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The (In)visible Author

Published 16th September, 2019 in MRP Guest Blogger
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I recently watched the very enjoyable Amazon/BBC adaptation of Good Omens, starring Michael Sheen and David Tennant. Good Omens has been one of my favourite books since I first read it as a teenager. At that time, there was no such thing as the internet. If I wanted to find out if Aziraphale had a computer and knew how to use it, I would have had to write a letter to Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, put it in the mail, and hope I’d just spent my expensive overseas postage on something worthwhile.

Times have changed. The answer is yes, Aziraphale does have a computer (though whether he knows how to use it is unclear). This is just one of the hundreds of questions fans have asked Neil Gaiman on his Twitter and Tumblr. Other things we’ve learned about include deleted sceneswhy the Archangel Gabriel has an American accent, and whether the tartan object in the back of Crowley’s car was a tin of shortbread. And of course, if it’s a question even remotely adjacent to the nature of Crowley and Aziraphale’s relationship, it’s been asked.

As a reader, there’s something addictively affirming about the ready access we have to writers these days. As a writer, it disconcerts me, perhaps because it’s easy to take a writer’s opinion as the Voice of God. There is so much subtext and so many nuanced storytelling moments in Good Omens, interpretations that are all the more rewarding if you arrive at them yourself, and implications that are right there in plain sight if you just think about them. But when Neil Gaiman’s right there to give you an answer, why think?

I remember going to a panel at a Singapore Writers’ Festival one year, where the need to be on social media was discussed. There was a time when being a radio DJ meant you had a voice for radio and your face was, for better or worse, irrelevant; these days, your face matters. Your personhood matters, whether it actually has anything to do with your radio hosting, or your writing. I understand the impulse completely. I feel it too. When I read a story I love, I want to find out more about the writer. I want to know the person who made something that moved me so much.

It’s a funny thing, being a writer. You pour yourself into your words, put these words out there, and hope that someone will read them. That you’re not yelling into the void. If words appear somewhere in cyberspace and no one reads them, do they still exist? They certainly don’t make a noise. But—once my words are seen, it scares me. It makes me feel like I am being seen, because author and work have become impossible to untangle in so many people’s minds. 

I’ve presented and read my work at conferences and festivals, yet a part of me hopes I can fade while my words linger. Often, the last thing I want is to have to answer questions about myself and what I think about my own words. I’d much rather leave it up to my readers, to let them decide what they mean to them personally. To have my readers do the meaning-making. As Ursula K. Le Guin once said:

Kids are taught writing in school as a means to an end. Most writing is indeed a means to an end: love letters, information of all kinds, business communications, instructions, tweets. Much writing embodies, is, a message.

So the kids ask me, ‘When you write a story, do you decide on the message first or do you begin with the story and put the message in it?’

No, I say, I don’t. I don’t do messages. I write stories and poems. That’s all. What the story or the poem means to you—its “message” to you—may be entirely different from what it means to me.

It’s a double-edged sword, this ready availability of writers. I don’t know anyone personally who thinks the Harry Potter series has been improved by JK Rowling constantly putting out new information and commentary on it. I’m not alone in wishing she had left the seven books of the series exactly as they are, moved on to something new and never looked back. I enjoy reading Neil Gaiman’s answers to questions about Good Omens and his other works, but I can’t say a part of me wishes it wasn’t so easy to get these answers. If the author is the Voice of God, where then is the space for the reader?

Because, reader, I believe there is always a space for you. I believe a work of fiction that means something to you, in a certain way, belongs to you. Your reading of a book, your reaction and your feelings to this book, are truths you mined on your own for yourself. If you think I made the curtains blue because the protagonist was sad, that’s valid. If you think the curtains were blue because they just were, more power to you. Don’t look to me to tell you what to think. I certainly don’t have all the answers, just because I wrote the text.

All that said: I think it’s natural, the instinct we all feel to be closer to the author. Connection is the most human of desires. It is this yearning that drives our impulse to see, to look for the person behind the words, to seek out something about them personally that will resonate with us. I don’t think there is anything fundamentally wrong with it. I don’t know that I want to hold this interconnectedness at arm’s length and loudly condemn the visibility of the author. It’s not as straightforward as that. I find it an uncomfortable space to exist in, and maybe that discomfort is nothing new. Maybe it is part of what it has been to be an author since Barthes declared our collective deaths. These days, we’re not so dead anymore. There is so much more space for us to be as alive as we like, and I think negotiating that balance is, more and more, a part of what it means to be a creator in the internet age.

Chen Cuifen was born and raised in Singapore where she now lives and works, having spent many years abroad in the UK and Australia. Her poetry has been published in Southeast Asian Review of English, while her fiction is forthcoming from Ethos Books/Margaret River Press, and her creative nonfiction in the journal Fourth Genre. In 2018, Cuifen was the first prize winner of the UK’s Troubadour International Poetry Prize. She is currently pursuing a MA in Creative Writing at LASALLE College of the Arts. 

Read Cuifen’s first two blogs post, ‘Two Countries’ and ‘Level Up’.

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