- Obscure Invitations: The Persistence of the Author In Twentieth-Century American Literature by Benjamin Widiss
Was the author ever dead? Benjamin Widiss answers with a resounding "No!" in Obscure Invitations, his cogent and refreshingly energetic study of authorial presence in American literature of the twentieth century. Widiss's innovative book asks readers to push through limited views of authorship in previous readings of formally experimental texts. Looking at works that range from "high modernism to a foray into post-postmodernism" (2), Widiss argues that their various performative engagements with the trope of authorial death protest too much, ultimately "reaffirming authorial presence, and with it a highly particularized and pointed relationship with the reader" (4). More specifically, he claims that in each of his case studies, authorial presence is inscribed in "obscured" fashions and that these texts thus obliquely "invite" their readers to "a self-conscious apprehension of, and perhaps by extension a form of communion with, [their] author[s]" (2). In so doing, he carves out an intriguing new space for the figure of the author located neither in outdated biographical readings, nor in the demystifying impersonality of Foucauldian author-function. Rather, Widiss presents his authors as "emerg[ing] as spectral presences from our readings of their works . . . a literary model of identity, one that toys with reference to the real but that is finally produced and constrained by the literary itself" (12).
The ambitious spirit of Widiss's project emerges most clearly in the argumentative dialogues it enacts in its introduction and epilogue. He begins by taking issue with Roland Barthes's famous proclamation of "The Death of the Author." While Barthes's seminal essay posits "complete authorial self-effacement as the sine qua non of modern textual provocation" (5), Widiss suggests that "the ostentatious absence of the authorial hand actually drives us to locate its traces . . . the more hidden the author, the more fixated the reader becomes on finding him or her; and the more fixated the reader, the more subject to being choreographed in that search by the author" (6). Similarly, Obscure Invitations concludes by applying pressure to critical heavyweights to clarify its central claim. The book's expansive epilogue, which is perhaps too expansive, is at its most incisive when it draws on Frank Kermode's and Peter Brooks's interpretations of "the end." In contrast to both Kermode's readings of eschatological consonance and Brooks's claim that plot's logic is that of mortality, Widiss highlights the idea that the narrative deaths he discusses are actually performances that provoke lively rereadings, and that "a [End Page 205] text's end is never dead, and an author who plays dead therein or thereby is supremely, and appropriately, confident of vitality" (174).
However, it is not simply the boldness of this central argument that imparts to Obscure Invitations its determined clarity—rather, it is the sheer energy of Widiss's readings across his five chapters. Criticism, it is generally agreed, is a sedentary pursuit; rare is the academic book that inspires readers to spring into action. Yet that is precisely what Obscure Invitations does, conducting its readers through a series of textual acrobatics that translate intriguingly into metaphors of physical engagement. Each of his five chapters is affiliated with a different physical action, one that both the authors and readers of his texts participate in. In chapter 1, Widiss's careful "cross-referential" (33) reading of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying "reaps from the vocabulary of loss a syntax of plenitude" (34) to sketch out the figure of the author behind the foregrounded characters' individual narratives. The result is that readers "seesaw" "between an empathetic identification with the characters' plight and an intellectual-cumemotional pleasure that we share with the author" (34), presenting a hidden Faulkner whose delight in textual play counterbalances the weightiness of the novel's plot. The action in chapter 2's discussion of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is "driving," inspired by Stein-as-Toklas's claim that Stein can only successfully drive a car forward...