It’s been a while since I last tackled the Norton. And I realise that this is mostly because if I stuck to my stated intention of going through it chronologically, the next guy I’d be looking at is Socrates. And that’s one statue I simply don’t have the guts to try to stare down just yet.
So, instead, we’re going to skip a few thousand years and chat about someone whose theories I’m passionate about and who brings up a lot of interesting questions about the way we write and read. Today we’re going to be looking at Roland Barthes. Or, more specifically, his work The Death of the Author.
I’ve briefly mentioned this idea before but for the sake of argument, let’s recap. The Death of the Author is a theory that suggests that the author of a specific work is, frankly, irrelevant. Traditionally, we look at literary works in the context of an author’s biography and what they may have intended. For example, we might analyse a work by Jane Austen by starting with taking a look at her life and how that influenced her. Or, in a more contemporary example, we look at Twilight by first looking at Stephanie Meyer’s religious background and going from there. The text, in essence, is an expression of the author and by understanding the author we understand the text.
Barthes notes that critics tend to like judging works by authorial intent because it gives them an ‘answer’. If they can look at an author’s life and find out what they were thinking when they wrote something, find out why they wrote it, then they can ‘figure out’ the text. There is one definable interpretation for the text and through good detective work it can be found. Then that’s it. Case Closed. The text had been solved and it can be forgotten about. Cheers all around.
But that puts a huge limit on texts, don’t you think? By saying that the only meaning that matters is the one the author intended means that stories can’t evolve or grow. They can’t come to mean things that the author didn’t intend but that speak to some greater meaning.
For example, let’s take a quick look at Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 which is a dystopian novel about book burning. Bradbury insists that the novel is about how television has destroyed people’s interest in reading. Before Barthes that would be it. No need for further investigation. However, if we theoretically kill off Bradbury (apologies), there is a very different message, one that the book is famous for: censorship.
And what if something happens in the text that the author didn’t quite intend?
This fundamental disjoint is something that I struggle with as a writer. Rationally, I understand that what I write comes from my life, either as direct experience or inspired by it. Whatever I write comes from my own mind. It has to because I am the one at the keyboard.
But I can’t be alone in the feeling that something else is at work. When you’re caught up with inspiration and your fingers simply can type fast enough, dammit! And you sit back afterwards, feeling the cramps and aches of hours sitting over a keyboard and reading over your work thinking. ‘…What sick genius wrote that and why aren’t they here all the time?’ You know the feeling, the one that good writing comes from, when your conscious mind stops working and you hide at the end of your arms praying that nothing comes to interrupt this flow, praying that you won’t start trying to work out how this is happening and ruin it in the process.
I did NaNoWriMo last year and, predictably, I could not stop nattering about it to anyone who consented to listen to me. So I would tell them about how my characters were having a grand old time bickering with each other and backstabbing everyone and then how, surprise surprise, one of them decided that she’d been evil all along and really, dear author, try to keep up.
The funny thing I noticed was to do with the reactions I got. Writers, people who had experienced the magic I talked about above, simply nodded and laughed, probably remembering a time when their own characters surprised them with some random piece of knowledge or a skill that they simply didn’t reveal until now. But people who had never written a creative piece in earnest, who’d never felt that rush, simply looked at me puzzled, politely reminding me that I was the one who was writing the story in the same confused but soothing tone you might find people talking to a confused dementia patient with. Obviously I knew what was going on because I was the author, right?
This is where I think the death of the author truly comes into its own. Because, as an author, I can tell you that what I write can’t be worked out by looking first at my life and who I am as a person. I’m sure that when I sit down to write I normally have a purpose. Sometimes it’s wanting to convey an emotion, sometimes it’s because I’m interested in how some characters will interact together and sometimes it’s because I feel like it’s probably writin’ time and I should do something about that. But, often, I won’t work out what I’m writing until I’m in the act and that’s where the magic happens.
The death of the author allows for that magic. It allows for the writing to be somehow more than simply what the author intended. It allows the work to be bigger than the author themselves.
It also allows for the reader to become involved. Where traditional interpretation relied solely on the author’s intentions, Barthes asserted that “text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”. So in this new way of thinking, the text isn’t brought together by the author but rather by the reader who reads the text and creates their own meaning.
This is closer to the actual experience of reading (unless you’re in the habit of reading with the author breathing over your shoulder which must be… disconcerting). The death of the author allows the text to be separated from its creator and allows it to be simply what it is, a text that is free of any intent apart from what is in the words on the page. It allows the text to mean not one thing, but infinite things; It allows the text to refuse to be defined and for readers to find their own meanings. The death of the author allows texts to become whatever we wish them to be.
And that in itself is just a bit magical, isn’t it?
That’s a poster with the entire text of the novel written in legible font and displayed as an artwork. Click on the picture. They’ve got a whole range of them and words simply can’t express how much I want one.