I’ve been thinking about Stephen Akey’s article, “The Complete Works” (The Smart Set, 24 March 2016) since I read it last week. Akey responds to T.S. Eliot and other literary scholars who argue that one must read all of an author’s work to understand that author. Akey writes:
With neither the opportunity nor the inclination to work my way through the complete works of major writers, I’ve come to appreciate the advantages of my ignorance. All that I haven’t read and all that I don’t know stimulate my imagination nearly as much as the little that I have read and the little that I do know. I don’t want all the gaps filled in. Leaping over those gaps is a pretty good intellectual exercise. Falling into them and crawling my way back out is an even better one.
I have to wonder where the original argument springs from. Akey’s response dwells on the sheer amount of time necessary to read the entire oeuvre of some authors, but ignores a fundamental question, I think. The question is whether most authors actually have a coherent philosophy or message across the entirety of their oeuvres. Deconstructionists would argue that even individual texts have more than one meaning; the number of meanings in an author’s entire body of work must be mathematically staggering.
At the beginning of the semester, I recall that a colleague and I dismayed a large group of creative writing majors when we argued that, try as authors might to code specific meanings into their work, their readers could (and probably would) come up with their own, unexpected interpretations. But where would the fun be if there actually were “correct” interpretations for given works? There are more and less likely interpretations, sure, but context and re-reading good literature always offers new interpretations.
I’m not arguing that reading an author’s complete works wouldn’t offer new insights. Doing so could show us how a writer’s technique and skills evolve (like Dickens) or whether they become more or less cynical (also like Dickens). What I have a problem with are arguments like Eliot’s, quoted by Akey and paraphrase my me that, one can only understand a given author if one reads everything by that author. I would argue that every individual text has meaning in and of itself. It’s not necessary to understand Eliot, for example, to understand “The Waste Land.”
In the end, all anyone who has read all of Baudelaire, Eliot, or Dickens can say is that they have read all of Baudelaire, Eliot, or Dickens. Their opinion about those authors’ individual works carries no more weight that someone who has studied one poem or novel in-depth. So, amateurs and critics alike, read on and keep arguing with each other. Your arguments keep literature alive. Settling the questions of meaning once and for all would kill the magic of reading faster than assigning Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene” to high schoolers.