Thursday, August 7, 2008

Which comes first, the writer or the word?

I'm not trying to be cute, I'm serious. Is the writer more important, or is it the work itself? Or to make the question less abstract and more concrete, is Dickens more important than A Tale of Two Cities, Kafka more important than The Trial or The Castle? Do you have a favorite author whose every new release you wait for? I've noticed that a lot of bestselling genre writers (or their estates) seem to have franchised their names out, so that a lot of their new books have either co authors or approved torch bearers for their brand of fiction. It's a trend I personally find disturbing, but I suppose it's been going on as long as civilization. Look at Homer. Even if he was just one person (which I doubt) his versions of the Illiad and the Odyssey aren't the ones we have today. They're an accretion of the works of several, maybe several dozen different authors. But no one wants an Illiad by anonymous when they can have one by Homer, essentially the god of poets. Now look at Shakespeare and the debate that lingers over whether he wrote the plays attributed to him. As a person with a strong interest in history, I understand the desire for correct knowledge, but if it turned out that Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, and Richard III were each written by five different playwrights, what real difference would it make? I had a friend, a very well educated and well read friend, who hated Shakespeare, despised his plays. At the time I was shocked (I still like the Bard quite a lot) but now I feel a glow of admiration for that opinion, mainly because it cuts through the glamour of the name and goes straight for the work in question.
Don't get me wrong, though. I'm not saying it's wrong to admire a particular author. I have a signed first edition of Tim Obrien's The Things They Carried on my bookshelf, alongside a signed first of Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe, a 1929 copy of Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves, and a first edition paperback (Ecco) of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. But the stories they've written are what I truly love, and I must confess a certain fetish value in my desire for certain first editions. By owning them I hope to get as close in time as possible to the moment they were conceived, both to be inspired and to better focus on my own vision. Of the still living authors that I admire, I have absolutely no desire to meet any of them.

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