The Culture Text

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Writing is a process. There is no doubt about that. You start by barnstorming an idea, then you slowly work on drafting it into a workable concept, and then you edit the fool out of it until you finally have a viable end product. And if you are really good at the process, then the work might be picked up by a publisher and “given” to the public. And that’s good…right?

Well, of course it is good, on one level, but it’s absolutely terrifying on another level. Once your work is out there, in the world, it ceases to be yours. Sure, you can “own” a copyright to that work and maybe collect some royalties, but you have lost control of the intellectual highways and byways and numerous pathways your work can take. And maybe that’s the ultimate goal of a writer—when your work becomes a “culture text” it becomes a hallmark of absolute success for writers.

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This is why we have so many adaptations of certain “culture texts”, why we get spinoffs and sequels and retellings. The text leaves the author womb (so to speak) where it was cultivated and takes on a life of its own within the culture that it was birthed. As an author, writer, English major, teacher I sometimes balk at the concept of an ‘bad’ adaptation or an ‘unfaithful’ adaptation but the more we discuss this concept of a cultural text the more I have come to understand that it’s not about an objective analysis of “good” or “bad”; it’s more about why people make the choices they do for those particular adaptations and how effective they are in achieving a purpose for the culture in which they are created, which is why a story like West Side Story makes me smile.

However, this is not all smiles and sunshine. For authors, it becomes a question of authority within the text as Paul Davis points out in his book The Carol as a Culture-Text. Once your story, novel, poem, etc. becomes a part of the culture in which it is released you no longer have control over what happens to it or with it—intellectually or otherwise. Dickens constantly battled copyright and other lawsuits, often winning (but at a massive cost to his own pocketbook—so did he really win?). Beyond the legal matters, as writers when we put our work out to the public we open it to interpretation. You say one thing, but the reader interprets something completely different—who is to say who is right? You may have written it, but does that make you the ultimate authority? It’s a part of the culture now. Doesn’t the culture have authority over that text? Doesn’t the culture have a right to own an interpretation? All one has to do is to read an adaptation such as The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge to see how words can be seen from different, but very logical perspectives as part of a cultural interpretation and adaptive process. We sometimes react strongly to these interpretative differences, crying “fidelity”—but fidelity to what? A recurring question throughout this study…fidelity to what…

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So perhaps that is what is so frightening about my impending authorship. I’m thrilled to have a book published, I’m nervous about reviews, but more than that—once it’s a part of the culture It’s a part of myself that I can no longer have back. Does that mean that I hold onto it for myself? I hoard it?

Wouldn’t that be Scrooge-esque.

As a result of these reflection, I’ve decided my project for this seminar will center around the culture text A Christmas Carol. The story of Scrooge “began as a text and became a culture-text” (Davis 5). Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol no longer is just a novel, but a communal experience—a way to connect humanity. How’s that for a discussion topic? This is a concept that I can not only discuss with my students, but it will become increasingly more relevant as we talk about the social issues of abundance that Dickens calls into question within the text itself—athematic concept seen in many of the works we cover in English IV (“A Modest Proposal”, Gulliver, Earnest etc.). I’m open to ideas, comments, suggestions on all this!

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