Monday, April 22, 2013

It Ain't your Baby no More

In the wake of the Boston terror attacks at the marathon the other day, some strange twists developed that gave me pause for thought.  And they were strange - and I believe important - enough for me to break from tradition and share my thoughts on them with readers here.

Shortly after the attacks and their aftermath, musician and performer Amanda Palmer, as you may have seen, wrote and posted a poem to her blog titled "a poem for dzhokhar."  Based on the title, I can only assume it's dedicated to the suspected terrorist pinned down and arrested after several days of absolute madness in Boston.  A title is, after all, supposed to be "a descriptive name, caption, or heading" for a book, poem, etc.

Not surprising (at least to me) was the incredible backlash she faced as soon as she published the poem to the blog.  Reactions varied between mild concern over the poem's title and content, to "are you fucking kidding me?"  Ms. Palmer seemed to think it astonishing that people would think she was writing about him, and even had to defend the poem and try to explain what she really meant writing it.  She even came out and stated verbatim "the you isn't him," even as it appeared so to me and many other readers.  Many of her fans have come to her rescue too, stating quite emphatically that those who reacted negatively to the poem just didn't understand it.

I don't often discuss politically-related stuff on Twitter, or blog about it here, but felt compelled enough to comment.  That instantly drew me into conversation with someone I can only assume was one of her fans who promptly informed me that if I couldn't get the true meaning of the poem, I'd best butt out of the conversation and leave it to the adults.  We had a somewhat civil discussion following that about the intent and meaning of the poem, for what it's worth.  But it really got me thinking about what a story becomes to author and to reader.  And therein lies the key to a very interesting literary concept, folks.  It's not one often talked about, but it's very vital to the relationship between authors and readers.  That concept is this:

Once the author or artist publishes something, its interpretation is no longer theirs, but the readers'.  They have done their part to form something which they hope best conveys their thoughts to the audience, but once it is published, the interpretation no longer belongs to them.  In other words, it ain't your baby no more.

Of course, the author(s) and/or publisher(s) still hold the copyright to the work.  That is an important distinction, separate from what I'm talking about here.  They still have control over further creative edits, as well as the sale, production, and reproduction of the work.  That is a vital component of literature and art.  What they don't own is the imagery of the story itself, the reader's experience of it.

I've seen, time and again, literary agents give advice to authors, and one such piece of advice that has stuck with me is this: if you have to explain your writing to someone, you have failed as an writer.  It's your job to form the words in such a way as to best convey ideas and imagery from your mind to the readers'.  If that image is jumbled en route from your mind to theirs, then you have failed in that job.

There is an entire sub-set of the publishing industry built around interpreting plot points and meanings behind literary works, in the form of Cliffs Notes and other such cheat sheets and guides.  We take classes on literature and art, read all manner of written works, and then sit around and commend each other on how well we've understood and interpreted the author's true meaning behind the words.  We practically throw our shoulders out of joint patting ourselves on the back because we got the "true" meaning behind what the author wrote.

And a lot of it is bullshit.  While there is merit in understanding the meanings behind art and literature, and while there is often intended meaning behind such works, those works are by their very nature subjective.  This means they're completely subject to the readers' points of view, not the author's.  The imagery in the reader's mind's eye belongs only to the reader.  The accuracy in which it is conveyed from author to reader is because of the author's talent in writing, not the reader's in understanding.  And just as important, the lack of accuracy in transferal also belongs to the author and not the reader.

In my head are very vivid pictures of a world quite different from ours, a world that started with the image of a lone gunslinger heading out across a dry and dusty wasteland.  Now Stephen King did a tremendous job creating those images in my head, and I'd bet they're fairly similar to what he had in mind when he wrote the story.  That's a tribute to how well he did his job as an author.  But no matter how well he wrote, my images of that world will be far different from his, because when I read those books, that part of the story became mine.

Ms. Palmer is a songwriter and musician who has been in the business for a while.  She's married to the incredibly talented author Neil Gaiman.  Together, that's a ton of artistic and literary talent and experience.  I'm sure she's fully aware of this concept.  When her stated intent behind the poem clashes with such a large number of its readers, that tells me she failed to convey her intent to them.  At least I hope so, because the alternative is worrisome.

I'm not here to speculate on her motives for writing such a piece, although by publishing it, she leaves the option to do so fully in her readers' hands.  I have to think that if it's a sort of "sympathy for the devil" piece, it didn't work very well at all.  There are many pieces of literature throughout history that have themes of empathy for antagonistic characters.  Vladimir Nabokov's character Humbert Humbert in the novel Lolita is a fine example.  As a reader, you come to hate him in the end, even as you understand him.  Author Joe Hill wrote one of the best such examples I can think of in recent history with his novel Horns.  His character Ig Parrish is quite obviously an antagonist written as a protagonist - essentially the devil himself, and yet we find ourselves rooting for him.  That's a hard thing to pull off in a book.  And yet it works incredibly well, because it isn't merely a story glorifying a very bad guy, but one that distinctly highlights the clash between good and evil in all of us.

So why do I feel that Ms. Palmer's poem didn't work very well in that regard?  Because while allegedly writing it to appeal to the compassionate or empathetic side of human kind, she linked it specifically to a man who planned and prepared for weeks in advance, deliberately placed a bomb down behind an eight-year-old boy, and then walked away smiling as shrapnel ripped through that boy and hundreds of other victims.  The horror was still vivid and immediate in the mind's eye because most of America watched as he did it, a few short days before.  To link that imagery, that callous lack of regard for the lives of others to the thought that we're somehow all connected, all human, completely boggled my mind.  There is a reason we call such acts "inhuman," and it's because they are decidedly not within the bounds of normal human behavior, not suited for human beings.  It's no wonder - and should be no wonder to Ms. Palmer - the poem has received such vitriol and negative criticism.

So to those who criticize detractors because we "just don't get it," just stop.  Just fuckin' stop.  You're insulting our intelligence by suggesting we can't grasp the "real" meaning behind it, and you're denigrating our humanity by insinuating we aren't willing or able to empathize with a terrorist who killed innocent life in cold blood.  If Ms. Palmer wants to write something that makes half her readers think she is glorifying a terrorist, fine, it's her prerogative.  If it does something for some folks, that's fine too.  But don't try to invalidate others' views of the poem or argue they don't get the meaning, because it ain't her baby no more.

Update: the Twitter user with which I conversed on this topic has since deleted all related tweets, leaving only my replies as evidence.

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