Sound Silences

Strategies of Nonpublication and Authorial Self-Construction in Modern Literature

by Todd Garth

Home Greg Baysans

Sound Silences:
Strategies of Nonpublication and Authorial Self-Construction in Modern Literature 

This panel aims to provoke thought and discussion on how refraining from publication can, in multiple ways, serve as a strategy for shaping authorial identity, exercising control over literary production and manipulating the reception of literary works. 

Four short (twelve-to-fifteen minute) talks will outline the selective refusal to publish by each of four very different authors: Gerard Manley Hopkins (Edward Cohen), Jorge Luis Borges (Todd Garth), Tillie Olsen (Myles Weber) and Greg Baysans (George Klawitter). 

Each paper discusses the author's motivations for not publishing and the consequences for his or her literary performance and success. The emphasis of the panel is twofold. The presentations will illustrate the range of strategies and reasons for nonpublication as well as the multiple repercussions; the panelists will also highlight how the suppression of publication responds specifically to modern and postmodern constructions of authorship. The discussion following the presentations will focus on the latter aspect. 

Despite the questioning and dismantling of the concept of author undertaken in the wake of postmodern theory, there is still much to be explored about how writers themselves respond to the awareness that authorial and personal identity are neither autonomous nor coterminous. This particular aspect of authorial self-fashioning -- the decision not to publish -- has been largely neglected. Only Emily Dickinson, the most extreme case, has merited extensive commentary. In cases of other prolific, canonical authors such as Borges or Hopkins, the decision to suppress publication, while acknowledged, is not sufficiently investigated. This special session hopes to initiate discussion that will rectify this neglect. 

The four presentations represent a range of periods from the Victorian to the contemporary as well as a diversity of nationalities, genres and poetics. Accordingly, the panel will be of interest to scholars from across the spectrum of modern and contemporary literary studies and will spark dialogue across multiple boundaries.

British Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins refused to publish his poetry during his lifetime; friend and editor Robert Bridges collaborated in this silence for thirty years after Hopkins's death. Edward Cohen contests the accepted arguments regarding this silence, arguing that Hopkins's decision not to publish proceeded from his awareness of the conflicts inherent in his identities as author versus cleric. Bridges's compliance even after Hopkins's death, rather than being a function of personal ambition, resulted from Bridges's assessment of the readership horizon of expectations. In this respect, the long delay in publishing Hopkins's poetry constitutes an early recognition of the contradictory forces at work in defining an author.

Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges suppressed nearly all of his early (pre-1927) work, even in the midst of his 1960s and '70s frenzy of writing, translation and publication. Todd Garth demonstrates that Borges's fascination with silenced and unrevealed writing (expressed in "Pierre Menard" and "The Secret Miracle") are appropriated from his early Argentine mentor Macedonio Fernández. Borges's strategy of self-suppression results, in part, in obscuring Fernández's own self-absenting writing. But Borges's art of inventing, articulating and manipulating silences and absences also contributes to his self-fashioning as an "accidental" author, serving as a counterpoint to his own very active ambitions of world renown.

Twentieth-century American writer Tillie Olsen's failure to publish is generally regarded as exemplifying that of the unfairly neglected author. Myles Weber refutes this notion, showing that Olsen's iconic status is created in large measure by the reception by a literary community that is quick to accept Olsen's self-assessment as an unwillingly silenced writer. Weber asserts that this critical reception combines with Olsen's own strategies of persisting in writing unfinished, unpublished work to create a coherent, but self-contradictory, authorial identity: an author whose widespread support depends on the incompletion of her works.

Contemporary American poet Greg Baysans has opted not to publish outside of his own website. George Klawitter describes how Baysans merges personal experience and identity as a gay man with the immediacy of web publication to reorient the very nature of poetry and poetic production. By writing only in a personal medium that can be constantly updated, Baysans creates poetry that is both responsive to current events and directly reflective of his personal psyche. In this sense, Klawitter suggests, Bayans elaborates a poetics that both reengages intended readers and redefines author. His rejection of standard channels of publication re-appropriates contemporary discourse while reviving the immediacy of poetry's lost orality.

Taken together, these talks present nonpublication as an important strategy by authors who possess a pioneering awareness of the complex, contradictory and slippery nature of authorship. The panel reveals that such writers, each in a groundbreaking way, make silence and self-suppression central to their writing and make the suppression of their writing an essential device for the formation of personal and public identity. The panel should also serve as a springboard for a discussion of the ways the refusal to publish responds to conditions over time and across cultures.

The panel comprises four scholars who have investigated the question of nonpublication as part of their ongoing research; the session is enhanced by the fact that two of the four presenters are themselves published creative writers.   

Edward Cohen (Rollins College), the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships, is an internationally known bibliographer and an authority on Victorian studies. He has published monographs on Ebenezer Cook, R.L. Stevenson, W.E. Henley and Gerard Manley Hopkins. His research often focuses on the relationships, influences and quarrels among authors and editors of the period. His talk for this panel is an extension of his current work on the problematics of editing Hopkins's poetry. In addition to contributing his in-depth understanding of these dynamics, Cohen brings to the panel his encyclopedic knowledge of Victorian bibliography. 

Todd Garth (U.S. Naval Academy) is an acknowledged expert on Borges's mentor, Macedonio Fernández, the subject of his doctoral dissertation, and especially on the enigmatic relationship between Fernández and Jorge Luis Borges. The centerpiece of Garth's analysis on Borges and Fernández is their strategies of silence, absence and self-abnegation. He has published several articles on Fernández and is currently researching a book on Borges and the 1920s generation of Argentine writers, all of whom undertook radical strategies of authorial self-definition as a way of redefining and appropriating Argentine literary territory.

Myles Weber (Ashland University) has devoted extensive research to the question of literary silence among American writers and how that silence is received and responded to by the reading public. His current monograph, Consuming Silences: How We Read Nonpublication, is under contract with the University of Georgia Press. He contributes to the panel the weight of his considerable expertise regarding authorial strategies of not publishing as well as knowledge of the development of the author as a legal entity. A playwright whose works have been produced to substantial acclaim, Weber is also a published storywriter and essayist. 

George Klawitter (St. Edwards University) has taught and published at length on English Renaissance and 18th century literature, contemporary American poetry and gay and lesbian studies. His monographs include volumes on John Donne, Brother André Mottais, and Richard Barnfield. In these and numerous other studies, Klawitter examines, among other matters, the questions of private versus public voice and homoerotic desire. He has contributed entries on over a dozen authors to literary reference works. His talk for this session is based on his ongoing research on Greg Baysans. 

Klawitter's broad research experience means he brings to the panel an important diachronic, comparative perspective regarding questions of publication tactics and authorial identity. Klawitter has also published musical compositions and numerous books of poetry.