Monday, April 5, 2010

The Person on the Page

“The fun’s in how you say a thing.” Robert Frost

Probably because they assume I know a good deal more than I do, instructors often write asking me what I think are the most important aspects of critical thinking or reading. I usually answer by identifying two elements of critical reading I have focused on as both a teacher and a writer of textbooks: (1) the analysis of arguments, not just their reasons and conclusions but also their underlying premises and (2) the recognition of an implicit bias that reveals itself through imagery, allusion and what’s left unsaid.

For the record, I still think those are two of the most important topics to cover in a critical reading course. But lately, I’m inclined to add a third element to my admittedly brief list of absolutely critical topics, the notion of the “implied author,” a term used by the literary critic Wayne C. Booth. In the simplest terms, Booth’s “implied author” is not the actual author of the text. It’s the person conjured up by the words on the page. It’s the imaginary author the readers feel they know because they've read the author’s work.

I’ve been thinking about Booth’s concept because of a little book I recently read called “The Sound on the Page” by Ben Yagoda. I really liked the book and agree with Yagoda’s claim that “no truly transparent or anonymous style can exist: the many choices the act of writing requires will sooner or later betray a stance, an attitude, a tone.” In other words, a personality will come through in the writing, sometimes the personality is colorless, tedious, and earnest, as it all too often is in far too many textbooks (In a future post, I’d like to introduce a list of textbooks like Joseph Conlin’s American history text, "The American Past," which manages to be both informative and delightful to read. Textbooks like this one make teaching so much easier). But one way or another, a sense of the person behind the prose is there on the page, even if the writer did his or her best to appear totally objective and totally impersonal (although why anyone would even want to do that is not clear to me).

I think this idea of a personality emanating from the page is a valuable concept for students to consider because it could make them do what both Booth and Yagoda do: Look very closely at a text and pay attention to the many different devices writers use to create the personality they want readers to respond to. Among those things are word choice, use of formal and informal language, alliteration, references (or lack of them) to the self, sentence length, punctuation, imagery, anecdote, choice of simile or metaphor, presence (or absence) of example.

The list is very long, longer than the one I created here. To a large degree—obviously content plays no small role—these are the things that make the writer sound like a particular person, to sound, for instance, like an implied Harold Bloom or Maureen Dowd, to link two writers who couldn’t be more different. Bloom sounds passionately serious as if he emerged from the womb quoting Milton, and Dowd, in print at least, always seems to long for another life as a stand up comic.

What Yagoda also points out, with the help of lots of revealing comments from famous writers, is how writers struggle to evoke and even sometimes override the author they summon with their words. The essayist and novelist Anna Quindlen apparently thinks that she developed her written style from her battle with stuttering, “I think there’s clearly a link between trying to create a charming, erudite and coherent ‘voice’ on the page and being unable to use your voice easily in real life.” The novelist Juno Diaz talks about his ongoing battle with the person who turns up when he starts writing “I have problems saying what I need to say. That’s odd, because my personality tends to be blunt, straight-forward, outspoken. My written personality is nowhere near as dynamic. I have a hundred failed stories in my drawer, and they all have the mark of the writerly person I for some reason need to be.”

I think Booth’s concept and illustrations like those from Yagoda’s book could combine to make students better readers and writers. Students could, for instance, answer the question, “Whom do you want to evoke in the mind of readers when they see your words on the page.” As a group, students could analyze several pieces of writing by writers with a strong style or voice—I think Calvin Trillin is a good choice, Amy Bloom another-- and make a list of the kinds of devices they see these writers using. Trillin likes comic exaggeration, for instance, while Bloom often injects short, direct, personal commnets into her essays and reviews. Once the list is compiled, students could think about how they want to sound on the page and write a paragraph or two that calls up the person they want to be in print.


retProf said...

It's a very intriguing issue--but it's not necessarily easy to come to terms with for a given text, which, in turn, may make it somewhat challenging to teach.

When we talk about tone etc in class, we ask students to distinguish between what is said and how it's said. Now we ask them, in addition, to have a closer look at the how and try to find out how the author wants to come across as author, what type of personality emerges from the page--the implication is that that personality is also a creation of the author, which may or may not be identical with the personality of the author in real life. [BTW the latter distinction is a side issue that should not distract students from the task of trying to understand the personality the author tries to create].

I have no experience in trying to make students aware of this, but it occurs to me that a starting point may be what's going on on facebook, twitter and other social networking platforms that are extremely popular with a large number of students. There, too, people try to evoke a specific personality--the all-knowing expert, the sexpot, the loving parent, the do-gooder who is concerned with the well-being of every animal and person in distress he/she learns about through the web. As J. Lanier observes in his recent book, people may spend a considerable amount of time and energy on constructing and maintaining that personality. In other words, it is a creation.

Perhaps this could be an opening for introducing the issue to present-day students...just a thought.

retProf said...

@merrill: I can think of one case in which it obviously applies: In a first-person narrative in which the narrator is a character distinct from the author--but that may be too obvious...

Laraine Flemming said...

Hello Merrill and retProf. I am thrilled by your questions and comments because this topic is of great interest to me. I have been traveling, thus my tardiness in responding. I apologize for taking so long.

First off, I think talking about the implied author is, as Merrill suggests, a lot tougher when dealing with fiction. In fact, unless the author wants us to think about who's telling the story, I can't imagine how one would discuss the implied author. I do remember that in discussing Hawthorne's "Blithedale Romance," our instructor in graduate school pointed to Hawthorne's explicit use of an "unreliable narrator." I think this was a Booth term as well, and Hawthorne wants readers to think about how the novel's events and the narrator's telling of them match up. To me, this is also essential to Nabokov's "Lolita" as well.

But in general, I think, and had in mind at the time, the notion of an implied author being conjured up in essays and editorials. For that reason, I think ret Prof's suggestion that we use the personalities created on Facebook to teach the concept is truly inspired. I'd also be interested in knowing more about J. Lanier with whom I'm not familiar.

I'm going to return to this topic in another post because I'm pressed for time. But thank you both. You really got me thinking of ways to make this concept meaningful to students, although I agree with retProf it's important that students don't get sidetracked by comparing what they might know about the real author with the one that is evoked on the page. More soon. LMF

retProf said...

@Laraine: The book I referred to is You Are not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier.

BTW When I mentioned first-person narrative in fiction, the example that was foremost in my mind was Moby Dick. It starts in the voice of Ishmael, who comes across as a somewhat naive observer of events and whose--always somewhat befuddled--voice is maintained through the first chapters. It, and Ishmael as narrator, disappears when the narrative shifts from the straight telling of events that happened to Ishmael to all kinds of explanations of and meditations on whaling, which are told in the authoritative voice of Melville himself--at least that's how it appears it to me.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to hearing more from you about this topic.

Laraine Flemming said...

@retProf I have to finish up something but I wanted to say I am currently in the middle of "You Are Not a Gadget," which I think should be required reading for anyone who is of the "Grown Up Digital" persuasion" i.e. If you can use Google, you've learned all you need to know. I didn't recognize the name because of the initial. As an aside, I really like the book. What's your take on it?

More later on tonight about the person on the page.

About this blog: For years now, whenever I wanted to test out a new exercise or figure out how I’d like to address a new topic,I’ve been sending out an SOS to teachers I’ve worked with or met at conferences and online and asking them what they thought of my approach or if they had another way of addressing say improving students ability to stay focused while reading on the Web.

Probably later than it should have, it’s now occurred to me that a blog might be a good way to bring others into these online discussions, which, for me anyway, have been incredibly valuable. So every week or so, I’m going to post my thoughts on a topic that I consider really central to the teaching of reading and writing. In every post, I’ll include practical strategies for addressing the topic discussed.

My hope is that other instructors will respond with their thoughts and, over time, we can come up with a repository of teaching methods geared to specific objectives like teaching coherence in writing or using linguistic cues in reading and a host of others.