Esther’s Space- journey through my life

February 27, 2008

No way I’m betting on that horse

Filed under: ENG 597: Literature in the Information Age — estherspace @ 9:47 am

I’ve decided that I cannot buy the idea that Richard Powers is commenting on the ethics of transcribing people you know into characters in one’s fiction. This issue seems to break into a number of pieces. Here’s what I aim to prove:

  1. Historically, there is precedence for the transcription of real individuals into fictional characters.
  2. The characterization of an individual does not have the power to destroy that individual or to control the choices that individual makes
  3. Readers generally do not care about who the character is based on
  4. Rather than being concerned about the ethics of writing, Powers is actually concerned about the existence of writers skilled enough to record characters in order to preserve some aspect of society that is being lost, or the readers skilled enough to utilize such writing.

The first issue- creating characters based on real individuals is not a new phenomenon. We have The Iliad and The Aeneid. We have the Bible, for goodness sake. In my opinion, all fiction is a transcription of reality into entertaining, cohesive storytelling. A writer cannot create a new and unique character without some level of modelling from things that he/she has seen before.

Secondly, how can a characterization of an individual destroy that individual? I’m not talking about public libel here, but situations where the character created might be based on an individual, but does not claim to be that individual. For example, in Power’s Galatea 2.2, C. is C., not “my ex-girlfriend Christine Carpenter.” The characterization of an individual, as soon as it is created, becomes separate from the individual. Because characters cannot possess the depth of individuality and are created and represented from one individuals perspective, they begin to exist in their own space, the space of the fiction that they have been employed for.

This leads into the third point, readers don’t necessarily care who the character is based on. I just read Emma by Jane Austen. I don’t care who Emma is based on, I only care about Emma to the extent of her position in the novel. As time passes, the importance of the model decreases significantly, especially after the original model has passed away and all that is left is pieces of their life that can be put together into a story. Powers suggests as much when he contemplates Taylor’s place in the world upon his death. He writes, “I could give back nothing to Taylor, I, who couldn’t even find a way to tell him what he had given me. All I could do for Taylor now was to turn him into character.” (204) This suggests that when the individual is gone, it is almost like a gift of the writer to turn him into a character, so that he might live on through literature. For us as readers, who Taylor ‘really’ was is a mild point of interest, but ultimately his importance for us lies in his role in the novel.

Earlier, Powers stated:

That book was no more than a structured pastiche of every report I’d ever heard, from C. or abroad. All a patchwork to delight and distract her. One that by accident ate her alive….The lens does not have the last word, nor does the glance of the viewer, nor does the look of those boys, out over the shoulder of the photographer, back behind the lens. The dominant tense was now. The point of stories was what you did with them. (108)

With this statement, Powers is illustrating his awareness that no matter how he as a writer tries to control a story, it is ultimately out of his power to control how an individual reader gives meaning to it. He wrote C.’s stories in order to preserve them (and therefore her), but also to give her the gift of representation that she could not achieve by herself. He did not give meaning to those stories, instead it is the readers that read the characters however they want. By relinquishing this control, Powers is relinquishing responsibility for C.’s accidental consumption by the stories.

While I don’t particularly like the way the relationship between C. and Powers operates, they both have made the choice to maintain those power dynamics.  C. could have been A.  She could have refused to let Powers characterize her in the way he wanted to.  But she did not.

In an attempt to touch on the last point I wanted to make, Powers sees himself as almost morally compelled to write, as if it is his duty to record these stories before they are lost.  It is the ego of the writer, an ego that must naturally occur in order to have writing.  The world will always have fodder for characters, but, I think the point that Powers is making is that without writers capable of transcribing these characters, they will be lost forever, with no way to live on without stories.  A necessary aspect to this, as well, is the readers.  Books cannot live in an eternal present if they’re not being read.  If the canon is not read, it is effectively dead, because those characters can only live when they’re being consumed.  With this reading, I can have a little bit of sympathy for Powers’s position on the importance of the canon.  But, by focusing solely on the canon, he is already excluding those diverse voices that also deserve to be heard.  I’m just saying.


1 Comment »

  1. Esther,
    I agree with Powers being disconnected from words themselves, and the actual experience of living. I found it interesting that Powers and Lentz use the correspondence between C and Powers to teach Helen about love. Again, this as an example of love being learned (I use that term loosely) through experience. Helen, or for that matter a machine, would not be able to comprehend the different levels of relationships because they lack appendages and actual experience.
    I’ve been trying to dissect Powers’ reasons for organizing the book the way he did. I believe one of those reasons lies with the way relationships are fragmented, confusing, and difficult to interpret.

    Comment by Scott — March 1, 2008 @ 12:07 pm

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