Whose book is it Anyway?
Who owns our characters?
I’m starting to get a few early reviews for ‘The Oceans Between Us’ (the publisher releases advance copies ahead of publication to selected reviewers). To my relief there have been some lovely, positive comments expressed, but I’m surprised how people write about the characters and plot as though they have ownership of them. In one respect I’m pleased. I want to be ‘invisible’ as a writer, allowing my readers a fully immersive experience. And more than that, I want them to feel a sense of outrage on behalf of the child migrants to Australia I write about who were so badly treated. It’s their story, not mine and it’s only right that their narrative should transcend any authorial intrusion. In this sense it was never my book - I’m just a scribe – but it is strange to feel as though I’ve been removed from the process.
In 1967, Roland Barthes, the French literary critic and theorist, wrote an essay entitled “The Death of the Author." Barthes' essay declares that text and creator are unrelated. Once the ‘scriptor’ has finished creating the work, the writing becomes the property of the reader to make of what they will. Thus any autobiographical or contextual information is irrelevant. The author no longer has any claim on the writing.
It’s an interesting idea, and although I don’t wholly agree with it, (what would be the point in reading ‘Othello’ for example, just to brand Shakespeare a racist, when contemporary attitudes to race were very different to our own) I can see its merits: in encouraging readers to claim a sense of belonging to the novel, they are far more likely to engage with it and champion it to others.
At the beginning of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer wrote Go, litel book, go litel myn tregedie..’ He knew his text was out of his hands and had to find its place in the world. There is clear affection here for his ‘darling child’ and a strong desire that it succeeds. I know how he felt. I just hope people enjoy owning my story as much as I have enjoyed creating it.