Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Mark Blagrave: The Implied Author Part VII

Today we present the seventh installment in Mark Blagrave's (Silver Salts) ongoing series of posts. Here, Professor Blagrave speaks on what it's like to step into a university class, not as an academic, but as a novelist ...

The Implied Author Part VII:
Live White Male: Meeting the Fiction Class

After it was all over, the instructor told me how excited his class had been to have actually met a live author. I said half-right wasn’t bad. We laughed. But which half did I mean?

His invitation was one of those pinch-yourself moments. Here was a university professor who had put my book on his introductory fiction course. A couple of people had sweetly or jokingly (or both?) mentioned the future possibility, but here was someone who had gone right ahead and taken the chance, this September, with a brand new novel. I mentioned casually to my department chair that I had to be out of town one Friday to talk to a class that was studying my book. She made all the right supportive noises (she always does), teased about becoming practically canonical. It felt pretty good to be a living author.

What I hadn’t thought about was that being studied in a university fiction course necessarily entails having papers assigned about your work. In the abstract, that sounds like another nice trip for the ego. Then the blood begins to freeze. Can the book generate a viable series of essay topics? Will its structure bear that kind of scrutiny? Could it be awkward if the paper topics are miles from my intentions for the book? Will the students hate me when they meet me because they had to write about my book? Luckily, the instructor set a series of close-reading character-based studies, and when he sent me copies of the assignment I thought I could see how each topic might be approached. Even I could probably write the papers; and it was reassuring to see my characters being treated like real fictional characters in real fictional books. Besides, by the time I was to meet the students, their assignments would have been completed and returned, and whatever resentments they might have felt towards me would be well on the way to being channeled towards Mary Shelley.

The day I visited, the class was well into its consideration of Frankenstein. I felt bound, when I walked through the door, to apologize for not being its author. Not that I wanted to be dead, or another gender. Well, maybe a little just at that moment.

I offered to prime the pump with an introduction about how I came to write the book and how I had gone about simultaneously preserving and transforming places and events and people. I think I was heading toward a predictable thesis about the blurring of borders between “fact” and “fiction.” Mostly, I was trying to delay the open question period. As long as I kept talking, I could maybe continue to keep the “authority” in “author.” It would be like I was a dead white male, pontificating from the afterlife.

The questions, when they came, were interesting, thoughtful, a real range. The students wanted to know about everything from how long it took to write the book (too long), to publishing in Canada (too beleaguered), to why I had included the gay couple Percy and Nathan (references to themes of silencing and finding voice). Was I uncomfortable writing the “intimate bits”? Not as much as I should have been perhaps. Why had I chosen to write from Lillie’s perspective (as a female, among other things)? All fiction is an appropriation of voice. I need distance from me. Never mistake the narrator for the author.

The big challenge, though, and I should have seen it coming, came from the student who asked whether it was weird hearing other people’s interpretations of the book, and wasn’t it odd how people might read in more than I actually intended? It was not the first time I had heard the question. It surfaces regularly in my own introductory classes. But then it’s always about other people’s work, and they are often dead, and always out of the room. From time to time I vary the analogy I use to address it, but I always feel confident in the answer. Usually, I try to liken writing to designing an engine: nothing goes in and stays in by accident (though it may be discovered by accident, stumbled upon in the process of inventing). You wouldn’t ask your mechanic (I say) whether he meant to install that carburetor just that way (I really should change that to fuel injector, one day). Sometimes, I use the analogy of directing a play. The effective director doesn’t tell the actors what to do, but creates a set of circumstances in which they can create, all the time predicting the alternative solutions they might come to. Authors work that way too, I say. But this time I was the author, and I was afraid my answer sounded like whining, or boasting. I gave it anyway, but it has led me, in the weeks since, to wonder about breaking in a new analogy. This one’s from parenting, so the whining and boasting aren’t so out of place. I gave the book its DNA, created opportunities and imposed restrictions, tried to create obstacles to its being misinterpreted, made some educated guesses about how it might grow up and adjusted accordingly. But can I really foresee every possible viable interpretation? I guess not.

The class ended with a few shy requests that I sign books. I thought how interesting it was, how fitting, that these books would carry the marks of two sets of handwriting: the students’ careful marginal notes as they negotiated a relationship with the novel, and my scrawled claim to authorship on the title page. We were, after all, partners, old acquaintances who had begun to know one another long before we spent forty minutes, live, in the same room.

Next and Final Installment: "Never Enough Attention: Becoming a Monster


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engleside said...

I've just completed a graduate-level class taught, likely, by the same professor the author refers to in this posting. The last piece of fiction on the syllabus was Silver Salts. The course focused on "regionalism," Maritime regionalism in particular. We read some books that were universally reviled by the class (an early twentieth century historical romance) and others that produced various responses. But even though we didn't come to agreement on how to discuss the novel with respect to regionalism, everyone agreed that Silver Salts was excellent, and a great selection to finish the course on a high note.