In addition to convincing Alice of the value of reading, Fay also seeks to illustrate the challenges and responsibilities of the author’s life, using her own writing life and that of Jane Austen to support her argument. However, it quickly becomes clear that Fay views the burden of interpreting fiction as falling at least as much on the reader as on the author. Readers learn and grow in response to books, but their role is not a passive one; for Fay, readers must work together with authors in order to create shared meaning, and a work of literature is not complete until its audience has engaged with it.
Fay touches on a number of challenges in the life of a writer, from the anxiety of traveling for a book tour to the lack of rest and vacation. But perhaps the greatest challenge she describes is the pressure of writing while keeping in mind all the different sets of expectations and opinions that the writer is subject to. From the outset, Fay situates the writer in a context that is defined by the influence of others. At one point, Fay reflects on the power of writers to influence readers and wonders whether a successful writer should “bow his head beneath the weight of so much terrifying responsibility.” However, that frightening pressure is balanced out by her belief that connections to others are what fosters the writing process in the first place. Contemplating the idea that Jane Austen might have been frequently interrupted because she wrote in the middle of a busy home, Fay notes that such interruptions would likely have been an asset rather than a burden. “Take away life,” she tells Alice, “and you take away writing.” In both positive and negative ways, the living world around an author profoundly affects that author’s books, even before the books are written. For Alice, Fay herself seems to serve as an example of the whole range of influences that an outside party might have on an author. Sometimes she tells Alice to continue on with her writing; other times she cautions her away from it. By placing Aunt Fay in the role of critic and guide as well as author, Weldon allows her to embody all of the pressures that a young writer like Alice is subject to.
As the novel continues, the role of the reader takes on more and more power in the creative process. At certain points, Fay even seems to say that the reader has more responsibility than the author when it comes to gleaning meaning from literature. Despite her ideas about the moral responsibilities of authors, Fay also implies that works of fiction are in some way predetermined, able to exist only in the exact way that the author has created them. Of authors, she says: “They write what they write and if it was different, it would be a different book and have a different title, so fault-finding is self-defeating.” With the author’s work so clearly delineated, it seems then to fall to the reader to accept what the author has written and value it for what it is. Fay also suggests that the attention of readers can actually transform a written work into more than it was before. She tells Alice that widely read books come to contain “the concentrated magic of the attention of millions,” which makes it a better book than one that lacks that magic. This somewhat far-fetched claim (which Fay herself expects Alice to disbelieve) underscores the immense, even supernatural power that Fay ascribes to the audience of a work of fiction. This emphasis on the reader as the true actor in a work of literature even extends to the relationship between Fay and Alice. Though Fay offers endless advice, she cautions Alice against listening to her without question. She instructs Alice to view the letters as “a sack of rather dusty brown rice” that should be used as an ingredient, rather than a complete meal. As the reader, Alice ultimately has more power over the use of Fay’s words than Fay herself does.
By detailing her own close reading of Jane Austen’s works, Aunt Fay also models the way that a reader can actively create meaning. Fay puts her own advice into action, showing both Alice and the reader of Letters to Alice how a reader can join with the author to bring literature to life. Each of Fay’s attempts to convince Alice of the worth of Austen’s novels relies on Fay’s own reactions to the work. For Fay, Austen’s novels are worthwhile because of the reader’s lived responses to them. Of Austen’s work Emma in particular, Fay dwells on “the amazing phenomenon of shared fantasy,” in which countless thousands of people all imagine the character Emma and feel a range of genuine emotions in response to her behavior. Fay concludes from this phenomenon that “Emma lives!” indicating that the audience, not the author, is ultimately responsible for bridging the gap between fiction and reality. Throughout the novel, Aunt Fay, Alice, Jane Austen, and Weldon herself all hold dual identities as both authors and readers. This constant blending of roles highlights the idea that the union of author and reader is the crucial mechanism for creating meaningful literature.
The Author and the Reader ThemeTracker
The Author and the Reader Quotes in Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen
Here in this City of Invention, the readers come and go, by general invitation, sauntering down its leafy avenue, scurrying through its horrider slums, waving to each other across the centuries, up and down the arches of the years. When I say ‘the arches of the years’ it may well sound strange to you. But I know what I’m doing: it is you who are at fault.
Some build because they need to, have to, live to, or believe they are appointed to, others to prove a point or to change the world. But to build at all requires courage, persistence, faith and a surplus of imagination. A writer’s all, Alice, is not taken up by the real world. There is something left over: enough for them to build these alternative, finite realities.
The Angel of the House stood at Jane Austen’s elbow, that is my guess, and she never quite learned how to ignore her—except perhaps in the early Lady Susan, for the writing of which, I imagine, she was gently chided by her family, and drew back quickly as at the touch of a cold, cold hand, and never tried that again.
In the days of the Empire, women followed their husbands around the globe, and shipped their children back to England to live in unspeakable boarding schools, where they were as like as not sexually abused, beaten, and starved, without apparent alarm to anyone. You do not know, little Alice, how recent or how lucky you are.
You see! The born novelist. She is raising invention above description; what she makes herself above what the real world has to offer. She will put up with writing a history so long as she doesn’t have to get the dates right, and mocks those who take the whole thing seriously, and so long as she can be biased.
But I do dislike all these ‘ifs’, and ‘may haves’; they can only be speculation; and are in a way parasitical: the present sucking nourishment from the past, the living from the dead, as if there wasn’t enough emotion and event now to sop up all our desire for analysis and explanation.
Fiction, on the whole, and if it is any good, tends to be a subversive element in society. Elizabeth Bennet, that wayward, capricious girl, listening to the beat of feeling, rather than the pulsing urge for survival, paying attention to the subtle demands of human dignity rather than the cruder ones of established convention, must have quite upset a number of her readers, changed their minds, and with their minds, their lives, the society they lived in: prodding it quicker and faster along the slow, difficult road that has led us out of barbarity into civilization.
We do not need offices and a muted typewriter and no disturbance—we need a table half-way between the fire and the window, and the muted sound of the world around: to be of that world, and not apart from it. It is easier for women than for men, and the world being what it is, and women writers, to their great advantage, are not allowed wives.
I am trying to explain that writing must be in some way a shared experience between reader and writer: the House of Imagination built with doors for guests to enter in, and pegs for their coats, and windows for them to look out of: it is no use being a recluse. You will die of hypothermia and malnutrition if you live alone in your house, however beautifully constructed it is. It must be a welcoming place, or exciting, if dangerous, or educative, if unpleasant, or intensely pleasurable.
As if it were decreed that your mother Enid should put bread rolls to rise every night for your father Edward’s breakfast, in order that a certain paragraph in a certain novel should be written. As if the City of Invention, little by little, using a chapter here, a paragraph there, is waking from its slumber and will eventually be more real than life itself, and we its servants, its outrunners.
Now, inasmuch as those engaged in particle physics will assure us that a particle alters by virtue of being observed, so we can never really know what anything is like, because the knowledge interferes with what we wish to know, it doesn’t surprise me that a painting, so imbued with the force of attention, changes its nature. Heats up. Hot property!
Writers are not so rational about the writing of their books, you see, as students of English Literature like to think. They write what they write and if it was different, it would be a different book and have a different title, so fault-finding is self-defeating. And if you think your brain is dying slowly, that your head is held trapped by iron bonds of boredom, it is no more than you deserve. When you study a writer’s work in depth you are stealing from that writer: so much he or she offered to you gladly, but you are greedy: you are demanding more.
The novel must be used to set before the reader examples of good behaviour. I am frequently asked why I write about anti-heroines and anti-heroes, and not role models, and all I can say in my defence is that what I write is what I write and there is not much I can do about it.
Sometimes, I think, the exhilaration of all this being so great—of ideas, notions, fantasies, speculations, claims false and valid, advice good or bad, the pattern made by altering truth as day melts into day, is great enough to make us immortal. These things have been, and so in a sense always will be: they are not finite in time. Only our bodies are that. Let them blow us all up if they want, reduce the planet to ashes (as they say)—the leap between nothing and something, once made, is always made.