Admirable and unnoticed

At Booknet Canada’s Tech Forum last March, Dan Wagstaff responded to part of a presentation I was making by tweeting:

I never know where the authorial voice & its unique value fits in @brianoleary’s utilitarian/network model of publishing.

It’s a fair criticism. Dan and I had hoped to connect at some point that day, but the madding crowds got in the way. Today, I want to see how far I can go in answering him.

In college I majored in chemistry, a small bit of career history that I explored at reasonable length last fall. As I wrote then, "I spent half of my time studying science and the balance on literature, history and creative writing."

The science courses weren't limited to chemistry. My freshman year, I registered for an introduction to astronomy, a new course had yet to earn its reputation as a "gut" – a course you could pass with little or no effort. As a freshman, I had no idea what I was doing. I had gone to grade school in the 1960s, loved aviation and rocketry and wanted to study the stars.

Almost four decades later, I still remember how astonished I was to hear what now seems obvious: light from the stars we see in the night sky started on its way toward us millions of years ago. Whatever we see tonight – an expanding nebula, a supernova, a white dwarf dwindling to darkness – took place at a time so far behind us that we have trouble grasping it.

In that distant past, hydrogen combined and became helium, releasing energy as light and heat. A simple reaction with few mysteries offers us a view into the past, one that stretches back millions or, at the most distant edges of the universe, billions of years. For us, it's a moment. We seldom see it as the past.

I think about this kind of thing a lot, and not just in publishing. Our vision is “human-hindered”, almost always standing on "this single print of time".

Our lives collect a cavalcade of these moments – a first kiss, a nervous interview, a galactic revelation – so much so that we can come to think that these moments actually are our lives. But there aren’t, really. We’re no more last week, or next, than we are the exploding star from a million years ago. We’re part of a continuum, and seeing that is hard.

Last week, one of my closest friends shared a link to "Norm Macdonald's weird, wonderful Twitter book club", a post by Stuart Thompson. If you don’t know of him, Macdonald is an offbeat comedian. For a time, he was part of the cast of the U.S. comedy show, Saturday Night Live. He served as an anchor for the program’s long-running news parody, “Weekend Update”, where he was an arch observer of the world around us.

Thompson recounts some of the Twitter conversations that Macdonald moderated for books that included Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. In his post he is particularly drawn to the discussion of John Updike’s “A&P”:

Sammy, the protagonist, is a young cashier at an A&P grocery store driven to distraction by the sight of three girls shopping in bikinis. The store manager lectures the girls for their skimpy clothing and Sammy, in a fit of chivalry, fights back in their defence then dramatically quits his job. Read superficially, it’s a coming-of-age tale told in the first-person voice of the young hero.

In Thompson’s telling, Macdonald moderated the discussion before providing, in a series of tweets, his own view:

  • "Sammy, the narrator, is very obviously a writer"
  • "We know this because Updike deliberately has Sammy describe things in the way a write of far less talent than Updike would"
  • "He decides against the easy choice of making Sammy a bad writer and instead makes him a very very good writer who is not near Updike"
  • "This is the incredible feat of the story"

Reflecting on Macdonald’s contribution, Thompson observes:

Seen in this way, the story soars. It’s not a grade-school coming-of-age tale, but a complex consideration of the artist’s place in society. Sammy’s gesture seems grand, and it is, but it’s lost on everyone around him. The manager still sees him as a punk kid and the girls didn’t even notice. Sammy is left peering forlornly into the store, knowing that his act was both admirable and unnoticed.

And that’s where my thinking about authorial voice begins.

Thompson darts around the definition of an artist – the term is loose, as he clearly intends to include writers and extend it to Norm Macdonald. I’ll insert an even looser definition of my own – an artist is one who does not live on the timeline that connects the events that take place around us. Rather, the artist sees the actors, events and collisions all at once, from a vantage point that few others share.

Living on the observation deck makes for tough sledding. The artist can see and question what everyone else takes as given. But how do you find ways to talk about the unseen? How do you buy legitimacy among people who have no idea what you’re writing, describing or illustrating?

We focus on moments, because that’s what we know. The best summer reads do, too – the perfectly drawn setting, the heated confrontation, the big reveal – these are quickly and universally understood. They may extend our understanding of life, but they do so by mimicking it.

Around the time the universe was first time-stamped for me, I started reading Carolyn Forché’s poetry. Her first published collection, Gathering the Tribes, was described as “the balance that must be found between the ugliness, the harshness of her history – both natural and social – and its intense beauty.”

In her work, Forché explores themes that span seasons, decades, sometimes generations. But even Forché can long for moments – for endings. In one of my favorite poems, “White Wings They Never Grow Weary”, she writes:

I want to tie off the time like a birth cord
chewed broken in a proud woman’s teeth.

Who among us has not felt like that, at times? Moments can be characterized in many ways, including failure, disappointment and loss. It's instinctive, to want to "tie off the time" and move on.

But in great art we look to the artist – to Dan Wagstaff’s "authorial voice" – to lead us somewhere else, somewhere perhaps felt, likely not seen. That’s simultaneously important, and uncomfortable. There are no easy answers.

Walking up to last November’s presidential election in the United States, I invoked a somewhat lengthy passage from Greil Marcus’s book, Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession. I’ve used Marcus's work on more than one occasion, in part because he offers a pitch-perfect defense of the authorial voice:

We read, or we listen, or with Lincoln we read and we imagine ourselves listening, then and there, on the spot, and we gasp. We get it. We feel ennobled and a little scared, or very scared, because we are being shown what we could be, because we realize what we are, and what we are not. We pull back.

The struggle to understand context, derive meaning, fulfill purpose and write it all down before the light gets too dim – this is not a byproduct of a series of moments. It’s a re-imagination of what we are and who we might be. It’s something we should all give one another, even if we first look to artists to lead the way.

Today can last another million years. All we have to do is figure out a way to fully tell its story.

Brian O'Leary

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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