For quite a while now I’ve wanted to write a post about Roland Barthes’ The Death of The Author theory, but I’ve been conflicted on where I stand on the subject.
While it is obvious that a writer’s experiences, biases, and other factors greatly shape a writer’s work, I also believe that it is essential to divorce a writer from their written material.
My reasoning for this is manifold.
For one, if you don’t exercise this practice, you are going to miss out on a lot of good writing.
This isn’t always the case, of course. I believe talented authors can often be quite charming people. Nevertheless, like is the case with many professions, the ones that are truly phenomenal aren’t always the most humble.
This goes double for authors of yesteryear who undoubtedly hold (by today’s standards) a whole host of problematic opinions. There are some who believe we should remove books from school curriculum or from the cultural sphere because the person who wrote them is a bigot.
It’s a nice thought that we can wave a magic wand and eradicate all harmful figures and their influence from our past, but in actual execution this isn’t a realistic feat.
If we rid ourselves of every invention, scientific formula, or book, etc because the person who created them suffered from some moral failing, we would all still be painting cave walls by campfire.
The simple truth is that sometimes bad people can create great works of art and sometimes its necessary to concentrate on the product and not necessarily the person who made it.
There is also the issue of gate-keeping that has become prevalent in today’s literary circles. It would seem that writers are being barred from writing about certain topics and creating characters of different races, sexes, or religions simply because the writer isn’t a member of these groups. Or, if they are a member of these groups, they aren’t x enough to be talking about said groups.
While I’m all for encouraging writers of different backgrounds writing about their own experiences being a part of a traditionally marginalized group, I don’t believe shaming people for writing about people and cultures outside their own is going to lead to a positive outcome.
I’m also sure everyone is aware of the new trend amongst authors to-erhm- “improve” their work by adding unsolicited tidbits that were not in their books in order to make them look more progressive.
Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.
By killing the author, we don’t have to take these things into account because the author is dead.
However, there is another side of this coin.
In 2017 Poet Sara Holbrook decided to take a standardized test for middle-schoolers and found herself unable to answer certain questions….about her own poetry.
Apparently one of the questions didn’t even have the correct answer as an option. The test asked why she, Holbrook, chose to write the poem in two stanzas. The reason, Holbrook explained, was because she is a performance poet.
The breaks in the poem were placed there so she could take a breath.
So does The Death of the Author theory apply here? Is she allowed to call this interpretation of her work b.s?
If you ask me, she is.
She is pointing out the issue with implying authorial intent that doesn’t exist, something I have long argued against. Sometimes the curtains are blue because the author wants to convey sadness, but sometimes the curtains are blue because….they are blue.
After reading this article, I was forced to confront my previous stance on whether or not a writer’s intention should factor in to the interpretation of their work.
I like the idea of readers being able to derive their own meanings from stories, but occasionally they get what the writer meant so fantastically wrong it seems as though the author has no alternative but to step in and say “no, that’s totally not what I meant, you idiot.”
Where does that leave us?
I’ve given it quite a bit of thought and I propose a compromise: Authors may give context to their work, expanding on themes and metaphors that may or may not be self-evident within the text….
— if an event did not explicitly take place in the novel (or supplemental materials such as prequels and short-stories within this universe), the event is not cannon. The same can be said for character attributes or relationships.
Think of the work of fiction as a painting in a museum. The artist is allowed to commentate on what they were trying to achieve with the piece. They are not permitted, however, to remove the painting from the wall and begin painting over it, adding bits that were not there before. They can only address what is there and the meaning behind it.
If the author says the character was LGBTQ but gives no evidence to this in the books– Not cannon.
If the author says the main characters all died in the end but left the book on a cliff-hanger—Not cannon.
If the author says the zombies in the book were meant to represent the impending threat of climate change–Cannon.
If the author says the main character’s killing of the villain was a symbolic representation of them killing a part of themselves–Cannon.
Overall, I still believe it is more important to look at the story itself than it is the author that wrote it, but I realize it’s a much more complicated subject than I previously anticipated when first writing this post.
That being said, I’m interested in hearing about what you guys think.
Thanks for reading!
11 thoughts on “Schrödinger’s Author: Is the Writer Dead or Not?”
This is really good. Thanks for addressing this.
I think there are two different issues at play here: 1) when a piece of work rises beyond the author’s conscious intent, and … 2) The tradition of thought from which the author was writing.
It’s true that a writer’s work will often rise above the writer him- or her-self. Often the novel has more wisdom in it than the writer does if you interview him or her. And I think this is especially true of poetry. There is such a strong element of inspiration in poetry, that I believe there are many cases where someone creates a poem (including some songs) without fully realizing what it means. Even the author might figure out the meaning only later.
That said, for longer works such as novels or series, the author has to do a lot of world building, not all of which might make it in to the story. A prime example is Tolkien, who created languages and mythology that are only hinted at in his actual novels. I think we have to take these things as canon.
C.S. Lewis has a great passage about how literary critics would make an argument that this or that work by him was influenced or inspired by this or that other author. He says the case appears very convincing, but he happens to know it is not true. And this has happened to writer friends of his as well.
So that’s the first issue.
As for throwing out great works of philosophy or literature because we disagree with the author’s lifestyle or world view, I think the real issue is that we need to be historically educated. We need to realize what tools of thought were available to that particular author when he or she was breaking ground.
For example, Plato lived in a very stratified, aristocratic world where it was universally taken for granted that slavery was OK and that aristocrats were actually better people than slaves and commoners. Plato doesn’t question those assumptions. But some of the thoughts he was writing down had never before been thought or recorded, so we read the Republic to see this historic development. His snobbery is sort of organic to the milieu out of which he was writing, and in fact it helps us to understand where he was starting from.
That’s different from when an author’s life undermines his work, like the fact that Rousseau wrote about how children are all innocent in their natural state, but sent his own children to die in orphanages. Or how Charles Darwin was in to spiritualism.
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I absolutely love this!
I agree. There are many writers who seem to create characters who are leaps and bounds wiser than they are. I’m not much of a poetry scholar, but I can imagine the same can be said of poetry, where the poet is able to compose stanzas that seem to reach far beyond their capacity to understand them.
I see where you are coming from in regards to Tolkien. I would suggest that The Silmarillion totally counts as cannon since–not only are some elements referenced in the books– they were later published and thus added to the LOTR lore. Technically it was edited and published posthumously, but I think it counts. I suppose I mostly object to writers rattling off on Twitter about their worlds without seeming to put much thought into it apart from how smart or charming it makes them look.
I completely agree we need more historical context placed on the writers and the time period they lived in. I honestly think we need more emphasis placed on history in school period. If you are going to question a writer’s honor, I think it’s pertinent to give them the benefit of a doubt and see what kind of world they lived in at the time. It really can give you a great appreciation for who they were (or who WE were years ago) The issue, I believe, is most people aren’t interested in context and think virtue-signaling to dead people is more important that looking at them with a scientific eye. That’s when killing the author becomes necessary. I look at it like “listen, I know this guy was a crappy guy, but he also created this awesome thing. There is a shortage of awesome things in this world so I want to be able to enjoy this thing. I can still acknowledge someone was a creep while admiring the thing they created.”
I love your input! It’s given me a lot to think about 🙂
Great post! I’m very firmly in the “author is dead” camp. I believe in Reader Response literary criticism. Readers should make their own meaning from the work. Authorial intent doesn’t matter, in my view. I just think analyzing works of fiction through that lens is so much more interesting than trying to decode a book for the “right” interpretation. You know?
Also, love the shade thrown at Rowling 😛 lol Yea, people can’t just add to cannon after the fact. It’s in the book or it isn’t.
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Thank you! Yeah, most of the time the “right” interpretation isn’t even that great lol.
Hey, someone had to do it lol.
Thanks for reading!
Really interesting piece! I’ve wanted to write about this for ages too. And I agree with you, though a writer’s background/thoughts shouldn’t be totally discounted, I veer on the side of death of the author. And I especially think it’s important not to discount a work’s merit, especially something written in a different time period, because of the author’s opinions (if they include said opinions, by all means point them out and critique them, but it’s not good to just throw the baby out with the bathwater). If we did this, I don’t think we would even be left with wall paintings! I think there are limits to interpretation, like assuming breaks in stanzas are for something deep and meaningful, but that said, I wouldn’t just go with the author’s views- there could be a question as to why each stanza ends on a certain point, why she chose to take a break there, intentional or not (though I can’t comment too much, since I don’t know that poet, but in principle, there lots of deliberate and non-deliberate line breaks that have different impacts on the reading experience- especially if it’s performative. Putting an end stopped line after ten lines of enjambment for instance could create a dramatic pause, for instance). One thing I do also think is that authors can give interpretations, but it’s still just an interpretation (I’d prefer if they couch their terms in “it could mean” instead of “I meant it to mean”, but regardless, that’s how I look at what they have to say). So I wouldn’t necessarily say their views were canon, but I’d say their interpretation is valid if there’s evidence of it (though if they didn’t write anything within the text, I’d say they just have a really bad interpretation that’s bordering on fanficy of their own work).
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It’s an interesting point you make about line breaks and why the author chose to end on that particular stanza. I hadn’t even considered that. I see what you mean. The author might have meant that specific line to have more meaning behind it than she realized. I’ve noticed that happen before in writing workshops I’ve attended where people have critiqued my own work, pointing out things that I hadn’t realized I was trying to say, but totally made sense when they explained it to me. Maybe writers aren’t always the best judge of their own work.
That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to write about this topic. It’s so nuanced and everyone has a slightly different perspective on it. Even people who agree with the death of the author might place some minor stipulation on it. It’s one of the few topics that I’ve come across where I don’t have a definitive position on it (apart from what I’ve detailed here). When someone explains why they believe a writer’s perspective should be counted or discounted, I find it difficult to disagree with them.
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Yeah, like I said I don’t know the poet and I take her point about there being a feasible explanation… only I do wonder if she is doing it for a performance, then there’s still a reason why she’d choose to take breaks at certain points, so her explanation doesn’t negate further interpretation (whether it’s intentional or not). And yeah I agree with that. I do sympathise with the poet (being a writer as well, I know that there’s a temptation to be like “but I didn’t mean that!!!”) but at the same time, I’m also a reader and I personally don’t think even in this case a poet can definitively explain away their meaning.
Absolutely agree with you! And yeah I hear you there. I think I come somewhere in the middle as well.
I suspect that some of the c*** put forward in reading groups says more about the reader than the author’s intention.
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