their anonymity was ignored because their real or supposed age was a sufficient guarantee of their authenticity. … In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a totally new conception was developed … ‘literary’ discourse was acceptable only if it carried an author’s name. (125-126)
Foucault goes on to call the attribution of “authorial” qualities to the creator of a text merely “projections.” Granted, Foucault’s focus never falls upon living authors, nor upon the idea of personal interaction with an author. Foucault outlines the “author-function” inherent in texts and their meta-texts, as post-structuralists are wont to do, rather than making allowances outside a work itself.
Instead Foucault proposes questions he would rather readers and critics ask instead of questions of authorship and authenticity: “What are the modes of existence of this discourse? Where does it come from; how is it circulated; who controls it? … Who can fulfill these diverse functions of the subject? Behind all these questions we would hear little more than the murmur of indifference.” (138). Are the deep creative impulses we attribute to creators of texts no more than superficial projections, or does a new age of digital media and authorial interaction merit a different view of authorship?
Roland Barthes, only a year prior, wrote “The Death of the Author.” Despite gross misconceptions about linguistic science (it was the 1960s, after all) Barthes, like Foucault, describes the “modern” trend of the author disappearing into the work. However, Barthes engages more with the impact of a living, breathing writer:
Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. … The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. … the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author. (147-148)
Barthes believed in the primacy of the assembling, discerning powers of the reader, arguing authorship to be a multiplicitous and fatally-destined discipline. Drastic, perhaps, but that’s postmodern language for you. What does it matter that Barthes said it, after all?
Records in the Dark
The practice of taking in literature on a spoken recording rather than reading right from the page has existed practically since the dawn of recorded audio. It wasn’t until the 1980s, though, in the heyday of cassette tapes, that the “Audiobook” became a unique phenomenon. Rarely, though, do we hear the author of a work reading aloud anymore.
The author credited with the inception of popular recorded literature is thought to be Dylan Thomas. Thomas was known by many personal traits, including alcoholism and reckless charm, but aside from his eminently complex poems, most fans adored his voice:
Thomas traveled all over the US and Europe to perform readings, also contributing radio broadcasts and records. Arguably few, if any, readers could have done Thomas’ poems justice besides Thomas himself. Not only does the richness and depth of the nostalgic existential melancholy in “Fern Hill” translate perfectly in the timbre of his voice and style of his reading, but to conceive that we are hearing the voice belonging to the mind that created those words and felt them originally makes the experience wholly different than a non-authorial reader.
Similarly, there is a recording of Tolkien reading “Riddles in the Dark” from The Hobbit:
Around 1:54 Tolkien voices Gollum, giving the strange character an equally strange presence in sound. The writing of The Hobbit certainly suggests an eerie voice for Gollum, with hissing, coughing, and bizarre diction, but the tone of the voice is left up to readers’ imaginations. Andy Serkis, the voice of Gollum for the films, surely listened to Tolkien’s interpretation of the character’s sound before creating his own. The Hobbit itself began as a story Tolkien would tell to his children, so the inclusion of entertaining voices makes the text come alive in an all-too-different way than the solitary experience of reading alone, or hearing another reader’s interpretation.
The web is packed with lesser-known recordings of famous authors reading their own work. Walt Whitman’s resonant, grandfatherly voice, for example, reading from “America”, fulfills the robust and transcendent ethic of his work. T.S. Eliot’s thin, eccentric, meandering tones can also be heard reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, giving a fitting voice to his icon of hesitation.
To bring up a rather meta-apropos idea, here I will again quote from Foucault’s essay “What Is an Author?” in which Foucault quoted from Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, in which Beckett asked,
“What does it matter who’s speaking?”
What do you think? Leave a comment.