University of the Sunshine Coast
The performative exegesis
The Critical Exegesis
I tend to resist invitations to interpret my own fiction. If there were a better, clearer, shorter way
For all Australian Creative Writing doctorates, the requirement that the creative artefact be accompanied by an exegesis is accepted as a necessary justification of the research undertaken in the creative work. Every student who undertakes a higher degree in Creative Writing is schooled in this defence of their work, taking on the burden of proof to legitimate their creative output in the language of the academy, usually in the discourse normally associated with quantitative research methodology-finding a research ‘gap’, articulating a research ‘question’, investigating a research ‘problem’, contributing to ‘new knowledge’. So too with artist academics in Australia who wish to legitimate their creative outputs as research: The governmental body responsible for measuring research outputs, Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) has outlined ways in which this can be quantified:
In their exegeses, Creative Writing students schooled in literary or cultural studies often resort to the discourses associated with literary criticism, literary theory and narratology in order to interpret, explain, and deconstruct their artefact. In some cases, candidates apologise for, or excuse its metaphorical opaqueness. Scholars including Krauth and Kroll have viewed the exegesis as the space in which to resurrect this Barthesian dead author. For example, Kroll in ‘The Exegesis and the Gentle Reader/Writer’ suggests that ‘the exegesis is … a protest that demands that the author once more be heard’ (Kroll 2004); similarly, Krauth explains the exegesis in ‘The Preface as Exegesis’ as ‘the Author wanting another chance, wanting to rise from the Barthesian Death, wanting a resurrection out of the main text in order to explain…’ (Krauth 2002). But should we not be suspicious of artists who are interpreters of their own works, who have to justify or explain them in a discourse that suggests that the creative work cannot speak for itself or is inadequate in some way to communicate its ‘truth’?
All autobiography is storytelling, all storytelling is autobiography. (Coetzee 1992: 391)
Ihab Hassan argues that literary criticism is always personal and therefore needs to be articulated in subjective language. He calls this ‘paracriticism’, an autobiographic discourse that takes into account the contextual nature of critical assertions, the voice of the narrator and the fictive nature of the ‘I’. In The Dismemberment of Orpheus, Hassan rejects the literary critic’s illusion of objectivity in favour of the subject’s ‘voice’: ‘In these essays I write neither as a critic nor scholar – nor yet impersonate poet, novelist or playwright – but try to find my voice in the singular forms that speculation sometimes requires’ (Hassan 1971: xi). Hassan further claims that ‘criticism should learn about playful discontinuity and become itself less than the sum of its parts ... search for a new liveliness, a new capaciousness, a new potency in criticism (25).
Why should the exegesis in a doctorate of creative arts use the language of expository or discursive prose when it has at its disposal the myriad voices and techniques of the very discourse it is attempting to justify? I have argued elsewhere that ‘the creative language of fiction will give our research a performative, ‘embedded’, ‘three dimensional’ quality that conventional discourse often lacks’ (Williams 2012). Why not apply this equally to the exegetical component of a creative dissertation?
Elizabeth, Lady C, claims to be writing at the limits of language.
Would it not be insulting to her
Critical discourse seeks to claim truth about or knowledge of, or to speak on top of creative discourse. We should be suspicious of exegeses that claim to have such privileged knowledge of the artefact they are describing. Andrew Cowan, in ‘Blind spots: what creative writing doesn’t know’, points out the limits of the author’s cognitive knowledge:
Yet in our exegeses, we claim authority of a certain knowledge over our creative artefact. Creative Writing doctoral students can mistake the meaning of their work for its intended meaning. If an exegesis explains or interprets a text, reader-writers of these texts are in danger of eisegesis ‘the interpretation of a text [as of the Bible] by reading into it one’s own ideas’ (Merriam-Webster Dictionary 2016).
I will not cite them here, but many of my doctoral students write eisegeses rather than exegeses, in a discourse that presupposes superiority in its attempt to justify creative works using criteria and pre-conceived theoretical notions other than what arise from the artefact itself. The exegesis may claim to know things about the artefact that it does not know, and conversely, may miss what the artefact does by misdirection.
Tess Brady points out in ‘A Question of Genre: de-mystifying the exegesis’ that often an exegesis (or eisegesis) ‘functions as a kind of insurance policy against a poorly received creative product’ or a ‘ticket to satisfy the gatekeepers admitting entrance to the academy's conservative research club’ (Brady 2000). An exegesis can hide a multitude of sins. How do we guard against this eisegetical imposition onto our work?
Storytelling [is] another, an other mode of discourse. (Coetzee in Cornwall 2007: 22)
Performative research has been well established as a recognised and ‘respectable’ form of academic discourse (for example, see Haseman 2006), so I will not explicate it here. Rather I will demonstrate how five recent /in progress University of the Sunshine Coast Honours, Masters and Doctoral exegeses ‘perform’ creatively, and how they prioritise the discourse of tentative, playful, creative endeavour over explanatory, traditional research discourse.
Jo-Ann Sparrow’s Darling Adopted Daughter: Exegesis as doppelganger text
My advice was to use an autobiographical, paracritical storytelling voice and to be honest about situating herself subjectively in her research:
As she was more comfortable telling stories rather than explaining them, Sparrow’s exegesis became then an autobiographical confession, using narrative techniques more associated with creative non-fiction than with academic discourse. Her exegesis became a meta-narrative quest to find the answer to her research question: ‘how can writing a memoir heal the primal wound of my adoption?’ Here is the beginning of her exegesis which poses the question in narrative terms, using setting, characterisation, dialogue and voice in order to ‘perform’ her research, rather than simply document it:
Sparrow’s exegesis ends in a denouement where the conflict that has been set up by her research question (her initial or arising conflict) is resolved, though not in the way she expects it. The surprising twist in her exegetical ‘mystery’ story is that the primal wound is healed by writing about it, or more accurately by writing around it, not by using the artefact to heal her wounds:
Sparrow’s exegesis is a mystery tale, a quest narrative, a voyage of discovery written to understand what she was doing in her artefact through fictive means. She realises that she has been stitching around the wound, embroidering an articulation of the inability to heal or enter that wound. But in so doing she addresses all the criteria necessary for a successful exegesis: methodology, literature review, new knowledge, innovation, research significance. For example, she makes her ‘literature review’ epistolary, and includes emails from her supervisors:
Such confessional narrative is exegetical in the etymological sense of the word in that it leads her and the reader out of the wound she cannot articulate:
Sparrow’s exegesis parallels her artefact in its articulation of fictive truth and performs her research creatively.
Shelley Davidow’s Writing the Immigrant: Exegesis as counterpoint
But further, the exegesis connects to the artefact in what the author calls counterpoint: the two pieces of the doctorate dialogue with each other in a symbiotic way that integrates them rather than placing them as first and second order documents. In an email to her supervisor, Davidow explains this relationship in terms of a musical analogy:
Davidow’s exegetical journey of self-discovery is that of an author writing a memoir, using narrative techniques such as dialogue, characterisation, a narrative arc, and making use of the epistolary (graphics, photos, scanned letters and diary entries). Here is the beginning of her exegesis:
The exegesis documents the unfolding story of her family’s immigration journeys in what Krauth calls the parallel text, one which ‘produce[s] its own story and runs as a distinctive parallel narrative ... a back-story, a subtext’ (Krauth 2011).
If the exegesis speaks ‘between voices’, or in Sparrow’s case, ‘articulates the silence’, then both candidates are acknowledging that the role of the exegesis is not so much to explain but rather to enrich, deepen or embroider the artefact. The exegesis is not first or second order knowledge about the artefact but a legitimisation, and extension, of creative discourse as performative research.
Sara Hutchinson’s ‘Let’s Talk about Sex’: Exegesis as epistolary address
The writing of the exegesis, however, presented immediate problems for this student. If the artefact addresses young adult readers and takes pains not to patronise them, then why should the exegesis ‘speak over their heads’ to an adult, academic reader? Why not address the same readership in her exegesis? Hutchinson asks the radical but obvious question: who is the exegesis written for? If it is a foreword such as Nabokov’s foreword in Lolita (as Krauth suggests in ‘The Preface as Exegesis’ 2002) then it is written for the reader of the artefact. And if the artefact is written to a young adult readership, then Hutchinson writes her exegesis literally as a foreword to the novel, telling her young adult readership how she came to write the novel, the exemplars that inspired her, the research she did, and the problems of didacticism, appropriation and condescension she encountered in writing it:
Here then is the beginning her exegesis, addressing the young adult reader, in a voice appropriate and consistent with her artefact:
At Hutchinson’s confirmation, the independent reviewer objected to her preface. He was concerned that all the requirements of an exegesis could not be met by using a voice that by necessity subtracted all specialised language. Hutchinson acknowledged this problem and came up with a solution which she later explained in an email to her supervisor:
If the reader of the exegesis is an examiner, why not speak to this person directly? Hutchinson thus addresses sections of her exegesis in epistolary form to the actual examiner. In this way, the discourse can be contextualised as a personal communication and not an abstract exercise in a disembodied critical discourse. In addition, she can employ narrative methods of discourse other than exposition in order to demonstrate her research while addressing the requirements in the discourse necessary to communicate the complexity of her research methodology, theoretical assumptions and literature review:
The third part of Hutchinson’s exegesis is a conversation between the author and her imagined teen self. She argues that the idea of an adult writing ‘for’ young people is fraught with the danger of condescension, appropriation and didacticism. By engaging in a Socratic dialogue with her younger self, she finds a way in which to mirror the internal dialogue she experienced in writing the novel and finding the voice of her narrator:
Hutchinson’s exegetical triptych contextualises her artefact in terms of its various readers (examiner, young adult, her own teen self) and addresses them directly. In addition, her narrative strategies enliven the discourse and perform the research as creatively as her artefact.
Stacey Winch’s The Writing Project: Exegesis as writing manual
As is revealed later, the exegesis is a writing textbook, a manual for writers to learn from: not a legitimation of her creative output in the language of the academy for an examiner, but an enactment of writing praxis. Further, Winch claims that because her exegesis is the ‘textbook’, and the artefact a training ground for her writing efforts, the exegesis is itself an artefact:
In her initial research proposal, Winch explains that her exegesis is not an appendage or rationalisation of the artefact, but an integral part of the whole:
Winch is at pains to point out that her exegesis enacts her methodology performatively, and as such creatively engages with her reader in the same way as (or even more than) her creative artefact does. The exegesis has been contextualised, and its voice grounded in autobiographic paracriticism.
A further crucial point Winch makes is that the ‘author’ of her exegesis is a constructed fictive device:
The exegeses in these four student dissertations have become not just parallel texts, but parallel artefacts. The exegesis, as Krauth suggests, is no longer a ‘critical journal, a reflective account of processes undertaken while creating the accompanying work’, but rather ‘is itself an artefact, a system of parallel texts. It’s an exegesis not just concerned with its novel, it’s self-consciously about writing itself’ (2011).
But how does one then read such an exegesis? Does one need, as Hutchinson’s confirmation reviewer suggests, a further exegetical element in order to explain the exegesis? And if this becomes too ‘creative’, does one need a further exegesis, and so on ad infinitum? The exegesis is no longer a foreword, or preface, or after-the-fact explanation, but part of the creative mechanism of the thesis, an integrated performance of its methodology, legitimating creative discourse as a mode of intellectual inquiry.
DD Johnson’s The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub: The disguised exegetical narrator
Krauth himself uses the foreword of Lolita as a case in point for the author stepping onto the stage and explaining the ‘first little throb’ that caused his creation (Nabokov 2000). However, Nabokov’s ‘exegesis’ also contains a parody of an exegesis, a fictional foreword by a fictional John Ray Jr PhD with sanctimonious moral interpretations of the text which astute readers are not meant to take seriously:
In another of his disguises, Nabokov the ‘Author’ apologises too in his Afterword that there is a danger that his words will also be seen as a construction of another character:
The voice of the author in the exegesis in a similar way needs to be bracketed, placed between quotation marks, just as s/he is in a creative text. We cannot ever again speak exegetical truth unmediated.
A case in point is The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub, a Creative Writing PhD dissertation for the University of Gloucestershire (UK) in which the exegesis is a metafictional story of a (fictional) PhD student trying in vain to get his evasive (fictional) supervisor to help him complete his (real) PhD. The supervisor avoids his student at all costs, and the degree is achieved in spite of their adversarial relationship, which exegetically deconstructs the way the artefact is written in an innovative way, acknowledging (amongst other things) the fictive nature of all academic discourse, the fictive nature of the exegetical narrator, and the context in which exegetical work is produced. The exegesis begins (as Hutchinson’s does) with a direct address to the examiners of the doctoral work:
Johnson writes a parody of an exegesis for his doctoral dissertation, and uses fictive devices in order to expose the false assumption that the exegetical narrator is the author of his doctorate. He deconstructs the relationship between supervisor and doctoral student thereby severing the traditional connection of exegesis to artefact and inviting his reader to consider the playful possibilities of exegetical work.
Deborah De Groot’s ‘Liminality’: The exegetical artefact or fictocritical thesis
The exegesis begins with an imaginary conversation between candidate and supervisor:
Here is the beginning of the artefact:
De Groot suggests that her exegesis which ‘explores the processes involved in producing the fictocritical artefact’ is ‘a pertinent expression for the research focus due to fictocriticism’s own liminality as a writing form and practice’. Her form matches her content. The problem arises though: why is there the need for two documents when both the exegesis and the artefact fulfill the same function? Surely one text can perform the research both creatively and exegetically? She agrees. For her doctoral work, she proposes to write one document which is both exegesis and artefact.
The disguised author
No matter what it may appear to be doing, the story may not really
be playing the game you call
Creative writing presents knowledge tentatively, suggestively, and subjectively, metaphorically, through the voice of fictive characters and an evasive author. The exegeses I have discussed in this paper present knowledge in this way. Similarly, the issue of authorship and the authority of a so-called ‘author’ of an exegesis is a problematic one. An author is not quite the same person as the one who writes about being an author. The student writing an exegesis constructs an authorial persona, or as Krauth suggests, wears the disguise of an author to write her creative work. But to comment on her own work, she may feel fraudulent, as if she is second guessing the real intent of the author, or the meaning and worth of the artefact intended. This person, the exegete, is interpreting, in the same position as the critic, or scriptor: words, culture, language pass through her. She cannot claim to be the author of the work and to have firsthand knowledge of its meaning, only an observation of its construction. An exegesis then, if it is to be an honest response to the artefact, must acknowledge the tentative nature of its author, of its writing, of its truth.
In the short story ‘Borges and I’, Jorge Luis Borges writes of a twin self who inhabits his body and world, one a writer self and the other the everyday Borges:
Borges’s story ends cryptically: ‘I do not know which of us has written this page.’ Similarly, the person writing the artefact and the person writing the exegesis are physically one and the same but perform two different functions and cannot claim complete knowledge of the other’s work. The writer of this article (me?) in the same way is autobiographically the author of his creative works, but a slower, more rational version, trying to figure out what the hell he has written in his novels and stories. When he is asked at interviews about his books, he appears to be either evading the question or playing games when he says, for example, ‘Gee, I didn’t think of that’, as if the author is a cleverer version of himself he is trying to understand. To pretend otherwise and present knowledge in an exegesis in a discourse that simulates knowledge of his other self, is at best self-deceptive, at worst dishonest.
Conclusion: Suggested recommendations for students, supervisors and examiners
In shaping the exegesis, perhaps students should be aware of the fictive nature of the authorial voice used, and should allow for the myriad possibilities of the form of the exegesis, dictated by the nature of the artefact itself. Similarly supervisors should guide candidates in the fictive art of the exegesis, to help them accept that uncertainty is necessary, and that they do not need to fall back on the formulations of discourses not equipped to complement the creative artefact. And finally, when appraising the slippery form of the exegesis, perhaps examiners need to be open to the idea that the exegesis can perform discourses other than literary critical ones, and that the exegesis is not an appendage to the artefact but rather a component of it.
Paul Williams is Program Coordinator of Creative Writing at the University of the Sunshine Coast. His novels The Secret of Old Mukiwa and Soldier Blue have won international awards and his stories and critical articles have appeared in Meanjin, TEXT, New Writing, Social Alternatives, New Contrast and the Chicago Quarterly Review. His other works include Cokcraco (Lacuna 2013), a fictocritical novel about the interweaving of fiction and criticism and Parallax (Zharmae 2014-2016), a series of young adult speculative fiction novels. Playing with Words (Palgrave Macmillan), a ‘performative’ creative writing textbook, will be released in late 2016.
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Vol 20 No 1 April 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo