Word of God is Dead

sorry_im_deadWithin nerd circles, there’s a certain slavish devotion to the Word of God concept, that being the creator’s professed original intent for a text. The prioritization for this comes out of the same mindset that follows a series of texts that have been adapted or expanded to their earliest roots in search of the ‘true version’ of a text. We’re skeptical of new incarnations of things because we intimately fear that they’ll somehow overwrite what we already believe about it. We argue ceaselessly about whether or not a comic version of a story is indeed superior to the animated version, and because we operate under the assumption that something closer to the earliest draft is the most correct we’ll usually side with the comic, or with the book. Nerds, being insecure, need authenticity and legitimacy. Nerds, being people, are not always tuned in to nuance. Such is the love for Word of God, the natural enemy of which is the literary concept of the dead author.

While I might disagree with the death of the author when applied at its most stringent (meaning that we cannot analyze a text within a historical context or our knowledge of the author’s life and views) because it’s too often used to excuse creative hatemongers and continue paying them, I do appreciate the assertion that what’s in the text is what’s in the text. Creators are weird, indecisive, duplicitous people – which is to say they’re people. Against all nerdy wishful thinking that a creator’s world springs into being completely formed and completely understood by them, they kinda can’t be trusted. What winds up on the page winds up on the page, whether they wanted it there or not.

A creator can swear up and down that something isn’t as it appears to be, but if it appears to be that then there’s not a whole lot they can do to suppress that interpretation. Because your text exists apart from you, because you can’t be fully conscious of what you’re doing with it at all times, the text itself is the best indicator of what’s going on in the text.

The concept of the dead author is essential in protecting criticism because it also functions as an artistic No Takesy-Backsies Clause that undermines a creator’s after-the-fact explanations of the text in favor of the text itself. If you couldn’t convince a critic that something was so in the text, the concept argues, then it effectively isn’t so and the critic’s personal evaluation of the text cannot be attacked. Nerds are not fond of this, because nerds (being insecure) are very fond of attacking one another over differences of opinion in media. As such, a creator’s words of intent can become a holy smiting sword wielded by champions on one side of whatever asinine argument is at hand. If you ascribe to the idea that texts stand on their own, that weapon loses some of its power.

You don’t get to say, “Well, in the original script, X happened, so,” because the ‘original’ script isn’t the script that wound up on the screen. We’re not talking about that because we didn’t watch that.

You don’t get to reveal after a series has long concluded (and the character in question died) that a single character was gay when you never once portrayed them as being or behaving so. That doesn’t count because we never see it. The text is what people see, and your statements do not exist in the text unless you make damn sure to put them there.

All this ignores central truths that most creators realize, even if we don’t vocalize them: –An earlier draft is not superior on account of its early vintage and, in fact, is way more likely to suck.
-What we mean to put down and what’s actually there are often wildly different, and in some cases the version outside our head hangs together more neatly and feels more true than the one within.

As an example of both: Star Wars. If you’re even moderately in the nerdy know, you’re aware that the story and characters went through a whole host of changes before the final product (which wasn’t exactly final, thanks George…) wound up on screens. I could talk about Han Solo: Actual Lizard, which is most people’s go-to factoid, or I could go with something that ultimately shaped the entire arc of the trilogy and enabled a second and third: Darth Vader wasn’t originally Luke’s dad.

unmasked5Take a minute to reflect on that. Think about what the movies would be without that resolution to Vader’s character, without the weight it lends to Luke’s dedication to the side of good, without that face to face meeting at the moment of death.

What finally wound up on screen, not the original intent, contextualizes everything that comes before or after. It gives Star Wars a heart that it wouldn’t have if Darth Vader was just a grisly Bad Dude who literally lived in a lava castle.

efd76706baccd62a521c716876a70abaOn the flip-flop, stating after the fact that Dumbledore was gay along doesn’t really… accomplish a whole lot. Arguments that this fills some kind of diversity quota that should satisfy critics don’t carry much weight. The Hardy Boys are gayer than Dumbledore, and nobody’s ever made that explicit. Subtext, after all, is a component of text. A creator’s after-the-fact statements aren’t. People don’t bristle at the suggestion this is representation because Rowling never gave Dumbles a boyfriend, necessarily, but because there’s no textual or subtextual suggestion that he’s ever had or would ever want one. The reveal feels hollow compared to things that aren’t even stated outright. It’s not the same as pointing to a character who’s been Questionable the whole time and saying, “Yeah, you read that right.” The whole thing speaks to an enduring ugly issue with what we call positive queer representation: We’re either emblazoned, sexualized tragedies waiting to happen, or our orientation is a sexless footnote.

And that’s the danger in elevating Word of God, in prioritizing supplementary worldbuilding and Just So’s. It forgives shallow storytelling by allowing the easy out, it silences criticism by expanding the information relevant to texts well outside of those texts. When we prioritize intent, we devalue execution. We accept and embrace that we can’t venture a comment on something until the creator’s made known what they meant to do, which is surely what they’ve done.

Except it’s not. That’s not what they’ve done, because we can never fully assure our intent will show through. Any creation is the result of a long string of compromises, and missteps, and Freudian slips. Your first idea likely isn’t the best, and your final idea is most definitely not what winds up on the page. You gotta live with that, it’s part of the dark pact to which you’ve agreed in exchange for trying to do this at all.