Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Ghost I Became

Singer-songwriters and poets completely inhabit their art. They create it and then they recreate it in public, over and again. Novelists, on the other hand, design their work and build it word by word, decorate it and move in fixtures and fittings that give an illusion of habitation and a history, and then they move out so that the readers can move in. Some ghostly trace of the author remains, but it’s the reader who thoroughly inhabits the novel.

(I dreamed that my friend Steve Jones and I were in a cantina or old-fashioned hotel, the kind with a bar and dance-floor off the lobby, and Bob Dylan was there, singing someone else’s song (it might have been ‘Desperado’). Afterwards, he came over and sat down with us. He was wearing a red and white shirt with pearl snaps, and high-waisted black pants and cowboy boots and he looked at us and when we couldn’t think of anything to say (because what can you say, to Bob Dylan) he shook his head slightly and stood up and walked off. In the kind of l’esprit de l’escalier reverie you have between dreaming and waking, I tried to explain to him how writing a novel was different to writing a song; I’m sure I’m paraphrasing someone or other).


Anonymous Sergey said...

Well said, Paul!
Very poetical...
I think Bob Dylan impressed many SF writers including you (I remember Philip Jose Farmer mentioning Dylan).
It's interesting: did he read SF?

June 18, 2009 7:55 pm  
Anonymous Keith Talent said...

Interesting. Two counterexamples that are well worn from the aesthetics literature: John Cage's 4 minutes 33; and the goings on in 'Pierre Menard, Auther of Quixote' by Borges. The former is of course not a singer-songwriter but there's no obvious reason why a singer-songwriter couldn't have composed 4'33, and no reason why one couldn't perform it, but of course the performance and the nature of the piece is very much audience dependent. And in the Pierre Menard story, if you buy into it, and it is rather compelling, the author has a significant presence in the finished work since despite writing Don Quioxite word for word as the original we think it is a quite different novel (or at least some people's intuitions go that way).

Also thought about story-tellers - take the Paul Bowles' translation of 'A Life Full of Holes' one would have thought that when that was being told to him the author had a large impact on the story (that would seem to cohere with our thoughts about the performance poetry), but what suddenly changes once it's written down?

June 18, 2009 8:35 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Hi Sergey, Dylan was into Kerouac et al. when he was younger than he is now. And the cover of his latest is borrowed from the cover of Larry Brown's Big Bad Love. As for whether he reads SF, maybe I should have asked him, in my dream.

June 18, 2009 8:37 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Singer-songwriter Mike Batt was successfully sued by the John Cage trust, for ripping him off - anyone could have composed it, I guess, but Cage did it first. Picasso, I believe, made a similar observation. And 4'33" may not be a concert staple, but it has been performed - Google YouTube and you'll find a couple of performances. I agree though that the audience brings something to the performance, but part of that is the conformity of expectation.

The authorial ghost is hard to pin down. Is the 'author' who appears in any given fiction (eg 'Martin Amis' in Money) really the author? Who is really Samson Young in London Fields? Has Martin Amis left the building? I think so.

What changes when a story is written down? What's left out, I guess. To begin with. Also the framing effect of telling a tale already told (see also 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents').

June 18, 2009 8:52 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

The above should have started out with Hi Keith: Meaty points as always.

My bad.

June 18, 2009 8:54 pm  

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