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Stranger Than Fiction, The Author God, & Metaauthorship/metareadership
cap, captain miss america
So, I have been looking forward to this movie since I first saw a trailer for it sometime early this summer.

What was very odd to me is the number of children who were in an audience for a movie that is basically a story about literary theory.

I am going to start by discussing it with no spoilers and what I think it means in terms of authorship, etc. I'm assuming anyone interested in seeing the movie has seen at least some form of advertisement, and there's only one thing in the movie that I think can really be spoiled but it's so much the crux of the movie that I don't want to touch it somewhere where people can read it without warning, and that's obviously whether Harold thwarts his imminent death.

The question of whether an author is, effectively, a god, like Karen Eiffel becomes in Stanger than Fiction, is something people have discussed for so many centuries that the idea pops up in Plato & Aristophanes, Shakespeare (Shakespeare wrote at least three plays that are thinly-veiled discussions of his own personal author-godliness, namely Hamlet, The Tempest, and The Winter's Tale, and he touched on it in almost all of his comedies and a couple of his tragedies, too).

More significant in this case, since Eiffel is a woman, is Mary Shelley's work in Frankenstein, which is essentially a story about how men and childless women use art and authorship to take the place of children in their lives, and Victor Frankenstein sees childbirth/creation as making him like a God. I mean, we're all familiar with people's fear of what it means for man to play God-- it's what turned the eugenics movement into Nazism, it's the reason some people oppose genetics-based scientific and health initiatives, cloning, even in-vitro fertilization or questions of choosing when to turn off life support. And yes, I'm digressing. But the point is that one's work is a creative, generative force by nature, and in Frankenstein, where childbirth and womanhood are kind of elevated to the level of a demigod, the ability to attain such a thing, and thus, godliness, is also something to be feared. One's work needs to be loved and respected, not discarded-- the work of authorship is given equality with the Author himself (or herself, though I speak of Frankenstein here and not Shelley). It is somewhat ironic coming from a woman whose husband abandoned his first wife while she was pregnant, but lots of people have already written stuff about the generative force and fear of reproduction and lots of other lovely things in terms of Frankenstein.

So what does it mean when we turn an author into a god? There is clearly a differentiation here in terms of whether we are speaking of an omniscient, omnipotent God in the way of a monotheistic religion or a more human and prone to error Ancient type god, because if we equate Eiffel with Zeus or Hera, etc., that's somewhat different from equating her with The Creator of All, if you get my drift. And in some ways, that's safer, because those kinds of gods are prone to error. They do things wrong. When Bible-God does something jackassy (which he does on occasion), he's like, "dude, Job, stop freakin' questionin' me! My job is too hard. Do YOU wanna try bein' God?" Meanwhile, Zeus is turning into another cute, fluffy animal to seduce a virgin and impregnate her, as he is wont to do.

I think that the most interesting point in terms of Eiffel's Godlike powers is in the scene where the phone rings. There is a Jewish school of thought that the Bible is history not because it happened, but because God said that it happened, and that God's word makes everything true (& in the New Testament, the Word *is* God). In the Creation in Genesis and Gospel of John (In the beginning, there was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God) eg, that which God says, is-- God's Word is the generative force by which all things are made. But the phone ringing scene is absolute in its definition that Eiffel's words are a real performative utterance, just as the words of the Biblical God are & create. The fact that her notes, however, do not constitute a performative utterance brings up some questions about God along the same vein-- can God think of doing something without doing it? Can God go, hmm, I think I'll make Light and is Light not actually made until God speaks "Let there be Light" just as the phone does not ring even though Eiffel expects it until she types "The phone rang?"

And I think that is the crux of Eiffel's breakdown and subsequent realization. She's God. But she's spent her whole life being a God of Death, when God is generally thought of as a Creative force (moreso after the movement of the New Testament to the Old Testament, clearly). She has not been able to complete a book in ten years because her life & her acts as an author (god of sorts) have been as destructive as her habits, and it takes making her a god in act to teach her the value of creation & generation.

I also want to throw out the question of whether tragedy is, as Professor Hilbert seems to think, the more valuable endeavor, or can comedy be equally gratifying in a literary context? In his description of the two, he points out that comedy is the celebration of life or reproduction or generation or something like that (I forget the exact term he uses), as we all know, and thus, to a generative God, one would think that life/comedy would be the more valuable of the two.

Now, back to Shelley, because I got quite stuck on the Shelley question during the movie. I'm not sure how many of you have read her husband's work, Alastor, which is clearly about choosing between earthly pleasures and a higher, more mystical calling, and I know some people have read as Shelley's (Percy's now) attempt to reconcile his human relationships and his devotion to activism. Which I just wanted to note because I find it an interesting tie-in with Ana and her own conflicts in terms of choosing between her steadfast stick-it-to-the-man attitude and her interest/love, etc., for Harold which develops over the course of the film. I know that this was a conflict for the Shelleys throughout their lives, so I find it fascinating that in a movie that focuses so much on the same concept that Mary's masterpiece focused on, that there would be another major theme that comes out of something her husband grappled with throughout his (short and poetically-ended in a very Karen-Eiffel-esque manner) life. It also (Alastor, the poem) is kind of interesting in terms of Eiffel, too, because it can be looked at as the metephysical journey between Life and Art, which is very much what happens to Eiffel, who becomes so wrapped up in big-A art that she forgets about Life and dwells on death until she discovers what it means to be responsible for someone else's life, and that rejuvenates her Art.

Finally, and then I'm going to bed because I'm just about done musing on this movie, I wanted to talk about Eiffel's statement about Harold at the end of the movie, about someone who is willing to face death when he knows it, and I just thought the whole idea of someone who was willing to give up his own life to create great art (which man, I want to think about in terms of The Winter's Tale, but I really need to sleep first), which reminded me of the author=God equation in terms of the story of Abraham and the Binding of Isaac. God tested Abraham's faith in the Bible by making him knowingly bring his only son to his death and give him up willingly, which is the same thing Harold does at the end of the film. Although I'm not sure in Harold's case what that is, because it's not the same test of faith Abraham shows. Harold goes into it beieving that Eiffel's story is more important than his own singular life,which is kind of him raising art above nature.

Okay, I only got through Author God stuff and not the other topic, bah. This might turn into a series of posts.

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>>There is clearly a differentiation here in terms of whether we are speaking of an omniscient, omnipotent God in the way of a monotheistic religion or a more human and prone to error Ancient type god.

I obviously cannot respond to this yet because I don't want to read the spoilers, but at some point I am going to take issue with you differentiating between a modern monotheistic god and an ancient polytheistic one like that.

You're letting modern views of them influence your analysis by saying the Greek gods were more prone to mistakes and being human. In some ways (and definitely in certain pantheons, like the Celtic one), the ancient gods were less human than the monotheistic god that a lot of people believe in today.

Okay, thanks. I'd definitely like to hear more about that once you see the movie.

& I think there is definitely something to what you're saying because now I'm thinking about the fact that Frankenstein is termed "The Modern Prometheus" which I wasn't taking into consideration.

I love the whole Prometheus debate. That's the part of the book that I got really into in high school (I guess I was destined to be an archaeologist even then). Is it Frankenstein, stealing the fire of the gods to create life out of clay? Or is it the monster, the ultimate Other who doesn't fit in with the other intelligent beings because he's made of something different, so he has to steal knowledge from them because they won't give it to him willingly?

This is going to get really rambling, and it is hard to address the movie directly since I haven't seen it yet.

I just think it's way too easy to lump one ancient pantheon in with another and dismiss them all as being too "human" because that way, they don't present as much of a challenge to modern belief systems. I mean, they were really different from each other to begin with -- the Celts didn't have a conceptualization of deities even looking "human" until they were essentially Romanized, and if you're getting into Polynesian beliefs, you can't really say that an earthquake is human at all.

And dismissing divine shenanigans as making the deities more "human" in Ancient Greece kind of overlooks the fact that 1) the myths were there to emphasize certain beliefs and behaviors within a society, not just for people to giggle at; and 2) how is the conceptualization of a god that can turn into a divine bull MORE human than a conceptualization of some guy with a beard who sits up in the sky?

I could see the argument being made that there are different types of author gods in that there is the author-god responsible for a singular character or situation (like how many ancient deities governed only a specific realm) and there is the author-god that runs the entire fictional universe (more like what I think you're trying to get at with the monotheistic/polytheistic thing), and that might be a valid comparison. But I still think it's a tough statement to make because I can't really think of a single author-god that is both omnipotent and forever.

They might be all powerful, but their powers are specifically limited within some sort of framework. Even in the Tempest, where Prospero/Shakespeare might be stepping into the role of the one and supreme author-god for the duration of the story, there is obviously a world outside that story -- just the fact that he ends up on the island to begin with implies that the author-god is not everlasting the way that a supreme deity would be. In that way, it kind of undermines your argument to begin with because there clearly IS an alpha and omega, a beginning and end to the author-god's powers -- which directly conflicts with the idea that the author-god is in the mold of the Christian deity who has no beginning or end. He might be almighty for the duration of the story, but unless the story itself implies that there is no world outside of it, an author cannot truly be omnipotent.

I'd be interested to see how it works in Stranger than Fiction, if the author-god runs the entire world or only events in relation to the character's life.

I won't answer the question about Stranger than Fiction, but I think that the (and now I kind of want to watch Bruce Almighty again) main issue I'm grappling with, that yeah, I think is getting lost in terms of that part of my post, is whether an author-god, conceptually, is a generative, creative god (whether they're a god at all, of course), or whether an author-god is a sadist playing with chess. Which is a pretty clear decision that Prospero has to make over the course of the play, where he starts out being pretty sadistic and by the end acknowledges that generative force is better than destructive force.

I think you're making a very interesting point in terms of the breadth and depth of control an author-god has, and I think perhaps-- but I want to think about this some more-- is the answer that an author only has so much control as s/he authors? They control those elements which they write on or about, but if it's not written, then where does the control go?

>>whether an author-god, conceptually, is a generative, creative god (whether they're a god at all, of course), or whether an author-god is a sadist playing with chess.

Could that represent the difference between a good story and a bad story? Because I can think of some stories that come across as the egotistical sadist example (*coughmnightshymalencough*), but they're never very good. Maybe intention has an effective on the finished product because in the generative case, the author is creating for the benefit of an audience, whether the audience is himself or the reader. In the "Look how powerful I am!" instance, the author is creating in order to mess around with his own power, and the story suffers for it.

Which makes sense anyway, because I think that since as critics, we always must judge from the viewpoint of the reader, the stronger stories are going to be those crafted with the reader in mind.

And the second point sounds like a tree-in-the-woods type of question. I think the power of an author-god is limited to the instant where he is creating or that creation is being observed by an audience. If the book is shut and the story isn't being told, how could he have power at that very moment?

Could that represent the difference between a good story and a bad story?

This is actually getting very close to the main argument in the movie, so I'm going to try to be careful in how I answer it.

I am definitely going to agree in terms of authors who perceive themselves as gods, because generally they seem to see themselves as more wrathful gods than creative gods. Yes, they create something, but woe betide anyone who questions their creation & how they went about the act of creation.

The question is, do author-god characters in the work themselves, fit the same mold? Certainly when they're Shyamalan playing himself, they do, but not all fictional characters made to be author-gods are necessarily a carbon of their author. Or are they? I'm trying to think of examples of ones that I know for sure aren't.

I guess if you then look at Miranda as Prospero's creation, you've got a kind of interesting dynamic in the play, because Prospero makes Ferdinand work for Miranda--prove himself worthy of his creation. But you already know that I think Prospero is a tool for most of the play.

The second point I think is more in reference to your question about the scope of an author-god's reach & fictional characters who act as author-gods within the text, & yes, it is a tree in the woods sort of answer/question. But if the author doesn't pick up the pen, then they're not creating & thus (like Prospero does) are renouncing their god-hood, whether actively or passively. So, yeah, an author-god can't be omnipotent because they can only ever control as much as they write.

Okay, so we have Story A which was written by Mr. X about fictional character Y who is the author-god in his own universe. Y is absolutely not intended to be Mr. X, and over the course of the story, he takes the chess-game view of authorship and just begins randomly messing with the people around him.

Looking at it that way, I think what I said still holds. If the author-god is just randomly fucking with people, it is not going to create an effective story -- it's like a monkey on a typewriter banging out Shakespeare, possible but unlikely to happen anytime soon. If the author-god uses his power to shape a story, then he becomes the generative story-telling force. And I think that an author-god character can be randomly fucking with people and still be forced into the role of the generative force by the actual author of the story. Look at what happens in Shiver, where we have Prospero just randomly messing with things but yet it turns into a storytelling device.

I think it's more that an author-god character can sometimes be used to disguise the true author-god of the story, which is always the writer. It's like what I was saying about Joss Whedon below. An author doesn't have to appear as a specific character within the story, but an effective author is always using his creative power to craft a story for his audience.

if the author-god is just randomly fucking with people, it is not going to create an effective story

It is either going to create an ineffective story, or, I guess, it could also create a situation where if the story is an effective one, the author-god character is going to be rendered impotent. I think this is what we were talking about over IM in terms of Ben/Henry in Lost, where his own grasp on authorship becomes tenuous and destructive, yeah?

I like the comment about the author-god figure being a disguise for the real author-god in the story, as well,and I think that ties very well into Shiver, too, where we have a literal god (DP), authoritative characters, and actual authors/players who are making the decisions (one would hope) about whether the generative actions come from a character or from chance, and which character they do come from at which point in the story.

I guess that's really the thing that I regret the most about Shiver, is that even now when we've been flat-out telling people that it's an experiment with authorship, they don't get how that fits into the universe we're creating. And it's what holds them back from getting involved, every single time. The people who get the most into things are the ones that realize that okay, this is a story and my character needs to act like a character in a story to become a driving force. Everyone else just kind of flits around complaining because we aren't setting things up to focus specifically on them, when in reality, we don't set things up to focus specifically on ANYONE. People just are unable to utilize story conventions in order to get involved.

And in the case of the author-god character, that's still the author-god himself using the character in order to craft an effective story. He just becomes more of a device rather than a literal representation.

I have never even heard of this movie. Besides for being obviously very thought provoking, was it good? Also, I think it was when I took my Gotham writing class, the teacher made some comment in the begining about how we're all like gods when it comes to our writing because we create the characters and decide what happens, etc. I'm not sure how much I agree with that, since while we do create characters, there is something to be said for characters sort of having a life of their own anyway. But what I always thought about was when writing fantasy, an author can seem like more of a 'god' since you get to actually create a new world, sometimes, and new rules for how things are run, you can defy gravity, you can have a world on a turtle shell being carried by four elephants (isn't that discworld? something like that). But, in any case, you can basically do whatever the heck you want and if anyone calls you on it, you can be like, "hey, who's telling this story, me or you?" Hehe, it's kind of like that joke (if you know the joke) about the house having four floors when it really only has three, or something like that. Sorry, that might have sounded really confusing.

Anyway, the point of this really long, ranty response is that I've always thought about the fact that an author can seem godly in the world he/she creates. Sometimes, when I was much younger, I used to imagine that God was like a director in a play and would sort of work things out in the world kind of the way my friends and I used to when we were playing dolls and things. I mean, you can't really compare yourself to God, but that's how I used to picture it anyway. Because you can make up whatever the heck you want and it's your world so you can never be wrong. I'm not sure if there was any point to this response than just to ramble, but, anyway, these are just my thoughts on this issue. If they made any sense at all.

I am actually someone who really counsels against engendering the concept of an author-god with writers & Shakespeare, in struggling with this question, determines in The Winter's Tale that an artist or author is not God, but an artist & he opens up a debate on art & nature and whether art can ever better nature. Is it possible for an artist to create in his/her work something that is greater than God, or no?

I also, on the other hand, would really counsel against the idea that characters have a mind of their own. Because too often I see new writers who have problems writing because their characters have a mind of their own and they feel like they can't force plot on their characters or make their characters do things. For an author, if your character's personality does not allow you to take the necessary steps to complete your story, it's often incumbent upon you to just change the character's personality, and imbuing a fictional character with power of any kind is putting your story, which is your own art/creation, out of your hands, which is not really healthy.

I also think that it's not a healthy mindset to get into to ask "who's doing it, me or you?" if someone calls you on something in your work. The critic is almost as important to the authorial process as the writer is in some cases, and "who'se doing it, me or you?" sounds almost too much like the Biblical God in the story of Job. Authors are fallible & criticism is something to be taken into consideration, because while you are writing, the critic is the reader, and what you as a writer create is, in the end, not for you but for the reader. If the reader can't appreciate it, then the art doesn't really hold up.

I think what happens in this movie is that it looks at the tightrope an author walks and the danger of the power an author can wield in creating a story-- not because an author can literally kill a man, but because what an author says about the world around him or her is going to affect readers in one way or another. We choose to present a certain world to our readership, and within that, we can present hope or futility, humor, irony, optimism or bitterness, acceptance or revolution.

Hmm, yeah. That makes sense. I guess with me, until very recently I never really wrote for anyone but myself. But I always felt that, say, if I decided to write a story about someone who was able to fly on a broomstick and someone told me that such a thing wasn't physically possible, I could always say that in my fantastical world it IS possible. Couldn't I? I'm really very new at writing stories that other people are actually going to be reading, so I know a whole bunch of rules come into play but I'm never sure just where the line is drawn.

As for characters having a mind of their own, I always thought you shouldn't force a story to go one way or the other but rather just go with it? I mean, I also heard you have to maintain control over the story and not let it start controlling you so, I guess I don't know where the line is drawn for this, also.

If people are questioning something like whether brooms can fly in a fictional world, you are being read by the wrong audience. However, if someone says, "I don't feel like the system for magical flight in your story is plausible because of x,y, and/or z," then that's another story entirely because that communicates that they are working on the principle that

1) flight is possible
2) this is not the same as the real world

and they still do not feel it is effectively written. I have honestly never heard of someone reading a fantasy book and saying it didn't work because dragons don't exist or because people can't really fly, although I don't doubt it happens. I have heard people say a book didn't work because the dragons didn't seem plausible or the method of flight was unconvincing.

I think that the idea of "just going with" a story isn't really conducive to proper arcing & development. You can write this way, of course, and many authors do, but it necessitates a lot of editing once you've finished the story, rather than a lot of planning beforehand. I think it's really up to you which way you prefer to work-- arcing ahead of time and then writing, or writing without an arc and seeing where it goes, then editing to streamline.

Yeah, I see what you're saying. I guess you can make up rules in your own world just as long as the rules all make sense and are plausable. And yeah, I've never heard of anyone saying those kinds of things about a fantasy book either, but I was just using that as an example. Though, a lot of times when I try to explain a story to someone, not even one that I wrote but just one that I read, and it's fantasy, if that person isn't so into fantasy (but just wanted to hear about the book or something), they usually give me a look and are like, "hmm, okay."

Anyway, I also really plan out my stories usually, but there was one story I handed in to my writing teacher this semester and she told me it sounded too forced, so I've been wondering about that recently, is all. But we did talk about both ways of writing and I guess each way works for variuos different authors.

You are much better at articulating this stuff than I am.

Yeah, your teacher might have been telling you to write more loosely because she feels like you need to experiment a bit more before finding the balance that's right for you. I plan things out in minute detail, but I know people who find that the just going with it school works much better for them.

And definitely-- you're going to find people who just don't like reading about things that don't happen in the real world. That's just their taste, and most of them are accepting that there are fantasy books, they're just going to stick their tongues out at them because they're not for you.

Okay, I am posting this instead of just IMing you because I need the time to reason it out.

I think that an argument could be made that in the case of a good writer, the author-god is present as a force in his story even when he is not a physical character. I'm thinking specifically about the movie "Serenity," and obviously spoilers are upcoming for the two people on the planet who still haven't seen it.

Joss Whedon is one of those writers who very obviously crafts his story for his audience. He has messages that he wants to get across, but these messages are effectively communicated through the story that he tells, not by plunking them in or randomly fucking with his characters.

I remember back when Serenity came out, and there was such an outcry over Wash dying. And Whedon effectively said that he had killed the character because he needed to show that sometimes the universe is random and people die for what isn't a good reason. And I would argue that the "random fluctuations" of the Whedonverse that resulted in Wash dying is the author directly putting himself into his story, but as a narrative force rather than any specific character. He killed Wash to make the overall story stronger because he needed his audience to believe that sometimes, his universe could be senseless and meaningless -- and I would definitely argue for the effectiveness of that, because I remember seeing the movie and being absolutely convinced that every character was going to die because Wash ate it.

So yeah, I think I would conclude that the difference between an effective author-god and an ineffective one is whether they use their powers to generate (specifically to create a story for their audience) or whether they use their powers just for themselves without any regard to the story that they're trying to tell, like they're randomly playing chess or flexing their ego.

Which is interesting in regards to roleplaying, too, because the people we always have problems with are the people who want the story to focus on THEM, instead of the ones who realize that we're trying to tell a story and can figure out ways to get involved within the context of that story rather than seeing the story as a spotlight that the author can just shift at will.

Yeah,the ending of Serenity would not have been nearly as powerful if Whedon hadn't chosen to kill that character. And it was clearly done for the benefit of the story, and not so Whedon could marvel at how smart he is. I don't think I've ever heard him marvel about his own intelligence-- listening to like the commentary on Buffy, he spends all his time marvelling at the intelligence of the people he's paying homage to.

The funny thing is that in some ways, the character of his that he shows up in the most is probably Xander, who is defintely not given any godlike qualities (except in his own imagination).

I think that one of the issues that we run into is the one kiwi_magic discusses below, where people feel that "see what happens" is an effective way of telling a story. It is, to an extent, but as writers, there always needs to be an eye on the story as a whole, on what is going to make a story more interesting as a story, rather than what might be interesting to do and see what happens. I guess that that sort of rules out the celestial clockmaker as ever being a good model for an author god. Authors must be active characters, or there is no story. If an author ceases to be active, then every character they write ceases to be active, and there is no character-driven element in what they do.

Now I see this person typing "Once upon a time" on a typewriter and glaring at it because the story doesn't write itself.

I don't have time to respond as fully as I would like to right now, but I hope that you do post more about The Winter's Tale. I also immediately thought of that in conjunction with the movie: the foregrounding of narrative, the living piece of art... yeah, I'd love to see your take on the relationships between the two.

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