Friday, 7 April 2017

I and you and them, this, and Fanny Burney

Fanny Burney, one of the greatest writers ever, and one of the greatest-named too, because what could be better in the nomenclature stakes than to be able to effortlessly troll the entire North American contingent of women's literature scholars two hundred years after your own death. (How wonderful it would be if "Laura" became a futuristic euphemism for "arse".) They think it is not taking her seriously as a grownup to call her "Fanny", or so they say, but really it is because to them "Fanny" means "bum", which is an odd objection, because to us it means "vadge" which I'd have thought was a worse name than "bum", personally - and yet we don't make a fuss. Of course this is because "we" have forgotten who she is - a writer of female experience who blazed a trail so wide, so deep, and so truly strange that it has never really been superceded. Not even by Austen, who probably loved her most and who would not have written without her example.

I used to think a bit about Fanny Burney, and her lifelong bravery as a writer in striking out into new and raw emotional and psychological territory, in connection with my own experiences writing here. Burney's narrative language was epistolary and she played the letter form like an orchestra full of instruments. She was really good at modulating through all the emotional colours and all the implied and explicit relationships available within the basic structure of "I am writing to you". In accordance with the effects she sought she shifted the positions of "I" and "you" on the spectra of singular to collective, specific to generic, and autobiographical to invented. She shifted those positions from line to line, with a fluidity that anticipates the invention of free indirect speech. That purposeful and skilful exploitation of all the shades and nuances available from those two little subject positions - I and you - is what I'm thinking about again now.

What I write here is mostly in the epistolary mode: letters, written in the first person, and addressing a reader. Obviously the actual writer-to-reader communication differs in lots of practical ways to how it worked in the eighteenth century, but it's the same structure, and in the same way, it's open to me to modulate how literal or how figurative I might be about who "I" am and who "you" are. Also the same is the fact that while I may write with a specific reader/ship in mind, once the writing is done, it's out there, available to be read by anyone, in any spirit, for any reason.

What's really different is the very high degree of agency and control that you, dear reader, are able to exercise, in your communication of your response to me. Yes, I am talking about commenting, but other forms of response too. And I struggle with this. I have thought about abandoning the blog, again, but instead I'm trying to figure out an alternative way of seeing the thing.

The things I write here are written with specific readers or readerships in mind. Sometimes that specific reader/ship is hypothetical and sometimes it's real people or a real person. Sometimes that intended reader/ship works for me as a shaping tool to help me put some form to the nebulous matter I want to express. Sometimes I have something I want to say to reader/ship X - and sometimes that's in an esprit de l'escalier mode, sometimes it's a communication I want to make and have received but I want to convey it in this indirect manner. "I'll just leave this here." Sometimes I really am writing to my future self, whoever she is. Anyway. The clash comes when I publish, with whatever intention, and I receive evidence that I've been read differently to how I intended. I'm not talking about content. It's about when I understand a particular kind of writer / reader relationship to have been embedded into the writing and the response comes in another mode entirely. That bothers me.

I do publish some comments that people write and not others; my right to make that choice. I decide whether to engage or not. I do allow anonymous comments, and some of those work fine and others give me the absolute willies. I get emails and FB messages from readers, and those are always very welcome, whatever it is that they actually say, because they're removed from this ambiguous space.  I know some readers very well and others not at all, and I have a range of feelings about that. It's complicated. On the whole, it's alright. But I think it could be better.

Another time that time I blogged about Fanny Burney and her name, my role in the discussion which transpired was emblematic of how I used to deal with an emblematic reader-response scenario. Above all things I don't want to return to that mode. I felt anxious just rereading it this morning. I need to have the freedom to write what I want or need to, to put it out here, and not have to manage a conversation afterwards which includes responses of highly different kinds from people with whom I have widely different types of relationships.

That said, this post is an occasion when I would uncomplicatedly welcome and think it appropriate for you to say hello or something. If you want to. I can't make you. X


kate said...


One of the things I was thinking about recently, looking at comments somewhere else, is that the thing with blogs is there's no body language or equivalent of the listening noises ones makes in conversation when one is interested but has nothing of substance to add. With a blog you end up with a stream of 'great dress!' or 'looks delicious!' or whatever when one wants to say 'I'm reading, it feels weird not to respond, thanks for writing'.

lucy tartan said...

Hi Kate :)