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Shoot Me, I'm the Author

Brittany Pladek

Brittany Pladek

Brittany Pladek


Essay #3

Shoot me, I'm the Author

What you're about to read is a paper of literary criticism. I'm telling you now. Just so you know.

Who determines genre in literature which seems to stubbornly defy categorization? When a literary work evolves from one genre to another, how should we classify it? Should we stick with the author's original intentions, or should we draw our own conclusions? Does evolution of a form necessitate a re-labeling of that form---even when it contradicts the author's stated purpose? In this paper, I'll be examining these questions through the lens of the memoirs of Herculine Babin, an eighteenth-century hermaphrodite who committed her life to paper before committing suicide at age thirty.

Herculine's narrative begins as a fairly cohesive, chronological account of her childhood. It is a "memoir" in the strictest dictionary sense: "An account of the personal experiences of an author" (American Heritage 1). Its first chapters read less like a story than a list of bulleted events; Herculine keeps her paragraphs short and her introspection minimal. While she does acknowledge her own emotions (especially the negative ones), she doesn't especially emphasize them. For example, a typical paragraph from the book's early chapters reads: "I had taken her hand, which I clasped in my own, and, unable to explain myself otherwise, for I was violently upset, I brought it to my lips" (Barbin 6-7). Here, Herculine portrays her childhood misery as factually as any other "physical" occurrence---plainly stated, sans elaboration.

However, as the narrative progresses, Herculine's narrator becomes increasingly self-aware. Her paragraphs lengthen, and her depictions of events begin to lose their "objective" feel. They grow at once less cohesive, more introspective, and more emotional. For example, on page thirty-five, she writes: "If I were to write a novel, I could... produce pages that would be as dramatic... as any that have ever been created by Alexandre Dumas or Paul Feval! ! !" (Barbin 35). Herculine's purpose for her narrative seems to have changed. Instead of a factual recording, she compares her work to fiction authors---as if her real purpose is to draw out the drama through which she's lived, not present a "factual" account. Her annoying over-usage of exclamation points (which increases as the book progresses) and penchant for emotionality bear witness to this goal.

By the end of the book, Herculine's emotional outbursts have completely overwhelmed her initial narrative cohesion. The episodes from her life appear at ever more erratic intervals between long, weepy tangents which sound, often as not, something like this: "May 30, 186: Lord! Lord! The cup of my sorrows, is it not empty, then? Must Your divine hand, then, spread out over me only to strike, only to break, this so profoundly embittered heart...etc." (Barbin 102). The book seems no longer to the reader to be "an account of the personal experiences of an author"---a memoir. Instead, Herculine's incessant teenage whining, narrative loopiness, and sudden practice of dating her entries make the end of her book read more like a diary. The book seems to have evolved from one genre to the next (or devolved, as the case may be).

So what is it, then? Memoir, diary, or both? Can we, the readers, have our cake and eat it too? More importantly---is it our right, as readers, to decide? Despite the diary-like unraveling of her book, at its end Herculine still considers it a memoir. This is obvious from the fact that she keeps addressing her readers: "May you, my readers, never know all the horror that is contained in that remark" (Barbin 110). Ok, fine. So---like any modern autobiographer or memoirist---she wants this thing published. Her beloved readers may disagree, but---

Who's to say she's wrong?

Now don't start spouting Foulcault at me. Barthes killed the author and Foulcault danced on his grave. I realize Foulcault was the one who dug Herculine out of her coffin, but by his own argument, that doesn't give him rights to decipher the book. Hell, let's even grant Barthes the basic crux of his argument: the reader decides the meaning. "A text is made of multiple writings... but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author" (Barthes 1). Right. Peachy. But we're talking about genre here. That's a whole different ballgame.

See, genre deals with intended audience. Let's say I'm Herculine Barbin, and they've slapped a Mars sign on my forehead and I'm damn pissed about it. I'm going to tell the world! So I sit in my little room and scribble out this thing, and during the five years I'm writing my life is just going down the john, and hell yes that affects my writing! So what if the last few pages of my "memoirs" read like whiny teenage poetry? So what if I use a zillion exclamation points, overdramatize everything, and beg for death every few pages? I'm still writing for an audience. The difference between a memoir and a diary is that people read memoirs. Sure, people read diaries too, but no one writes a diary just to get it published. Or they do, but that intended audience turns it into a memoir.

And Herculine definitely wants her stuff read. I mean, at the end of the book, she's addressing her audience every other page! She even accuses them in places, hoping, I guess, that they'll learn something from all her misery (or at least feel really really bad about themselves): "I tell you this, I, whom you have trod beneath your feet---that I dominate you with the full height of my immaterial, virginal nature, with my long sufferings" (Barbin 100). (Oooh, sca-ry). She's not doing it for spite, folks. Well, actually she is---but to spite someone, you have to actually engage them. Which = audience. Which = genre.


Ok, I'll admit that if this were an argument over whether something was a satire or a comedy, things wouldn't be so stupidly obvious. Although if you come up to me waving a copy Gulliver's Travels and telling me it's the "greatest romance I've ever read," I'll give you the look I give the TV whenever Bush makes a speech. (Hint: think chimpanzee). I mean, let's get real here, people! We can't just off the author totally, especially when it comes to genre, and especially when that genre is memoir! What, are we gonna dig up Herculine and explain to her why we've got a better bead on her life than she does? Turn her little skull around and say, "Yo dude, nice diary you've got here..." The one place where the author lives forever is genre, because genre isn't meaning or tone or context or any of that other English-major crap---it's who the author wanted to read her book. And, no matter what sort of crazy shit an author pulls out of her back pocket, that doesn't change. Period. End of story. Aloha.

The end.

Well... maybe just one thing more. I'm anticipating a lot of flak for this paper. (Oh no! Curse words! Sca-ry! Somebody call the AFA!) Cuz I'm sure you---yes YOU, my captive audience, Professor-who-is-reading-this---don't really wanna see it as a paper. Or disagree with it. Or think I'm cheeky. Or something. Whatever. My point is, hey, I surrender. Meaning-wise you've got me, I'm dead, I fail, bang bang. Make up whatever meaning you want to, grade me however you want to, aim your little Foulcault guns at me and laugh. You're the reader and you've got this French-dude-given right to decide if whatever the hell I'm saying makes sense. But yaknow what? I'm still the author. And I say this is a PAPER, dammit, a paper! Not a rant, not some dumb experiment in writing style, a PAPER! That's my genre, and I'm sticking to it, and if you don't like it... well...

NYAH to you! 1


1 A brief word of explanation, in case I fail completely in my objective, and the above RANT is taken seriously. I agree completely with Foulcault. Not only the meaning, but the genre of any ostensibly-literary work is up for reader interpretation. Personally I believe that the evolution of Herculine's narrative is one from memoir to diary, regardless of her intentions as to audience. Despite the fact that Herculine obviously wanted her book read, by its closing chapters, it has moved beyond the point where its author is consciously attempting to construct a narrative that will be cohesive to readers.

While I do agree with my "ranting" self in that genre often reflects the intended audience of a piece of literature, this is only true when the work remains consistently produced for reader consumption. There is no question in my mind that Herculine, in her last stages of composition, gave up trying to build a coherent memoir and simply ranted at the "poor fallen spirits" (100) who have made her life miserable. Like any angry teenage diarist, she spewed out her grievances against the world at large, without any real consideration of readers who might later discover her work and try to make sense of it. Thus it stopped being a memoir---something written with the reader in mind---and became a diary---something written at, but not for, later readers.

Another glaring flaw in the RANT'S argument is that intended audience does not always match actual audience. Far more people than Herculine intended have, via Foulcault, had access to her narrative---what then are they to make of it? They're certainly not numbered among the "unfortunate men" (Barbin 100), at whom she railed intermittently from roughly page 87 onward.

In (real!) conclusion, my basic point with this paper was to subvert my own argument through example. What you read above evolves from a paper on literary criticism into an occasionally-obscene, slang-filled rant. Though "I," as the author, have a consistent audience in mind throughout, halfway through my work I stop trying to cater my writing to that audience. This changes the nature of the genre. If I had remained polite and coherent throughout, "I" would have truly written a complete paper: not a paper that devolves into a RANT.


Sources Utilized

Barbin, Herculine and Foucault, Michael. Herculine Barbin; Being the Recently

Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite.

New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.

"Memoir." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.

New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.

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