Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Unsigned Author

I peddle, push and purvey.

Though I am the pusher, I am as much of a sucker as those to whom I fob my wares.

My wares are the ether around which the written word resides. The space outside a novel, everything that is, essentially, superfluous to the text. It is the cult of the author and the author as fetish.

I broadcast the story around the story – the author’s life, how they write, what inspires them, what they read, as well as the story of the industry around books; the prizes, legislation affecting the industry, awards and accompanying gossip. I yearn to hear the story OF the author, not just the story By the author.

In Bolano’s book The Savage Detectives, he tells the story of young writers as detectives seeking an elusive poet – they are seeking her, not her words. In 2666 he writes of the intellectuals whose livelihoods are made by another elusive author, in this case the real or imagined BennoVon Archimboldi. He toys with the reader, like me, who appears to need to know where the author sits, stands and lies in order to truly understand and give credence to the story.

Obviously, to know the time and space where the author writes from helps to understand (and to accept in some cases) the attitudes of the text. It places it within a historical or cultural context and if we bring something of our knowledge to that reading, we can glean more from the words themselves.

In the past, without the time and space shattering communication mechanisms such as the internet it was simply not possible to have such a cult around the authors, though we know that there was a demand for Mark Twain on the speaking circuit.

The 2009 arch-version of this circuit is the Writers’ Festival – of which there is a massive proliferation, generally aimed at middle class ladies, that augments the business around books.

Writer speak, reader buy.

And writer sign, reader buy.

One of my favourite childhood memories occurred in C1978 (??) in the Long Gallery. My mother took me to a book signing. The book was The Hills of the Black Cockatoo and the author was Pat Peafield Price. As a child this book took on significance much greater than the story. It became a valued item, something which somehow gave me a lot more than the story itself.

What changed with that lithe little tome, what altered the weight of the words once the author had inscribed it with her magic, her pen and with the hand that wrote the words. What was it that my few nervous childhood moments in the presence of Pat that made this work weightier for my conditioning mind?

I recently encountered a Buddhist monk signing the books of his teacher – and enquired how he, who views the world through lenses of impermanence and non attachment, could justify putting his mark in this book. He answered that that we know sales improve with signed copies, and that will take his teacher’s message further.

It’s true – signed books sell more copies and the cynics say that once a book is signed, if it doesn’t sell, it can not be returned the publisher, though this is less the case than it once was.

A gentle paradox in the face of the increased pecuniary value of the signed book by a dead author is that a personalised dedication from the dead author lessens its value in the auction house, though it has more importance to those who know to whom it was dedicated.

The written word can transform the reader, can vault you to a place you did not know existed, can allow you insight and can entertain – whether the copy is signed or not, yet despite the magical qualities afforded the written word, it is an industry. We consume books and words- just as we consume food, clothes, and widescreen televisions. There are people who work in this industry and need to be paid, there is money to be made from the words and to be able to get the words out there money must be made. The snake eats its own tail.

Of course, there are purists out there – people who consume the text and nothing but (“the words alone transform me, to know of the author’s divorce is merely crass.”)Those who are transformed by the essence – and there are the prurient (“it is absolutely crucial to know what type of drug Kerouac was on when he wrote each book.”) and everyone in between.

We can read the stories of the writer or the writers’ stories. They are all part of a cycle of narrative. Stories within, like Matryoshka dolls, though they’re far from uniform and sometimes impossible to prise apart.

What I really truly don’t understand, though, is why the big fuss that Pearl Jam wouldn’t sign autographs on their recent tour.

...originally published in 'Apple' - Summer '09 '10. 'Apple' is the magazine of the marvellous Tmaggots

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