My profession is writing. I am sure seasoned visitors to this site will know this from my previous offerings but my real (and occasionally paid) profession is indeed writing. Apart from commentary and critiques I have recently had published a work of fiction. Working on it over a number of years I came to a Damascened revelation that fiction writers are, at heart, liars. The writer constructs a world, situations and stories in which he/she persuades the reader to believe. They are just the figments of the writer’s imagination and the trick lies in lying long and hard enough for the reader to keep turning the pages to see what happens next.
But the reader is not the passive partner in this reading exercise. It is a joint enterprise with the writer fashioning the words onto the page awaiting the arrival of each and every singular reader who will bring their several and different life experiences to the story. Before my first book was published I was somewhat sceptical of the Roland Barthes theory that “the essential meaning of a work depends on the impressions of the reader, rather than the ‘passions’ or ‘tastes’ of the writer; a text’s unity lies not in its origins or its creator, but in its destination or its audience” but reaction from readers was so varied in terms of how they viewed the ending – it was a crime novel which was left “unresolved” in the traditional sense – that I now understand what Barthes was getting at. Essentially, what he is saying is that the meaning of a text lies not in the “authority” of the author – which he redefines as “scriptor” – but in the language itself. In effect the story changes with each re-reading because it no longer belongs to the author, all power and interpretation lies with the reader.
Now it struck me quite forcibly reading colliemum and Guardian Council’s admirable pieces earlier this week that the power of news dissemination and the AUTHORITY that has traditionally been associated with it has, quite remarkably, been shown up in the last weeks to be something of a mirage. The opinions of the experts, broadcasters and assorted celebrities noticeably slipped from their control and it now lies firmly with the viewers and listeners who took it upon themselves to reject the message and apply their own “reading”. The electorate were told any amount of things in the run-up to the referendum most of which have turned out to be untrue. Carney, Osbourne, Cameron and Siemens among the heavy hitters, Izzard and Richard Branson among the lightweight Jeremiahs all wheeled out to frighten and cajole the electorate. The subsequent rejection of their arguments has had a profound effect on these people’s “authority”. Never again will they be able to fashion a story in which they wish us to believe. All the power now rests with the readers – you and me.
This is partly due to the failure of the Establishment but, I would argue, it is more likely that social media is having a profound effect on the way people “read” the news – and the organisations that disseminate it. BBC, Sky, ITV and the print media are all struggling to maintain control of the “story” and will go to great lengths to protect their authority but gradually the power to read differently is leaking out to the general population – or those active on social media anyway. It is no surprise that the BBC finally closed its “Points of View” board and severely limits the Have Your Say comments to bland items. Similarly the Daily Telegraph did away with all comments on its pages and while the Daily Mail still allows feedback there is firm evidence that the positive/negative arrows are being manipulated to suit a particular line of argument, a line that is sympathetic to the author’s view – not the reader’s. For example any criticism of any of the BBC’s news items are batted away with the dismissive “we know best”.
Such places as this – Going Postal – allow for an alternative and radical reading but here I would argue caution. I came across this piece from Orwell, writing in 1944. It highlights the danger, as Winston was to find out at the close of 1984, the belief that one can be safe and free in our several and separate attics:
“The fallacy is to believe that under a dictatorial government you can be free inside. Quite a number of people console themselves with this thought, now that totalitarianism in one form or another is visibly on the up-grade in every part of the world. Out in the street the loudspeakers bellow, the flags flutter from the rooftops, the police with their tommy-guns prowl to and fro, the face of the Leader, four feet wide, glares from every hoarding; but up in the attics the secret enemies of the regime can record their thoughts in perfect freedom — that is the idea, more or less.” Orwell: As I Please 1944