On Authenticity.

How important is authenticity in writing?

And what is authenticity, anyways?

For example – today I wrote this haiku (in a letter to a friend who will probably read it here before she gets the letter)

sudden snow

throws all plans awry

no school today

It’s a nice little haiku, and reflects an experience that I think most of us are familiar with – written from the grown ups perspective, how a snow day can throw things off. It’s no basho , but it’s a decent little poem.

But does it have authenticity? Is your experience of the poem changed if you know (as I know) that there is no snow day today, and even if there were, I homeschool anyways, so “no school today” is completely irrelevant to the life I am in fact leading?

Or does the poem exist in noumenal space? Is it free to be just what it is, containing value without relation to the real day being had by the poet?

Can the authenticity of the poem be derived not from the present which birthed it, but from the past – or can it be derived from the experiences of others, and simply given voice by the poet? Or is it simply a nice, if in-authentic, little poem?

This is what I know about authenticity: I value it. I enjoy works of art that seem authentic to me more then I enjoy those which do not. In my experience, artists (be they writers, painters, knitters, etc) are capable of both authentic and in-authentic expression.

Take Monet’s La Japonaise, as opposed to oh say almost anything else he painted his Snow at Argenteuil. La Japonaise seems to me to lack authenticity — it is lovely, but it just doesn’t seem like “real Monet” to me. Snow at Argenteuil, while still atypical for Monet (or for our popular perception of Monet), still feels like a work by the same artist. It’s still “real Monet” to me. The history of La Japonaise suggests that the sense of in-authenticity it has for me is reasonable – it was painted expressely for an exhibition in a style that was in fashion at that moment (a moment in which Monet was also badly in need of funds) and is a dramatic departure from Monet’s usual style.

So I can trust that my sense of authentic vs in-authentic is based in some way on what is real – it is not wholly a conjuration of my mind.

But I am still left wondering how important it is. Is my poem any less good for lacking (if it lacks) authenticity? Is La Japonaise any less lovely, any less valuable, for being “in-authentic”? My aesthetic preference for authenticity is one thing – I also have an aesthetic preference for white china when drinking tea, but that does not make white china important in the grand scheme of things.

And when we carry the notion of authenticity into writing, I find it becomes even more slippery to grasp. When we speak of writing as “authentic” what do we mean? Annie Proulx writes in a voice I find authentic, whether she writes as a bereaved father moving to New Foundland, or as a gay cowboy in Wyoming, neither of which I would presume she actually is. Where then is her authenticity? Michael Crichton on the other hand I do not believe I have read an authentic word from yet, and that includes the little bio bits in the back of the books. I read his stuff with the same sense of vaguely horrified disbelief that I used to get from the evening news.

And that’s all I know about authenticity- I like art to have it, I can usually tell when it doesn’t, and I can no more define it then I can fly.

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2 thoughts on “On Authenticity.

  1. Interesting. I see what you mean about the two Monet paintings. La Japonaise is unusual for Monet – maybe it’s the perspective. I don’t think he uses the from-above perspective very often, and it’s odd – whereas Snow at Argenteuil captures light and silence, which are (to me) more typical of Monet.

    Early work though it is, I love his “Magpie” – perhaps because I love magpies (i.e., Donovan’s song, a pair of silver earrings that I own, almost everything Bird…) – you know the bird is silent, and you don’t want to move for fear of disturbing her.

    I wonder about your haiku. If “school” is literal, then yes, there might be an authenticity problem (although I wouldn’t think so) – I read “school” as more of a metaphoric thing, as in, actual schools are noisy, but being schooled in the ways of the snow isn’t.

    I’m at work. I’m so grateful to think of anything besides the pile of books next to me. Next up: Five Little Gefiltes, a children’s book that mimicks Five Chinese Brothers. I am not amused, I say with a little wave of my hand. (“A big yellow taxi schlepped him away.” )

  2. An interesting thought, but I think authenticity is relative. You understand what a snow day does from a parent’s perspective even if it doesn’t directly impact you. That understanding is authentic.

    If authenticity is the only thing that really mattered in poetry, then a very lot of poets would have a lot to answer for including Robert Frost and Shakespeare. Most of Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays are things he himself never experienced and Robert Frost did walk through nature a lot, but not while writing and more than likely a poem or three about spring and summer was written in the winter while he was reminiscing about and wishing for warmer days.

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