Friday, January 4, 2013

Authorial Intent: Hardy, Steinbeck and the Gauntlet of Social Critique

I am thinking about authorial intent - an overarching goal to which a writer aspires in the fabrication of a literary narrative. For it is no small undertaking, this profusive writing of things. Years of painstaking word-threading. To what end? What does one wish to accomplish at the conclusion of such labor? Are these not questions that bedevil the writer prior to the commencement of such operations? Such it is that I now dwell upon these issues.

The novel waiting in the dusky wings of my mind is one of a young nation; a flawed, dynamic, hopelessly optimistic nation, already of proud achievements and horrendous racial transgressions; a nation embroiled in the Great Democratic Experiment with the eyes of the world upon them. Although my novel is set a generation or two after the Revolution, San Francisco in the mid-nineteenth century represents a new beginning, a precocious metropolis newly-born from the salty fogbanks and citrus herbs of the Californian coast; a multicultural conglomeration of immigrants seeking opportunity, drawn by the gleam and luster of golden veins that threaded through the Sierras and dusted rocky escarpments in a glittering promise of wealth and influence. In my later period, however,  the gold deposits have diminished and those multitude that sought to depart weighed down by nuggets are still skulking in the dark end of Kearny Street, and loitering in Portsmouth Square. Despite devastating fires and recurring cholera epidemics, the burgeoning port city expanded across the hillside in growth ungoverned by any overarching administrative plan. There is a lack of constraint that intrigues me: manifest in mob law, racial persecution, unbridled prostitution and gambling, and the rough justice of vigilantism. I want to write a novel that examines the roots of things; to examine how 'Americanism' is engendered in such a community at such a time.

So what of other authors? Of other intents in the fictional-weave? There comes a point in the life of every novel when it first embarks, when it is newly-disseminated and the plot and characters are freshly evaluated by a discerning readership. Novels provide a reflection of ourselves as perceived through the authorial lens. The weaving of a fictional account pulls threads from the fabric of reality, creating in the process a narrative that is viscerally familiar but author-manipulated to convey a subjective truth. We discern the depths of ourselves within the projected characters, recognizing the undercurrents that propel them through the pages and ourselves through the course of our lives. This cognizance of the literary-self is not always a comfortable sensation; like the medieval hairshirt it prickles and irritates, particularly when the portrayed perspective is one unpalatable to preconceived notions (not that pointed literary truth is comparable to religious self-flagellation!) Victorian sensibilities were thusly offended when Thomas Hardy released Tess of the d'Urbervilles in 1891, widely condemned for its sympathetic portrayal of  a 'fallen woman.'

And so I remain still embroiled in the Victorian period, my musings wandering from the Dickensian squalor of old London to the rural decline depicted in Thomas Hardy's great works. Jude the Obscure published four years after Tess met with an ongoing hue and cry from the Victorian public for its frank treatment of sex, oft being referred to as 'Jude the Obscene.' Lambasted for its apparent attack on the institution of marriage through the presentation of concepts such as erotolepsy (read: sexual recklessness - term coined by Hardy himself) booksellers sold the novel surreptitiously concealed within brown paper bags; the Bishop of Wakefield is reputed to have burnt his copy. In his postscript of 1912, Hardy humorously referred to this incident in the course of the book's career: "After these hostile verdicts from the press its next misfortune was to be burnt by a bishop - probably in his despair at not being able to burn me."

Slightly more than two decades later, the San Francisco News hired John Steinbeck to cover the desperate conditions wrought by the Great Depression in California's Central Valley. Discovering entire communities devastated by disease and hunger Steinbeck was enraged, and compelled, as a result, to pen his magnificent novel The Grapes of Wrath; within this work he confronted an inconvenient truth that undermined the national mythology inherent in the American Dream: hard work and virtue do not guarantee success. Upon publication in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath was accused of being false, offensive and communist; despite such detractors it sold out immediately and ultimately won him the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The Winter of Our Discontent continued the theme, fostering a new awareness of the Faustian bargain that underlay the moral degeneration of  1950's culture. During a presentation speech awarding Steinbeck the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, Secretary Anders Österling described the writer as an "independent expounder of the truth with an unbiased instinct for what is genuinely American, be it good or bad."

Hardy and Steinbeck's novels ran the gauntlet of societal disapproval, they challenged complacent assumptions and lay bare prejudices and abuses within the political and cultural enterprise; both were roundly censured as a result: the former for daring to sympathetically portray a woman of 'blemished' virtue and his candid depiction of sex, and the latter for daring to expound upon the truth of things, to call comfortable national mythology into question. They are, to my  mind, heroes of the literary pantheon who did not veer from their compositional calling, nor shy from the challenge of depicting the miseries that they perceived...regardless of the hairshirt-discomfort they may have caused to themselves and others along the way. Works of this kind challenge the status quo, present a glaring picture of consequences post-cataclysm, traveling forward upon current paths to bewail repercussions of deliberate political or social write a book which somehow changes the perceptions and understandings of things, which presents an alternative thought-experiment - what a thing that would be indeed! In determining my own authorial intent I only hope that I can muster a voice so clear and true as those two magnificent writers who came before.


  1. Dear PJ,

    The artist can wear so many hats at once: messenger, clown, muse, sage; perhaps the most controversial role of the intellectual artist is that of the "social critic."

    Unfortunately for Hardy, he tried to be a social critic in a time of "art for art's sake" of the Victorian or Romantic era, something that was simply unheard of and not well received, not to mention the abrupt sexual content in his material (that is not to say that a few others were not doing the same), which I believe explains the (overt) unpopular reviews of his novels in his time. Hardy was ahead of his time and set the standards for a more Bohemian art form.

    Steinbeck, on the other hand, received literary awards and the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature for voicing harsh realities of the American society during an era of Social Realism in an emerging industrial society. He was a product of his time.

    To me it is very clear why these two, very worthy authors experienced two, very different public receptions of their art.

    The voice you choose to create within the time frame you are talking about for your novel would not be "art for art's sake" of the Victorian or Romantic era, but rather something closer to Social Realism of an emerging industrial society. However, you are writing from the perspective of a twenty-first century narrative, which gives you the benefit of a century of research, social/political/historical analysis, technological advantage, the blessing of your innate intellectual spin, and plenty of creative license as a time traveler to envisage this vista you call California calling.

    1. Yes - often I think that characterizes the literary social critic - they are often ahead of their time and acutely penetrating in their analysis of social mores....yes I will be writing, as you say, an utterly different kind of novel - but I found the point of authorial intent an interesting one - the intention to deliberately take a perceived reality and fashion it into a statement within a narrative that the writer is well aware will cause social ripples. It is not that I intend that myself - but in examining this particular period of American history there are unpalatable realities which will be threaded within the work - not that they necessarily paint such a rosy picture - but like the accolades Steinbeck received when he got the nobel prize for literature - I would endeavor to depict a truth, to try to develop an instinct for what was quintessentially American (seems incongruous to apply such label to a conglomeration of immigrants that inhabited SF at this time) whether nasty or uplifting...and there was a great deal that was fairly nasty.

  2. Truth for truths sake can be an uncomfortable arena. Having said that PJ, you are well equipped and ready for that task.

    I think with Steinbeck he didn't really care what other's thought of him and so felt a freedon, if you will, to be more at risk than others during that time period. Perhaps its easier to be brave in one's writing when the outcome is irrelevant to the writer.

    In any event I know you will bring out all the characters and dress them in truth. Happy New Year dear sage.

    1. Thank you Blackhorse, for your visit and your insightful words - I will endeavor to do them justice! Happy New Year to you also dear friend!

  3. I can almost taste San Francisco the way you write it, PJ - hurry up and write it so that I can savor it all!

    1. Thank you Sarah - I will do my best! Your visit to my humble musings fireside is greatly appreciated.

  4. PJ, You are inspiring to say the least. Which star are you reaching for? I think it is already in your grasp, but maybe you knew that already from others telling you this over and over.

    When I begin the examination of a novel, and I slowly slip between its pages; I am either swiftly drawn in, irresistibly wondering what will be unearthed or revealed next, or I am immediately repelled by some senseless out of place vulgarity, while scoffed at by others who could read my intellect and heart. Each reader has their own patterns of living, and thoughts that guide them; sometimes propelling them in their consumption of literature and their varied choices regarding the same. What some would call a good read, others might call trash and contemplate burning it, if only in their minds. There are readers at both ends of a pendulum that is swinging, and at every point along its way. So the broad expanse of people here opens doors in all directions and their tastes vary throughout the generations.

    I enjoy the literary quality of your writing P.J., and such expansions of good word usage becomes a magnet to my mind, and at times I wonder why, except it draws me higher in my own reach for a finer intellect of speaking, and more *voluminous characterizations in my own writings. You've opened to me a new ocean of thought across that great expanse of the mind, and even to the depths I am curiously and delightfully drawn. So much now awaits us all in our readings.

    *voluminous |vəˈlo͞omənəs|
    occupying or containing much space; large in volume, in particular:
    • (of clothing or drapery) loose and ample.
    • (of writing) very lengthy and full.
    • (of a writer) producing many books.

    Where eagles fly,
    Don (Greywolf) Ford

    1. Don, thank you from the depths of my writing self - your encouragement is a boon indeed, and appreciated more than I can adequately express. I am quite simply wanting, above all, to write a book of which I am myself proud. But I want to delve into the depths of things, I want to viscerally (I do love that word!) comprehend a time/an era as much as I am able and then I want to write the feeling, the essence of it - but I want to do so in such a way that the novel is a forward-moving, plot-driven, character-imbued thrilling one...I want to introduce readers to an historical place that they might know little about - and I want to intrigue them with it. But most of all I want to be proud of the end manuscript - regardless of its final reception I simply want to feel that it is the best book that I could write at that given point in time. Does that make sense? Thank you again for visiting and for your wonderful contribution.