The Author Died in 1967

Which author, you may ask. The Author, I’ll reply, because 1967 marked the publication of Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author. It’s one of those essays that everyone who studies literature beyond a certain level has to read, and I’m sure some of you are already edging for the door, because it’s a mean bastard of a thing. It’s also one of the most important things written about literature and the processes of reading and writing in the last 100 years. It’s important, especially for those of us who are actively engaged in the processes of reading and writing, not just because of the way it challenges assumptions about writing which still persist today, but because it offers some valuable insight into the nature of authorship, which is an increasingly complex identity in itself. It also explains why being an arsehole to reviewers is philosophically unsound (yes, I have been watching the latest Goodreads shitstorms, hence this post).

Have I scared you all off yet? No? Good. I’m going to keep it fairly simple, at the level I’d use to introduce these concepts to my classes. If you do know anything about literary theory, you probably should leave now, because this is going to be reduced down to its barest bones (sorry). Barthes’ essay challenges the concept of the individual controlling author as the sole figure shaping and forming a piece of writing (a text). He challenges the idea that the most important factor in understanding a text is the personality and biography of the author.

The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centred on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions, while criticism still consists for the most part in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of Baudelaire the man, Van Gogh’s his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice. The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us.

This is a very narrow interpretation of any text, which views a piece of writing as a puzzle to be solved, with the author’s life and views providing the clues, like a traditional whodunnit. If we detach this idea of the author from the text, however, we’re left with something more interesting. Think instead of the writer as simply the conduit for the words, which are themselves woven together from the ideas and words that have come before them.

At first glance that seems mad. Think, though, of every time you’ve looked back over something you have created and seen something you didn’t put in intentionally, something which reflects the context you were writing in or makes an allusion to something you’ve read or seen or heard. The writer exists only in the moment of writing, weaving together a tissue of allusion and ideas and reactions into a new form. Once that writing process is over, the writer ceases to exist.

Somebody’s got to make sense of the product of this process, though, and that’s where the reader comes in. Instead of assuming that there is one authority on the text, the author who deliberately controls every detail of their creation, Barthes sees the reader as the one who creates meaning out of this mass of words and phrases. The author themselves will only have a limited perception of the text they have shaped, so to accept their interpretation of it as more valid than the reader’s massively limits the potential meaning of the text.

Thus is revealed the total existence of writing: a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.

The reader, not the writer, is the end point of this process. Now, inevitably, this complicates things because every individual reader creates their own version of the text that they have read. The idea of the one central authority is undermined, because it isn’t the creator who is in charge of the text. It’s the audience. We can all present our own experiences as readers, but in doing so we are creating new texts of our own, which some other reader must make sense of it.

Okay, it was the sixties. 🙂 Mindfucks are obligatory.

It may all seem very abstract, but the central point here is that the key figure in the process of literature is not the author. It’s the reader. Without a reader to create meaning from what we have put upon the page, we’re just empty noise. Shakespeare knew this (Shakespeare knew everything) when he described life as ‘a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing.’ The performance alone is meaningless. We need an audience (part of me always feel that this should be most obvious to romance writers, because we’re all about how having somebody to see you truly gives your life meaning).

When I first came across all this as an undergrad in 2000, I hated it and I didn’t understand it. Every authorly instinct in me rebelled against it. Of course I control my stories, I thought. Of course I’m in charge. I was eighteen. You’re allowed to be that thick when you’re eighteen. Since then, I’ve read a lot of medieval literature, which makes you question the whole modern notion of authorship and originality. I’ve read and written a hell of a lot. Most importantly, I’ve taught. There’s nothing like teaching to prove beyond a doubt that all readers have their own unique and valid responses to a text.

So, let me take you into my classroom (deep breath, please, it’s been a warm day and there’s a great heap of stinky PE bags in the corner). Let’s have a look at a poem by Grace Nichols. This is Island Man, which was a fixed point on the GCSE syllabuses until a few years ago.

Morning
and island man wakes up
to the sound of blue surf
in his head
the steady breaking and wombing

wild seabirds
and fishermen pushing out to sea
the sun surfacing defiantly
from the east
of his small emerald island
he always comes back            groggily groggily

Comes back to sands
of a grey metallic soar
to surge of wheels
to dull north circular roar

muffling muffling
his crumpled pillow waves
island man heaves himself

Another London day

I always started the poetry section of the GCSE course with this poem. It’s straightforward in meaning but there’s lots of lovely stuff going on with the language and structure, so it’s a good opening lesson. One thing I did was to chop it up and give groups individual quotations to discuss and then present back to the class. One year, I taught two Year 10 (9th Grade) classes. There was a similar mix of boys in each class: middle of the ability range, some really difficult kids and a lot of steady plodders. When it came to the phrase ‘breaking and wombing’ the first class went in a predictable way: they told me that it suggested he felt safe in the island, that is was comforting and nurturing like a mother, that he maybe felt that he had to grow up and leave. All good ideas. Then came the second class, two days later.

“Miss, I think there was a civil war on his island and he’s a refugee.”

Okay. Then I got, “I think he hated it and wanted to get away. He had a really violent life there.”

O-kay. “And he felt really trapped inside there like you get trapped in the womb, and he wanted to escape like babies want to be born.” By now the whole class were joining in.

It was all interesting stuff, but somewhat unexpected. I’d been teaching the poem for years and never heard this sort of thing before.A few questions led me to an explanation.

In the intervening two days, my colleagues up in the Science department had shown them all a rather graphic video of childbirth. They’d found it rather distressing (all boys Catholic school). That experience had a huge influence on the way they interpreted the word ‘wombing.’

Their interpretations weren’t wrong. They could explain them with reference to the text and their own experiences. They knew why they felt the way they did and the poem had a greater emotional impact on them because of that different experience they had been through.

Was it what the poet had intended? Almost certainly not, but that didn’t matter. The impact that poem had on those boys was different and greater than the impact it had on their peers two days before. They constructed their own meaning from the interaction of the words and their experiences, and it was amazing.

That’s what we all do as readers. It’s pretty fucking cool.

To go back to Barthes, consider this: if the writer is only involved in the moment of writing, what are they before or after that moment? When they bring their own interpretations of the text in, they are no longer an author. The moment the author engages in interpretation, in the act of creating meaning out of what they have stitched together, they become a reader instead. Whether or not their reading of the text is any more valid than that of any other reader is a matter for debate. The author essentially dies the moment the writing process ends. After that, the text is in the hands of the reader. How many of us got frustrated when JK Rowling started revealing extra material in those post-book interviews? Many of us had an instinctive feeling that she was cheating somehow, that this wasn’t playing the game right. That instinctive reaction goes straight back to the relationship between the writer and the reader. In my opinion, once the writer has presented the text to us, their time is up. Piss off. Butt out. It’s the reader’s job to make sense of this thing. The author’s done their bit. You’re not the author of this book anymore. You’re the author of whatever you’re writing right now. The things you wrote once are like a snake’s discarded skins: lovely, but no longer part of you. You can only look in at them from the outside.

Oh, and since the Author died almost fifty years ago, staggering around the reviews of a past book trying to impose your reading onto its reviewers makes you an extremely manky zombie. Just sayin’

(Oooh, I think I needed to get that off my chest).

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