Book 1.5 If on a winter’s night… Who’s the author?

On page 117 there is a passage in If on a winter’s night a traveler about authorship. The premise of the passage is a great bit of imagination: Suppose there was this wheezing, shroom-popping old man, and suppose he was the author of all of the world’s stories? Or, as Calvino describes him, the “primordial magma from which the individual manifestations of each writer develop.” Whew, yes, exactly. Calvino lists a number of famous authors this old man supposedly is the reincarnation of: Dumas, Joyce, and the author of the Arabian Nights. But he says Homer, the purported author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, is not among that crowd:

Since he never died and has continued through the millennia living and composing, the author, besides the couple of poems usually attributed to him, also of many of the most famous narratives known to man.

What’s he getting at here? Why, of all of these authors, is Homer “alive?” A few pages earlier there’s another scene that references Homer. Here, a debate has broken out over whether a particular book is the work of one author or another, as there has been a mix-up with the covers and titles. The details aren’t important. One character finally complains

What does the name of the author on the jacket matter? Let us move forward in thought to three thousand years from now. Who knows which books from our period will be saved, and who knows which authors’ names will be remembered? Some books will remain famous but will be considered anonymous works… other authors’ names will still be well known, but none of their works will survive… or perhaps all the surviving books will be attributed to a single, mysterious author, like Homer.

Let’s assume then that Calvino argues Homer never existed as a single person but is the wellspring of a group of common ideas. Yes, exactly just like this:

Ah! Franklin W. Dixon, the Homer of our times. Or, if you prefer, his female alternative, Carolyn Keene. (It is worth pointing out that both of these series were operated by a publishing house called, I kid you not, the Stratemeyer Syndicate.)

We’ll pick up this vein about the nature of authorship some other day (We’ve got plenty of Philip Roth’s to read, after all), but to finish up that other thought: The idea about the author’s name on the dustjacket being unimportant. It is more complicated than just “who cared who wrote it.” A book is not just the words inside. There is the message that was meant by the author, and whether you “get” that message, or even if you disagree and have a new interpretation, regardless the identity of the author is important. Case in point, Zora Neal Hurston and Henry Miller were born in the same year. If it had been Hurston who’d written Tropic of Cancer, and Miller Their Eyes Were Watching God, those books would come across very differently to us as readers. Authors do matter. Not caring who he or she is would be the same as drinking a bottle of wine without a thought to the grape or ground.


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