Friday, November 20, 2009

The implied beings

Back in Professor Peel's class, I experienced narrative theory as a series of revelations. My books are heavily marked with stars and exclamation points. One of the biggest OMG's is on page 33 of Suzanne Keen's book, where she quotes Seymour Chatman's paradigm for narrative structure (From Story and Discourse, pg 151):

real author --> || implied author --> (narrator) --> (narratee) --> implied reader || real reader

Compare this diagram to the one that Mansfred Jahn outlines on his website:

Jahn explains this "Chinese boxes' model" as being "standard structure of fictional narrative communication." He highlights something very crucial about this, that the communication between the real author and the real reader happens in the world of non-fiction, where I go to the library and select a book "The Blood Oranges" by John Hawkes that was recommended to me by my friend. What interests me about the author is not so much the story of the novel, but how this novel (or comic lyric poem in prose, as it has been described by critics) fits in with the world of American letters. I'm reading this fictional novel in search of non-fictional information, in search of the Hawkes' ideological and subjective position, his relationship with the academy.

However, where Jahn's diagram is crucially different from Chatman's -- and where the major revelation lies for me -- is that within Jahn's second box with "the level of fictional and metaphictional discourse" there needs to be another pair of figures: Chatman's "implied author" and "implied reader." The author and the reader that are the properties of the text, and do not exit in the world of bookstores, libraries, and university campuses.

Keen writes: "The author is the actual historical person who wrote the text." John Hawkes the novelist, as Wikipedia's disambiguation page helpfully suggests, was born in 1925 and died in 1998, and was a "postmodern American novelist," and was also many other things: for example, an influential teacher. On the other hand, Keen continues, "The implied author is the version of the author projected by the text itself and sometimes also conditioned by our knowledge about the actual author's life and career." John Hawkes, the author of The Blood Oranges, seems to be a middle-aged man, with some experience of life abroad (or at least in Italy), likely without much (or deep) knowledge of contemporary foreign languages (foreign language is represented in the novel by two words "croak peonie") but some knowledge of Greek and Latin, with a keen interest in human sexuality, ancient mythology, and flower symbology.

This implied author directs his discourse to the implied reader, who according to Keen is also "a projection of the text, and differs in every instance from actual readers, many of whom will not exactly match the profile suggested by the text. (35)" I, the real reader, who got Hawkes' book from the library am very different from the reader to whom I feel this text is speaking. I do read English, the language of the implied (and real) author. I am not, however, a man, and I am not particularly well-versed in ancient mythology -- and so far the combination of the two provides the biggest difficulty for me in the reading process, as I feel that the implied author is directing this text to a male reader with basic knowledge of the myths of Eros? some sort of headless white bull -- whose origins in myth I have to trace. I am not concerned about my virility or the ways of seduction. On the other hand, I am interested in ways of examining the relationship between sexuality and death -- and here's where I feel that I do coincide with the implied reader. I also feel that the implied author is offering the implied reader a quasi-philosophical puzzle, and this aspect of the text I am also interested in.

To highlight the distinction between the real and the implied, Keen notes that the historical, real author -- Charles Dickens in her example "lived, suffered the indignity of the blacking factory, wrote, made loads of money, left his wife, went on readering tours, and died exhausted, whereas the implied author, 'the Dickents of Bleak House (1852-53),' perpetually experiments with a mixture of first and third person, continues to employ characters to do his bidding and permanently abides in the realm of the present tense. (34)"

The real, historical author exists in time, usually the past. The implied author always exists in the present.

Interestingly enough, the parallel statement is not true for the real and implied reader. I suppose, the real, historical reader always exists in the present moment of the reading. The implied reader, as a property of the text, can live any time and any place -- depending on the attitude of the implied author about it. The implied reader of The Blood Oranges seems to be an immortal being who lives forever -- but also at the same time, a 1970s male scholar of literature and philosophy who reads in English (this list of characteristics is not meant to be exhaustive and depends on who is doing the analysis and for what purpose).


  1. I'm enjoying fantasizing about my implied reader and also my implied author. It is quite fascinating to dissect one's self thus.

  2. re: the author living forever in the text-- Brad Gooch quoted Flannery O'Connor as saying that she would trade 100 readers in her day for single reader in the next century-- paraphrasing, but something to that effect.

  3. Theresa -- I too enjoy the exercise! Not sure how it impacts my writing yet, but somehow -- it does :)

    Evelyn, I corrected the typo about John Hawkes' year of death (1998, of course). Thanks for letting me know!