The Death of the Author! Maybe!

Cultural critic and commentator Lindsay Ellis (disclosure: a friend of mine) has a video up talking about “The Death of the Author,” which is a primer and discussion of that particular literary theory, and whether it makes sense to apply it to work today. It’s an interesting video and makes a number of relevant points (among them one noting that “death of the author” as theory relies more than a little bit on a homogenized critical outlook), and I can recommend it for viewing — and have helpfully included it above.

It’s also given me a reason to offer of some of my own thoughts on the concept and the role of the author in general, inspired by, but not necessarily in conversation with, the points that Lindsay brings up in her video essay. These thoughts are not exhaustive (i.e., this is not all I think about the topic), but I think worth thinking about.

1. Sometimes all you have is the text. It is in fact possible to know nothing about an author or a work before you read it; just go into a bookstore or library cold and pick a novel out of the shelves more or less at random and start reading. All you will have is what’s on the page.

Now, in fact, most people don’t approach a book that way — we’ll have heard about the book or author elsewhere, or at the very least we’ll read the flap copy and see the author’s photo — but if memory serves, children often do approach books that way. Kids are given books, or pick them because of cover art, or simply don’t make the connection that the stories in the books they read are written (and illustrated, as the case may be) by a person. The author as a construct doesn’t exist, and if it does, they’re not important to that reader. What’s important is the text.

I get a couple dozen books a week sent to me by publishers, and while I can’t claim to be entirely ignorant of the concept of the author (or the idea that the author is a living, breathing human being), I can say sometimes all I know about a particular author is their name on the cover, and the text of the book they’ve written. I don’t do a full background search on every author I read; I have neither the time nor the interest. In those cases, the book stands more or less on its own.

2. The book isn’t the author; the author isn’t the book. I’m fond of noting that when Old Man’s War came out, a lot of people assumed that I was politically conservative, given their own reading of the text. Then they would come over to my site and be surprised and/or angry and/or confused that I as a person didn’t mesh with their conception of me based off the text, and relatedly their assumptions about military science fiction and the (American) people who write it.

It’s easy to ascribe personal or philosophical attributes to an author based on what you read out of their fiction, and I’m not here to tell you not to do that. I am here to tell you that you should be prepared to be wrong, as often as you’re not. Books are highly distilled intellectual product designed for particular effect; authors are messy dingleberries who on average are neither better nor worse than other people. They just write better (or have better editors, as the case may be).

One side effect of this is that you should expect that at one point or another the authors whose work you admire will disappoint you, across a spectrum of behaviors or opinions. Because they’re human, you see. Think of all the humans you know, who have never disappointed you in one way or another. Having difficulty coming up with very many? Funny, that.

(Don’t worry, you’ve disappointed a whole bunch of people, too.)

Following on those top two points:

3. It’s possible to separate the art from the artist, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to. In the cases where all you know about the author of the book is the name on the cover, the art is already largely separated from the artist, and even when you do know something about the author, who they are as a human might be largely separated out from the highly mediated product of their efforts. A shitty human can write great books (or make lovely paintings, or fantastic food, or amazing music, etc), and absolutely lovely humans can be aggressively mediocre to bad artists. There is very little correlation between decency and artistic talent. You don’t need to be a good human in order to understand human behavior well enough to write movingly about it; remember that con men are very good judges of character.

With that said, if you discover that the writer of one of your favorite novels (or whatever) doesn’t live up to your moral or ethical standards, you’re not obliged to give them any more of your time or attention, because life is too short to financially or intellectually support people you think are scumbags. Likewise, you and you alone get to decide where that line is, and how you apply it. Apply one standard for one author, and a different one for another? Okay! I’m sure you have your reasons, and your reasons can just be “because I feel like it.” Just like in real life, you might put up with more bullshit from one person than another, for reasons that are personal to you. It’s nice when you have a standard that you apply rigorously, but you know what? I for one am not going to judge you too harshly if you pick and choose. There are more creative people in the world who produce at a standard you find acceptable than you will ever get a chance to read, listen to or otherwise appreciate. It’s fine to abandon some and go find others more to your liking, whatever that liking may be.

Related, remember that some work (and some authors) will age poorly for you, because times change and you’ve changed. I mean, probably. Maybe you’re one of those people who stopped changing your opinions and thoughts when you turned 25! Bless your heart.

4. Authors know more about their worlds than you do, but maybe don’t have all the answers. If you believe that only the text matters, then an author’s thoughts, beliefs, etc about the world they constructed on the page are no more relevant than your thoughts or anyone else’s; if it’s not on the page, it’s not canon. And that’s fine for you to believe, but as the author, I certainly don’t believe it, because among other things I know how much of the world I have to create in order to support what’s on the page. I have to know more about my world than my readers do, otherwise it’s going to be difficult for me to keep consistency of action (and consequence) across the work, both in characters and the world in general.

But, as it happens, sometimes writers and readers don’t find the same things important, with regard to the worldbuilding. As a result, readers sometimes think about certain things more than the authors have, and the authors get caught flatfooted when readers want to know more about that particular thing. Alternately sometimes the author kind of bullshits through something because they don’t think it’s important and later it comes back to bite them and has to be explained away. In Old Man’s War, I didn’t do any sort of real worldbuilding for Earth because I knew I was going to leave it in a chapter, and I didn’t think about whether I would ever write any sequels.

And then one day I was asked to write a sequel, and readers were asking why future Earth seemed exactly like now, and I had to recon my way out of my own laziness. It worked out okay (indeed the explanation became a seed for much of the series onward), but the point is, at the time of the original writing, there was no deep-seated reason for doing it other than “it doesn’t matter, so why bother.” Guess what! It mattered.

How much should you trust non-textual commentary from the author about their work? I tend to advantage the author (as I would, wouldn’t I), but there limits, and it helps when there is evidence outside the author’s word. The famous example of JK Rowling noting Dumbledore was gay was not in the text of the book series in any obvious way, but Harry Potter movie series screenwriter Steve Kloves noted that Rowling had him take out lines alluding to Dumbledore’s heterosexual dalliances because it wasn’t correct for the character, and did so before she went public with his sexuality. So there’s some reasonable evidence it’s not an entirely post hoc bit of character development.

Ultimately (and banally) the owner of the intellectual property has say as to what’s official “canon” and what’s not, regardless of what’s text and what’s commentary. It should also be noted that this is a gross oversimplification of matters, since over time public sentiment hugely influences the perception of an author’s work, long before it enters the public domain (but especially after). The “canon” of Sherlock Holmes, in terms of the perception of the character, hasn’t been limited to Doyle’s works for decades. The most famous cultural image of Pride and Prejudice (for now), D’arcy taking a swim, is nowhere in the original work’s text. And so on.

Related to this, and finally for now:

5. The actual death of an author makes a difference in a number of interesting ways. On a prosaic level, an author physically dying starts the clock ticking for their work to enter the public domain, where the work itself has a better opportunity to separate itself from its originator. Their death also begins to distance the public approbation and opprobrium of the author from the work. In the short run it means that people who were, say, uneasy about the moral character of an author can enjoy their work without worrying that they’re putting money into the pocket of a creep (or racist, or whatever).

In the long run, almost everything about the author becomes a footnote to the work. Even Shakespeare, arguably the English language’s most notable writer, is better known as an icon than as a person, save for occasional and historically shaky appearances in films. Occasionally death elevates an author into notability — Emily Dickinson comes to mind, although in the public eye even she is more about her work than her life — but it’s usually the other way around. Time wipes the author away from their work until inevitably people approach the work like a child would: With only the text itself, and a name that has no context outside of it.

Which might sound depressing if you’re an author, but, eh. One, you’ll be dead so you won’t care. Two, people even remembering your name for a century (or two!) is a hell of a thing. I know the name of L. Frank Baum but not the name of my paternal great-grandfather, who was alive at the same time. I don’t know anything else about L. Frank Baum off the top of my head but his name, but I know there’s a Wikipedia article about him I can go look at. My paternal great-grandfather is not so lucky. Now, note well that not all of authors are going to be L. Frank Baum; we’re probably not even going to be Temple Bailey (a bestselling author of 1919, and now you know). But at least you have a shot at it.

(Also, in case you’re wondering which authors alive today will be household names in 2119: Rowling and Stephen King. I think you’re probably not surprised by this prediction.)

Suffice to say that if you truly are a fan of the “Death of the Author” style of literary criticism, in the long run, you’re not wrong. But in the short run, the author isn’t dead yet. Especially when, you know, they’re actually still alive.

39 thoughts on “The Death of the Author! Maybe!

  1. Well, evidently not even so much about Baum’s name either, as he’s “Lyman Frank Baum”, Not “Frank Lyman Baum.” Sorry. But even though she’s alive, JK can’t get people to pronounce her name the way Adele’s song does ‘in the deep,’ something with which a ‘Scalzi’ shouldn’t have a problem.

  2. If I know a writer is (in “real” life) an astrophysicist or genetic biologist I tend to give more credence to the related science in their texts. A common fallacy: Non-science writers can get good scientific advice. Common in the sense of judging a book by its cover.

  3. If only the text matters, where did it come from?

    I had a girlfriend once who believed this sort of thing and insisted that Benjamin Franklin’s article on his kite experiment was a crucifixion allegory. She constructed a lengthy argument supporting this from the text. But the fact remains that is not what it is about. It is a report on the results of an experiment.

    Certainly the reader brings prior knowledge and experiences that influence what they take away from a reading, but that equally means that the author brings prior knowledge and experiences into the creation of the text you’re reading. My problem with my ex’s sort of extreme deconstructionism, which basically was this sort of “there is no author, only a reader” stuff is that the reader cannot take away meaning from a text that doesn’t exist, and a text that does exist is not a random collection of words and sentences. It is meant to convey information, and whatever you take away is partly determined by that intent. After all, even deconstructionists don’t take away the same meaning from any text.

    The reason my ex could see a crucifixion allegory was because the kite had a wooden cross as part of its structure. She would not take away that meaning from Franklin’s discussion of positive and negative charges. The meaning comes from the text but the text didn’t come from nowhere. Someone wrote it and what they wrote about partially determines what you take away.

  4. As an author, I prefer to be as dead as possible, so that readers do not subconsciously assume that a first-person or dialogue-only story is narrated/verbalised by my persona. Since I mostly write tweet-length stories, there isn’t enough text to get into and forget the author. In long-form, like, say, oh, drabbles, or flash, or even longer pieces, this is less of an issue.

    When I read tweet fiction by someone with a person in their avatar, I have found I generally read as if the avatar is the person telling the story. I prefer to have the freedom to tell stories from the perspective of other genders, ages, ethnicities, or species. The less the readers know about me, the better my very short fiction can be, I think.

    (Mind you, when someone reads a story *wrong* and tells me, it is very hard to resist correcting them. I try as hard as I can to bite my tongue, though.)

  5. John, it sounds like you read Steven Brust’s blog on the subject of separating the art from the artist. But you added a lot more. Do some people become writers because they wish to have immortality? I would imagine so. Us more ordinary people have to be satisfied with paying the rent and raising a family. Our form of immortality.

    Good post.

  6. Authors know more about their worlds than you do, but maybe don’t have all the answers.

    Funny story about that idea. My father was an English professor for many years at Univ. of Memphis. In his younger days, during the height of Deconstructionism as literary theory, he was attending a conference on Faulkner while the author was still alive. It was held in Oxford (Mississippi, not England) and the man himself attended a number of the sessions. During one panel my father was at, a professor made a lengthy point about a theme in The Sound and the Fury and it’s deeper meaning. When he was done, the moderator of the panel turned to Faulkner and asked him what he thought of that. His response was a fairly gracious “well, that’s a very interesting theory, but that really wasn’t what I was thinking when I wrote that part.” Another member of the panel (a well-known Deconstructionist) leapt to his feet and shouted “No, you’re wrong!” at Faulkner. My father always said that was when he swore off Deconstructionism forever.

  7. John, besides chuckling at people misjudging your conservatism from your Old Man’s War book, I chuckle at your constant calls to vote during an election, because voting is what the characters in Starship Troopers would believe in too.

    Meanwhile, I like the observation that “con men are very good judges of character.”

    A popular writer in the 1960’s, a fiction writer who’s stories would be in Reader’s Digest, Paul Gallico, once wrote a book where an orphan girl joins a traveling puppet show. The puppeteer is always nasty to her, but his puppets are always nice to the lonely girl. It has a happy ending.

  8. Do you think that social media and overall digital storage of correspondence/thoughts will allow authors to live on longer than, say, Dickinson and Baum? If I’m sufficiently motivated and the author has obliged, I can pretty much get a sense of the person beyond their work with a few clicks and some extra reading time…

  9. First: Oh god, Linday is just the best. Love her videos. Her take on stories is just brilliant.

    Second: are you kidding me? Is no one going to quote the movie most relevent to the discussion????

  10. Jason C. Levine:

    Probably not. Tweets/Facebook posts for most people are evanescent and people don’t tend to remember/note them after they’ve scrolled off. Blog posting has a longer shelf life, but blogs are far less trafficked than they used to be. All of this stuff will be use for future grad students, but probably not the general population.

  11. There are bestselling authors back in the day whom we don’t know about anymore, though. So perhaps 100 years from now, people won’t know about Rowling and Stephen King, but I guess they do have the benefit of their work being adapted into movies, etc. So who knows.

  12. French copyright law started a concept called “moral rights”. It was eventually worked into the Berne copyright convention in 1928. The US signed on to the convention in 1989. In western europe, the idea of moral rights is quite strong. It includes rights of “paternity”, to be attributed as creator of a work, and to the integrity of the work, among others. The idea of moral rights springs from the notion that an author puts his very spirit into a work. That he is the father of his work. In 1911, a French court said that moral rights protect “the superior interests of human genius.’ Moral rights assert that we must preserve a work as the artist intended it so that his genius can be “conveyed to posterity without damage.” The notion goes so far as to say that to damage a work of art, is to damage the artist.

    Lindsay points to “The Death of the Author”, a 1967 essay by French literary critic Roland Barthes as the beginning of the idea of her video. But i think part of what Barthes might actually be fighting against is the sometimes overbearing presence of Moral Rights, especially where it is strongest: France.

    Barthes refers to people who write books not as “authors” but as “scripters”. He does this because he wants to get away from the connection between “author” and “authority”.

    Authors in countries with strong moral rights can do some pretty crazy things. They can control how a work is used, how a work is displayed, how a work might be modified, even after the author sells all their rights to a work. Moral rights can never be sold away. Moral rights in some jurisdictions have no expiration date.

    And in some situations, that can be stifling to new works.

    I dont agree with the notion that a work must only be read with no context of authorial intent. But i think in Barthes words, one might extract a bit of pushback against some of the more extreme examples of Moral Rights.

  13. If you focus on the text, you lose context. Author intention is context.

    Stories are inherently focused on individuals. The hero and the villian. The protagonist and antaginist. Stories are essentially made up anecdotal data. From anecdotes, people often extract whatever conclusion they want to believe, and dismiss whatever they dont want to see.

    “Pork Chop Hill” was a 1959 movie about a battle during the Korean war. In the actual war, the battle involved 19,000 men on the UN side. The movie focuses on 25 men left alive from a division of 135. Of the 25 men remaining, 2 are african american. When faced with the possibility of going back into the meat grinder, one character displays cowardice. One of the african american men. Is it merely anecdotal data? A random sampling could produce such results. Or is the movie making a statement of statistics, that this is how it would always look, every time you put a black man in combat?

    Authors will generally deny they are racist, or bigotted. But sometimes it is because the bigotry in their text is unconscious. Something they didnt think about in the slightest. In such a case, author intent is actually misleading the meaning in the work itself.

    If every movie shows blacks as cowards, then thats racism, even if cowards did historically include blacks. And if every author says it isnt racism, then those authors are merely forwarding propaganda about their work, calling it something it isnt.

    And since we know authors sometimes lie about their works, we must take the word of the author about their intentions and about the meaning of their work with a grain of salt. The author might inform, and they might mislead or attempt to decieve.

    But the same goes for readers and fans of works. People might read “Atlas Shrugs” and call it a great literary work of fiction because they simply agree with Ayn Rand’s political nonsense. They will ignore the character who monologues for 60 damn pages because they think Rands politics of “Selfishness is the highest morality” is just awesome.

    Heinlein said he wrote “Starship Troopers” specifically to argue against SANE calling for an end to nuclear weapons testing. He said we needed nukes because they were the only way to possibly defeat the commies in russia and china. He also said the US would be the loser of such a war, but that people should build bomb/fallout shelters, stock food, water, and unregistered guns, and go out in a blaze of glory.

    If Heinlein hadnt written books, he would have been ignored by history, and thought of as a crackpot to those who knew him.

    But libertarian fans of his books think him a genius, because he makes libertarian ideas go mainstream.

    Lindsay has a great video about Mel Brooks. In it, she compares how Brookes always showed nazis as buffoons, versus how a movie like “American History X” showed nazis as bad asses. In X, ed norton plays a neo nazi who vows to change his ways and stop his younger brother from.making the same mistakes he did. But he looks like a bad ass while doing it. Meanwhile, Brookes sometimes got criticized for making light of the tragedy brought on by nazis by showing them as buffoons, rather than as the calculating evil machine they were.

    But Lindsay points out that neo nazis actually embrace American History X, they adopt the visuals of the movie and ignore the story. They like Norton as a neo nazi being portrayed as a bad ass, and they ignore his story of a cautionary tale. Lindsay also points out that no neo nazi ever liked any of Brookes’ films portrayals of nazis as bumbling buffoons.

    Poes Law states it isnimpossible to create a parody of extremism views that are clearly seen as parody, because no matter how extreme you make the parody, some real extremist probably exists somewhere who has that view. Mel Brookes solves Poes Law simply: make clear its parody by making the extremists into buffoons, visually unappealing, and so on.

    Likewise, Heinlein is either pro-fascist or, at best, he makes the same mistake that “American History X” makes: he makes fascism look cool and he makes fascism look bad ass. Fascists run around with powered armor and fascists produce the best utopia ever in the history of mankind. Fascists never make mistakes in starship troopers.

    And since Heinlein makes his unadulterated will to power novel look so cool, a lot of his fans refuse to see it as anything but cool, and refuse to see the fascism, jingoism, exceptionalism that is rife throughout his text.

    So, we cant trust authors to give an accurate appraisal of their own works and we cant trust fans to give an accurate bbn appraisal of their work.

    Which means, Barthes solution is overly simplistic. We cant trust fans. But we also cant trust authors. Leaving interpretation just to authors is too tyrannical. Leaving it just to fans is creates an echo chamber. Which means the only way to find the true meaning of a work is much more messy than either, a democracy of sorts likely spread over time to strip away the prejudices of the culture in which the work was written.

    In other words, only history ( imperfect as it is, with consideration of what the author, fans, and detractors say) has any hope of judging the meaning of a work.

  14. TV and SF writer Doris Egan said one thing fans will do is take tossed-off details and treat them as signs of author intent. A conversation in which someone says “shut up, I’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive!” is never just a smart-ass line, it’s a canonical author statement that the speaker has indeed been doing whatever it is longer than the listener’s life.
    2)”But Lindsay points out that neo nazis actually embrace American History X, they adopt the visuals of the movie and ignore the story.” Likewise Francois Truffaut said it’s impossible to make an anti-war movie because the visuals make war look cool.
    3)” It should also be noted that this is a gross oversimplification of matters, since over time public sentiment hugely influences the perception of an author’s work, long before it enters the public domain (but especially after).” Case in point, Stepford Wives is very definitely about men who’d sooner have a sexbot than a flesh-and-blood human woman. In pop culture the perception of Stepford Wives is “living in the suburbs will turn you into an automaton.”

  15. I very much tend to approach books in that childlike way, at least for the first book I read by a given author. Once I’ve decided to read more of their stuff, I’m informed at the very least by my previous reading and likely by trying to find out a bit more about them, but first run through is just me and the text.

    I agree that the author gets to decide what ‘canon’ is, but to a large degree, I don’t particularly care about canon. I care what I get out of the work, and I’m comfortable with the fact that I can get things out of a work that aren’t actually there. So while I agree that it would be absurd to say that Franklin intended a crucifixion analogy, I could still say that I pulled a crucifixion analogy out of it and that it resonated deeply for me. (I didn’t. I haven’t actually read that work, but that was an example used above).

    The moral rights thing sounds to me like a direct conflict with the public domain, and I’m really not into it.

  16. Alex Y. Kwan:

    King and Rowling won’t be remembered a hundred years from now for (just) selling a lot of books; they’ll be remembered because they remade a fair share of common culture. There’s cultural references we make and shorthands we use because they wrote them. This is something they did that (say) Nora Roberts or John Grisham or Dan Brown haven’t, despite those authors selling a similar number of books in aggregate.

  17. Wait, you’re friends with Lindsey Ellis? She’s awesome! Exactly how small *is* the world nowadays? It’s always fun when I discover that people who’s work I enjoy actually know and like each other (one of my favorite things is that Chuck Wendig, Sam Sykes, and Mike Cole are all friendly – and hilariously weird – on twitter).

  18. I was utterly in love with the Wheel of Time books when I met Robert Jordan and I wish I hadn’t. I found Robert Jordan, uh, a little behind the times in his views of women which was in direct contrast to his portrayal of women in the books. Its a dichotomy that still has me scratching my head to this day.

  19. Greg,

    At the risk of turning this into a “what is the meaning of fascist” thread, Heinlein did not write about a fascist society in Starship Troopers. You demonstrate exactly the errors that Scalzi described when you claim that he did.

    In related news, I am reminded of Ellison’s rebuttal to people who compared one of his novels to The Odyssey: “I’ve never read it.”

  20. Separating art, from artist, is something I find I have to do routinely. For example: it’s quite possible to enjoy replaying the chess of a Bobby Fischer or and Alexander Alekhine; but these were not people I would want to have known IRL…

  21. ChrisTurnbow: My father went to high school with Bobby Fischer and my father said he never changed from those days.

  22. “Francois Truffaut said it’s impossible to make an anti-war movie because the visuals make war look cool.”

    Cool quote. The only counter example i can think of would be “born on the fourth of july” but i think it works because it spends most of the movie showing the cost of war after its over, rather than showing combat scene after combat scene.

    “moral rights thing sounds to me like a direct conflict with the public domain,”

    Well, anything copyright related is in direct conflict with public domain, cause the natural state of things is no copyright law of any kind. The idea of copyright in the US is that it only exists to encourage people to write. US court cases generally tend towards a “we must balance copyright with the public good overall”, which gave us things like Fair Use.of copyrighted works. Moral rights assert that there is some intrinsic, spiritual connection between writer and their work, which is, frankly, weird. And also comes with no concept of balancing public good against it. Moral rights, especially in western europe, are considered an intrinsic thing, which makes them sometimes tend towards absolutist court decisions and laws.

    “Heinlein did not write about a fascist society in Starship Troopers”

    Look, fans of Ayn Rand insist Atlas Shrugged was pure genius, a literary gem, and most of them do that because they think like an objectivist: they think selfishness is moral.

    Fans of Heinlein who love his libertarian streak are similarly blind to evaluating his prose. Fans of Heinlein who have an infatuation with powered armor suits and who like the “war is just. War is cool” vibe in starship troopers, likewise, will be unable to see the text for what it is.

    Look, i get it. I enjoyed the bug hunt in Aliens. Sometimes when i am looking for entertainment, i just shut the mind off and watch stupid stuff. The ships are cool. The guns are cool. The military comradierie is cool. I love Apone talking about how he loves the corp.

    But when its over, if people point out glaring issues with Aliens, i dont defend the movie just because i think the oooh rah stuff is neat. For example, if their tactics is standard military procedure, i would get my own ship, follow a military ship, and when they send every ok ne down to the surface and leave the carrier completely unmanned, i would waltz in and steal it. Or an enemy with any space vehicle could destroy it. It doesnt make any sense except that the carrier needed to be unmanned so that Ripley and her jarhead marines were stranded on the surface with no one to help them. Its a flaw in the writing. I still like the movie, but admit it has flaws.

    But starship trooper die hards and heinlein die hards arent just “liking” a story. They are emotionally invested in it, the same way Ayn Rand fans are invested in her nonsense. Atlas Shrugged has a 60 page political monologue in it. Thats crazy. But the ayn rand die hard fans defend it.

    Starship Troopers has something like 4 entire chapters devoted to political monologuing. Regardless of the political opinion, thats crazy. Its too much. But the die hard heinlein fans who agree with the political nonsense being espoused in those 4 chapters eat it up, refuse to see any issues with it, and defend it as good prose, and definitely not fascist.

    Heinlein preached libertarian indifference for pretty much everything in life but the military. For the military he preached anyone who hasnt served is a second class citizen, with no representation and no say in how they are governed, which is entirely anti-democratic. You can call that apartheid, or you can call it a military junta, or you can call it fascism.

  23. One thing we need to keep in mind when discussing Barthes and “Death of the Author” is that theory and crit should also be read contextually. Barthes wasn’t the first person to introduce the idea of divorcing authorial intent from our interpretation of the text; it was quite well established in American literary study by the New Criticism, which formulated the concept of the “intentional fallacy” as part of its larger project of elevating texts that could be read entirely self-referentially, without any consideration of history, biography, or other kinds of context.

    But when Barthes wrote “Death of the Author,” it was for rather different reasons, as part of a broader challenge in literary theory to traditional authorities, especially in terms of the literary canon and its iconic authors. The essay and its arguments were very much of their historical moment, and if its more radical-seeming elements come across as out of step in the present moment, that’s largely why. The immediacy of social media, the unavoidable presence of authors and auteurs of all sorts — and the fact that that presence is now quite often required by publishers and publicists, as well as fans — make the whole endeavour of separating art and artists fraught at the best of times. Case in point: I have several times in the past decade taught Junot Diaz’ brilliant novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and as part of our class discussions have posed the question about the narrator Yunior’s misogyny and predatory attitude towards women, usually framing it by asking “is this misogyny on Diaz’s part, or does it function as a critique of toxic masculinity?” … always coming down about 95% on the latter option. But since we’ve had a series of revelations that Diaz is in fact verbally abusive to women and sexually predatory, and just generally misogynistic, it makes his writing more difficult to treat objectively, and (for me) impossible to see characters like Yunior as a vehicle of critique rather than the author’s id. I’m not saying I’ll never again teach Diaz, but the way I deal with the text would be dramatically different.

    And yet I’m teaching a course this term on HP Lovecraft — who was, objectively, a terrible racist, anti-Semite, and an advocate for eugenics — and his influence on 20thC horror. Of course, that dimension of his writing is front and center in our discussions; but is it the question of time passing, historical context, or something else that makes me comfortable with teaching HPL and skeezed out by Diaz?

  24. One thing I find often gets overlooked in these “death of the author/the author yet lives!” discussions is that authors, being human beings like the rest of us, a) have unreliable memories and b) can change their minds. So an author can say what their intent was regarding a certain text or passage, and they might sincerely believe it, and it might even be true. But maybe they’re not remembering everything, or maybe something they saw in a review or heard in an interview or book talk recontextualized the idea for them, and maybe they’re not even conscious this happened.

    For a prominent example: Ray Bradbury changed his mind about what Fahrenheit 451 was “about” several times over his life. Shortly after its publication, he was pretty clear it was informed by the threat of government censorship, what with Nazi book-burning, Stalinist suppression, and McCarthyism all being recent events. But in interviews many decades later, he’d claim it was about political correctness, and still later, the dumbing-down of mass culture i.e. books smart; television dumb. Those are all valid interpretations of the text, but which one was actually his intent?

    And to be clear, I don’t see anything unusual in his inconsistency. He was an extremely prolific author over a period of 70 years–did he realize when writing Fahrenheit that it would be the seminal work that would define his contribution to the broader culture? I.e., did it occur to him that people would be asking him about this particular novel for the rest of his life? I doubt it. But I’m constantly told by online commenters what Bradbury said Fahrenheit 451 was “about”, quoting his early-2000s interviews on the topic, and I’ll respond, “That’s great, but 1990s Ray Bradbury and 1960s Ray Bradbury didn’t agree with 2000s Ray Bradbury or each other, so which one is right?”

  25. Starship Troopers has something like 4 entire chapters devoted to political monologuing. Regardless of the political opinion, thats crazy. Its too much. But the die hard heinlein fans who agree with the political nonsense being espoused in those 4 chapters eat it up, refuse to see any issues with it, and defend it as good prose, and definitely not fascist.

    I have problems with the monologuing. But that doesn’t make it fascist. It makes it poor (in my opinion) writing. There’s a critical difference between the terms that you seem to miss.

    Heinlein preached libertarian indifference for pretty much everything in life but the military. For the military he preached anyone who hasnt served is a second class citizen, with no representation and no say in how they are governed, which is entirely anti-democratic. You can call that apartheid, or you can call it a military junta, or you can call it fascism.

    And it is none of those three things. What it was was an accurate representation of US life in the 1950s (with one minor twist).

    Apartheid bases discrimination on race. And yet the federal system that Heinlein describes is racially integrated (several years before the US was). So you are flat wrong there.

    A military junta has active-duty officers ruling. And yet the federal system that Heinlein describes specifically prohibits military members from voting much less holding office. So you are flat wrong once again.

    And a fascist system features ultranationalism (not present in the story), forcible suppression of opposing points of view (again, not seen in the story), and a strong regimentation of the civilian population (something else that wasn’t seen in the story). That makes it three strikes and you’re out.

    What was seen in the story? What was the only difference between Starship Trooper’s society and that of 1950s America (other than the racial integration)? The change in how the franchise was awarded. In 1950s America, if you refused to register for the draft, you became a felon and lost the franchise. In Starship Troopers, you had to volunteer for some kind of federal service (frequently noted as being mostly civilian in a nod to the US’ largest uniformed service, the US Post Office) in order to earn the franchise. That’s it.

    Your claim that the society is fascist says a lot more about you than it does about Heinlein. All of those slurs you are slinging about reading what you want to into a story – well, look in the mirror, bub. You’re talking about yourself.

  26. When separating a work from the author (or not) how do you address a work by multiple authors? For not-exactly-example, how should we address Tiger Burning Bright, by Mercedes Lackey, Andre Norton and Marion Zimmer Bradely? Two of the authors are dead, and one of those two was a terrible person. Is that author’s awfulness enough to negate the other two and it must go in the trash? Or does the awfulness not count now that she’s dead?

  27. Ayn Rand fanatics see her political nonsense as perfectly reasonable. Fanatics of any work tend to follow the same pattern: the author can do no wrong, everyone is misinterpreting, blah blah blah.

    The death of the author suggests disconnecting the author from the text and get the meaning of the text just from the text. I would say the same applies to the fanatical fans of a work. Any work.

  28. I don’t know much about literature, but I want to say that back on campus, having meaning of life conversations, sometimes two highly opinionated people, both youthfully agreeing to be that way, could have a discussion and learn from each other. In the years-later world, if you are too sure of yourself, nobody will engage with you. You don’t learn.

    By engage I mean not just responding, but listening and pondering too.

    I’ll never forget an open General Patton telling a young loo-tenant, “We can all learn from each other.”

  29. I would say the same applies to the fanatical fans of a work. Any work.

    End even more so to the fanatical fans of a crackpot theory. Any crackpot theory.

  30. I think the valuable part of “death of the author” is the idea that the author and the reader, due to their different life experiences, will find different meanings in the same text and neither are privileged over the other.

    The author can tell you what they were thinking, or if you research their life if they actually are also the other kind of dead, you can make a set of assumptions about what they might have been thinking that allow you to try and extract the meaning the author had from the text.

    But finding your own meaning in it based on your own life and reactions to things in it is also valid.

    Once you let something out into the world, you can’t control how other people are going to react to it and “you’re reading it wrong it means this instead” is a weak response to people finding something different to you.

  31. This can happen to musicians as well.

    ‘In the Flesh’ from Pink Floyd’s anti-fascist album ‘The Wall’ has been adopted by skin-heads.

  32. The “author is dead” is clearly not applied to at least one non-fiction work i know of: the US constitution.

    What the text ‘really means’ there is almost entirely based not on the text itself, but the historical context of its authors. What the authors and the founders wrote in books and letters to each other at the time has become the only way to extract its “true meaning”.

    And there are clear contradictions as well. It starts with “we the people” but in 1789, only white, land owning males actually had the right to vote.

    The constitution avoids using the word “slave” and “slavery”, but it includes a few clauses that directly address them. The 3/5ths compromise was put in place by northern states to keep southern states from stacking the House in the Souths favor. The constitution has the fugitive-slave clause, which says slaves that escape to free states must be returned to their owner. And yet, all this encoded slavery was put in place by a country who declared their independence by stating “all men are created equal”.

    The Missouri Compromise of 1820 admitted Maine as a Free state only if Misouri would be admitted as a slave state. Slaves in the north would be freed. Any new states north of missouri would be free states. This started the idea of containing slavery to existing southern states and hoping it eventually died out.

    The Dred Scott deslcision of 1857 ruled that slaves and ancestors of slaves were not citizens and could not sue in federal court. It also ruled the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional because freeing a slave was “taking” the slave owners property without due process. Dred Scott is considered by modern scholars to be the worst decision in the courts history.

    In 1861, just 4 years after Dred Scott, the civil war broke out.

    So, when people today look at the constitution and try to divine the meaning of its words, it is nigh impossible to extract meaning without the authors’ historical context, what they said and did back when they wrote it.

    The problem then becomes that once you look at the authors’ words and deeds, you realize the authors talked a good game about freedom, liberty, and equality, but they encoded slavery into the constitution.

    When trying to discern the meaning of a text, it might be possible to look at just the text of a work of fiction, because its just fiction, and if someone gets the interpretation wrong, no big deal. But when the meaning of words affects the lives of millions of people, we should probably use every avenue to divine their meaning, from the words and actions of the authors, and the historical context in which they were written. And we should probably be open to the idea that maybe the author isnt as good a guy as he says he is, maybe some hypocricy is in there, maybe they made a terrible compromise driven by the selfish desite to survive rather than the high-falootin shout outs they gave to liberty and equality and so on.

    And sometimes, we have to look back at that history and admit they were just wrong, because sometimes thats the only way we can do better. But getting someone to admit they are wrong is hard. Nearly a century of encoded slavery in the constitution, in our laws, and in supreme court decisions, was brought to an end, not because the South finally admitted they were partaking in a systematic evil they profitted from, but because after Abraham Lincoln was elected on a platform of containing slavery to the South, and confederate artillery shelled union troops at fort sumpter, starting thr Civil War.

Comments are closed.