maxbarry.com
Wed 09
Dec
2020

What I Meant

Jennifer Government

Hi, Max! I teach Honors English 9 and 10 at a high school in St. Paul, Minnesota. I’ve been teaching Jennifer Government to my students for three years now, and they love it. I teach it as part of a dystopia unit, and I chose it because JG is so relevant to the world we live in. We focus a lot on historical and biographical literary theory and author intent, but I always tell them you can’t know for sure what the author’s intent was unless the author says it themselves. Long story short, I am re-working my introduction to your novel, and I thought it would be amazing if you had anything you would like to share with my class about the book. It would be a great way for them to connect with an author and hear from the source what some of your intentions and thoughts were when writing it. Thank you!

Elizabeth

Thanks for teaching my book, Elizabeth. I approve of people being taught what I think, especially in formal settings.

I know there’s a whole bunch of theory around authorial intent, and I don’t want to be THAT GUY, you know, who is all, “Uh, maybe the curtains are red just because they’re red, did anyone think of that?” You’re not fooling anyone with your faux world-weary cynicism, Owen. No-one except that one girl. God damn you, Owen.

So let me put on the record that books are totally full of symbolism and meaning, and everyone should listen to their English teachers. I think authors consider every word in their novels pretty carefully, and have opinions on why it should be that and not something different. I’m pretty sure the world’s copyeditors will back me up here.

That said, I am a little frightened by:

you can’t know for sure what the author’s intent was unless the author says it themselves

… because sometimes I’m not sure what my intent is. Sometimes I’m interviewed and I give what feels like a reasonable answer, but if I’d thought about the question more, I might have said something different. I intend a lot of things at different times. Some things I intend never make it onto a page.

Also I’m a fan of the reality TV show Survivor, the one where people get marooned on an island and have to vote each other off, and this reminds me of how after the game, the contestants each have a story about how their every move was part of a Machiavellian plan, even though it’s pretty clear that, a lot of the time, they were just tired and hungry.

So I’m not sure you should trust me. And I’m also unsure I can come up with an intent for THE WHOLE BOOK, as opposed to, say, why it’s Billy NRA and not Billy Smith & Wesson.

But anyway, I went and looked back at my original notes for Jennifer Government. I had two pages of bullet-point ideas like this:

  • “No taxation or any government regulations”
  • “Surnames are company affiliations (e.g. Jennifer Government, Johnny IBM)”
  • “Violence between companies”
  • “Jump from char to char per chapter (characters don’t even meet, you see different sides of a larger conflict)”
  • “Company names as chapters (e.g. Chapter 1: Nike)”

But they are all thoughts about what might be in the book, not what it would mean. After that, I just started writing.

I was definitely inspired by ultra-libertarian thinking, in the sense that I thought it was ultra-dumb. But I’m not sure I intended anything other than to find an interesting story. If I wound up making points about unfettered capitalism, that was fine, but way down my priority list, beneath things like finding interesting people who wanted interesting things.

I have more structure nowadays, but writing still feels more like unearthing than building. When something works, it’s usually because it comes out that way, not because I started with a piece of this and added a dash of that and tweaked a dial until I got it right. And it works only in the sense that it feels kind of interesting. And true, I guess. Interesting and true.

When I wrote the first chapter of Jennifer Government, which is Hack Nike getting introduced to a plan to shoot people for a promotion, it felt interesting and true—not in the sense that it would really happen, but like it was an amplification of something real. I liked the main character. I bought his world. I wanted to know what would happen next. That was good enough for me.

Comments

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Machine Man subscriber branden (#2100)

Location: northern california
Quote: "...and this is how you betray me!?"
Posted: 44 days ago

I am just excited, even though it affects me not at all, that Jennifer Government is being taught in a classroom somewhere.

Two for mirth (#8229)

Quote: "One for sorrow"
Posted: 43 days ago

How would reality shows fit within the JG marketverse (or verze)?

Elizabeth Neilson (#8244)

Location: Minneapolis, MN
Posted: 36 days ago

Elizabeth here. Thank you so much for this reply-- it's wonderful for my students to be able to connect in some way with the author of the work they are reading. I read this out loud to them today, and they were excited to hear what you had to say. I appreciate you taking the time to respond in such detail and even to go back over your notes!

I do think sometimes the curtains are just red. It always drove me crazy when my own English teachers wanted to ascribe Some Great Meaning to every detail. I love having conversations about meaning and intent-- for instance, an author may have intended one thing with her poem, but the experiences a student brings to the table when they read that poem may lead them to read it in a wholly different way and draw a completely different meaning from it. And isn't that part of the beauty of literature? We all get something different from it, despite the author's original intent.

I wish you could hear all of my students' reactions to this book over the years-- this is one of the books they go absolutely ballistic over, and it's such a joy to hear them discuss it. The first year I did it, I split the ninth grade into Team Advantage, US Alliance, and the Government, and we had an interactive (completely non-violent, I promise) marketing simulation. It was part of a media literacy unit and the two loyalty programs had to recruit as many members from the other grades as they could, while the Government group watched for ethics violations. That group of kids still talks fondly about the book. There has been a solid lack of engagement overall with distance learning this year, but we got to this book, and suddenly there were signs of life! It's great to be able to teach it.

At any rate, thanks again for this; I genuinely appreciate it.

And if you ever want to read an essay on your book, let me know-- I have sharp kids and I usually get some great essays. :)

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