Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Author: Articulator and Organizer

In “Discourse in the Novel,” Baktin writes that novels are artistic organizations of individual and community voices and languages. This definition emphasizes two things worth noting: “organizations” and the idea of multiple languages and voices. What happens when we think of a writer as an “organizer of voices?” This differs somewhat from the ideas of Campbell, who wrote that authors can be thought of as “points of articulation” (5) rather than as originators. However, I don’t find that these two definitions are opposite of one another, rather, they resonate with each other. Campbell and Baktin both emphasize that the authors – the creators of written discourse situations – are involved in cultural discourses and are negotiating cultural intuitions (Campbell 5, Baktin 302). I find that Baktin’s imagining of the novel as artistic organizations of multiple discourses, and by extraction the author as the “organizer,” expands and complicates the role of author as Campbell theorizes.

To demonstrate, I’ll draw on The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, a recent addition to my list of favorite books. This book chronicles the journey of two African American maids employed by white families as well as young white woman as they write and publish book about the experiences of African American maids in Jackson, Mississippi. The book chapters alternate between these three women as narrators. Stockett, as author, created the story, though she did not “originate” many parts of the story. The cultures, collectivities, and institutional powers Stockett negotiated among in part created the story – without Southern history, law, customs, and racial dynamics, along with Stockett’s family experiences, there would be no story. Stockett articulated a story within (and beyond) these institutions. This particular book was inspired by these institutions and challenges them.

Stockett negotiates these institutions through language. Baktin writes, “Actual social life and historical becoming create within an abstractly unitary national language a multitude of concrete worlds, a multitude of bounded verbal-ideological and social belief systems” (288) and that languages “are specific points of view on the world, forms for conceptualizing the world in words, specific world views, each characterized by its own objects, meanings, and values” (291-292). The languages within English that Stockett draws upon certainly include various Southern dialects, but they do not stop here: the languages are not “local color” necessary to the accurate portrayal of characters; rather, they communicate the characters’ belief systems and specific worldviews. Stockett is the organizer of all of these voices, artistically (and effectively) arranging them into characters and a series of situations that make the book.

It is perhaps the intersections of all of these “languages” that create conflict-ridden discourse situations (what one might call “news” in real life and “plot” in the novel). The author can articulate discourse situations where these languages intersect and organize them in ways to create an extended discourse situation, which is the novel.

Stockett, Kathryn. The Help. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2009. Print.

NPR Interview with Stockett:


  1. Rebekah,

    This has helped me to understand Bakhtin's ideas, although I haven't read "The Help." Although I tend to think of novels simply as stories - possibly insightful or educational, by stories nonetheless - it is also interesting for me to approach a novel as "an extended discourse situation" organized through languages and articulated by authors. I'm now trying to think of other novels that may negotiate belief systems and specific worldviews through language.

    I am always impressed by authors who can effectively write in a narrative patois (an immediate example might be "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker) and relay social background of characters through only dialect instead of exposition. Would you say this is what Kathryn Stockett does in her novel? Then again, I wonder if dialect and language function in quite the same way.

  2. Vanessa -

    I think that Baktin's concept of "languages" might apply to dialects, but I think he would say that while a dialect is a characteristic of a language, it isn't the entirety of the language. So, while one of the languages that Stockett uses is that of Jackson, Mississippi Black people of the 1960s, the dialect is only a part of that language. On the bottom of page 289, Baktin notes that outside of their given purview, some languages are treated as objects or typefications, such as "local color." It is from here that I am taking the idea that dialect is a part of a "language" but is not the language in its entirety. I can imagine, though, that some writers might use a dialect without using the whole language, though such is not the case in "The Help."

    Stockett reveals the social background of characters through their languages but also through the character's narration, since, with the exception of one chapter, the whole novel is told in first person, and so Stockett is using the language of the character here as well. Is "The Color Purple" first or third person narrated? There are times when multiple discourses interact (dialogue of several characters) and character social backgrounds are revealed in this dialogue. Is this what you are referring to?

    I'm wondering if Baktin would say that all novels use languages to negotiate belief systems or worldviews, given that he says "[Languages] may all be drawn in by the novelist for orchestration of his themes and for the refracted (indirect) expression of his intentions and values."


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