Sunday 2 October 2011

Twenty-first century implications for the implied author

Imagine the scene: as a teenage reader in 1991 you are particularly taken by a particular contemporary writer’s work. Having diligently paid attention in your library lesson at the start of Year 7, you turn to an encyclopaedia to try and find out more about them. Unsurprisingly, you draw a blank. Where else do you turn? Beyond the briefest of biographical information on the dust jacket or – if you are lucky – a magazine interview with the author that a friend of a friend of your grandparents’ neighbour remembered seeing some time last year, you can find nothing else out about your newest idol. You return to the books, scouring them for clues as to who the author, the implied author is.

Now, bring yourself twenty years forward: back to the present. You are particularly taken by a writer’s work and you sadly reach the final page of the book. As the finished book lays closed on your lap, you take out your smartphone and either google the author’s name or visit the web address printed on the book's back cover. Within seconds, you have accessed articles, interviews, blog posts, tweets, and Facebook pages which can give you a CSI Cambridge-like forensic insight into your newest idol. The book falls from your lap; you know who the author is, the real author, and their feelings about and motivations behind their writing.

In an age when books live beyond the page and authors are in a position to interact directly – both out of choice and necessity – with their readership through new media, new opportunities are afforded the reader to gain a deeper understanding of the text as texts’ boundaries and authors’ roles become less clearly defined. I believe that the changing concept of the implied author (and the question of for how much longer it can remain a valid concept through the real author’s increasing use of epitextual material) make consideration of an author’s intentions important.

For example, in Ned Vizzini’s Be More Chill (2004), the protagonist buys and ingests a black market 'squip'. This is a piece of nanotechnology, a quantum computer which, he is told, will help him achieve his aim of finding a girl friend by telling him what to do and how to behave. It is sold to him as a ‘cool pill’. The implant fails and the novel’s conclusion is ambiguous, but the impression the reader is left with is that messing with nature is not cool. However, in an interview reproduced on Vizzini’s website, he says that ‘in high school I would have tried out a squip. I was a pretty big dork. I would’ve tried almost anything’, and his FAQ says that as a teenager he was aware of ‘so many products advertised around me that promised to make people cool’. While he identifies recognisable social concerns of the stereotypical teenager in his novel, these admissions (and his collection of articles relating to implanted technology) show his belief that the human – especially the dork – can be improved – or made ‘cooler’ – by playing with untried and untested technology. The epitextual material guides the reader to a clear reading of the text and the real author can clearly be seen in his protagonist.

While Vizzini exemplifies the effect of epitextual material, peritextual inclusions (not only saving the reader the need to google) reveal much about authors too. Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother (2008) is concerned with the ways in which technology can be used to control people’s lives, and the reader is left feeling wary about the prevalence of CCTV and records of electronic transactions in today’s society. If the reader goes beyond the final page of the novel they are presented with two Afterwords: one by the Chief Security Technology Officer at BT, Bruce Schneier, and the other by Xbox hacker Andrew Huang (to whom the protagonist refers in the course of the novel as a hero). Both Afterwords exhort the reader to question the world around them, but having the same idea repeated from two opposing ideological perspectives adds weight to Doctorow’s implicit warnings throughout the text. The exhortation to do further research is supported by a bibliography which provides a few lines’ explanation of why each text might (and should) appeal to an adolescent reader. Doctorow’s intentions in writing the novel are clear. Indeed, should the reader’s interest be piqued, a quick google reveals he describes himself as a ‘technology activist’, confirming his call to examine the ways in which technologies are used.

These are two brief examples from a particular genre of YA texts, but as critics continue to debate the concept of the implied author and the validity of considering an author’s intentions, it is now possible for the reader to consider the real author's authorial intentions in an informed manner. Indeed, in a time when books and authors blur the boundaries between media, and information is so readily available, it is difficult for the reader not to allow the way in which they read to be influenced by peritextual and epitextual information.

originally written for the Children's Literature at Cambridge blog and first posted there earlier today

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