Some Attempts at (Re)definition: Vulnerability

I have been thinking for a while about how our attempts to define craft terms influence our students’ (and our own) aesthetics, and I have wanted to try other definitions. The first post is here.

the real author’s stakes in the implied author

I usually take the first week of Intro to Fiction workshops to discuss vulnerability, which is key both to good writing and to good workshopping. However, it can be difficult to explain how a writer’s vulnerability gets into a story that doesn’t use the facts of the writer’s life, only their imagination. In the publishing world, vulnerability is often asked disproportionately of people of color, especially of women and LGBTQ+ people of color, as if these writers are expected to put their lived experience on display in order to publish a book. This demand for personal vulnerability starts with how people read stories by marginalized writers as if they must be based on “real life,” and carries over to the kinds of questions that are asked of marginalized writers in interviews and at readings.

In other words, like everything vulnerability is a matter of privilege and power, and if it is asked carelessly without consideration of privilege, it can be another example of the burden marginalized people often have to teach other people how to talk to them if any actual conversation is to take place.

Vulnerability then often seems to be referred to as if it is a transaction between writers and readers. But to be vulnerable in a craft sense starts long before a writer reaches any audience. An obvious example is the diary, in which the owner usually risks vulnerability because they don’t expect to reach an audience. That kind of vulnerability can make diaries very compelling reads. An outside reader does, of course, make the diary writer vulnerable, but the vulnerability on the page is not between writer and reader—it’s between the writer and the person one creates just by putting down any word on paper.

In literary analysis, this “created” author—the persona of the author, because language can never represent an entire complicated human personality, the persona created via choices about what to write down and what to leave out, about what words to use, about tone, style, character, etc. (craft choices)—is sometimes referred to as the “implied author.” The actual author and the implied author then are not the same—the implied author is the author implied by the text.

This isn’t the same as the narrator, either. Imagine a satire in which the narrator hates nature, but the satire suggests that the narrator is wrong to hate nature. The implied author is friendlier toward nature, which is partly how we understand that we are supposed to read the narrator satirically.

The actual author might be more like the implied author or more like the narrator or somewhere in between—or the actual author might hold a more complex view that shares something in common with either side.

Where vulnerability comes in is in the actual risk the actual author takes in writing, in creating an implied author. That is—the kind of vulnerability we respond to doesn’t need to be an author revealing the darkest parts of themselves to the audience; it is more about the personal investment (the stakes) of the author in the text.

If, in the example above, the actual author doesn’t care about nature one way or the other, and therefore risks nothing of themselves in the writing of this satire, then that lack of vulnerability comes through. It doesn’t matter whether the characters share the darkest parts of themselves in this satire or not—it matters whether or not the actual author is invested in creating all of this. Sometimes writers seem to write whole books by rote; they write the same book over and over again. There’s nothing new or exciting, because there is nothing new or exciting about the implied author—it’s the same implied author as in every other book the actual author writes. The actual author hasn’t risked anything more since their first book. We know these writers, and we know these books. We can tell.

We have to risk something in our creations, just as in workshop we have to risk something in our critiques. The worst books, like the worst critiques, say something not because it matters, but just for the sake of saying anything at all.

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