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Y'all Wanna See a Death of the Author Body?
On the ways the corpse of the author is being bent out of shape
This post is riffing on Roland Barthes famous 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” a famous work that is often misconstrued. Barthes essay—it’s quite short if you haven’t read—argues the author is not a God imparting the one divine and definitive meaning of a text. Many meanings can exist. The essay brings up a lot of good points. We can never completely know an author’s every intention in a work in part because the author is not even fully aware of their intentions. (Not to mention the authors who intentionally seek out the random and the unknowable.) And even if we could know an author’s intention, that wouldn’t mean all other interpretations are invalid. A text requires a reader, and the reader is the space where the story lives. Each reader will read a text differently. Literature can produce many meanings. And it’s far more interesting for that.
Regardless of one’s feelings about Barthes’s theories, we’re a long way from the literary culture of France in 1967. In America in 2023, our ideas about the relationship between artist and art have gotten, well, pretty bizarre. The humorous but true terms above display that well.
“Frankenstein of the author” is ever more common as TV and film versions supplant novels in the cultural mind. George R. R. Martin for example is frequently evoked as a boogeyman among people who mostly have never read his books yet hate the HBO series. (Not entirely sure they’ve watched that either…)
The “Taxidermy of the author” is common among scholars and pop “scholars” who are under pressure to keep coming up with provocative claims to get tenure or sell books. The laziest way to come up with a new claim is to work backwards from an interpretation. Take any “Who really wrote Shakespeare?” article and you’ll see this at work. Shakespeare’s plays are too smart for a commoner, ergo some nobleman must have secretly written them. Or his women characters are excellent, ergo a woman must be the real Shakespeare. So on and so forth. These claims always ignore everything we do know about the real Shakespeare. The only evidence is interpretation.
Of prokopetz’s summaries, the two that feel the most dominant today are “Undeath of the author” and “Weekend at Bernie’s of the author.” The Bernie’s approach is goofy but mostly harmless. An illustrative example might be the viral twitter thread earlier this year claiming that Le Guin’s intention in “The Ones Who Walk Away form Omelas” was to critique “how people refuse to engage with a narrative unless it contains suffering” and anyone who read it differently, especially as an ethical conundrum, is wrong. Le Guin wrote about the meaning of Omelas and her inspirations for the work. Apparently she read her own story incorrectly. Like I said this is silly but not that dangerous. The interpretation of Omelas would actually be an interesting one under Barthes’ framework. It becomes goofy when one rejects all other readings, including ones with far more textual evidence and ones Le Guin herself discussed.
But the “Undeath of the author”—in which authors are blamed for any reading of their work—worries me. This framework underlies much of what the kids call the discourse these days. Many believe that if a work can possibly interpreted as promoting something “bad” then it is entirely the fault of the author. Depiction is endorsement, unless “explicitly rebutted in the text.” Include a sex scene? You’re a pervert. Have a bad character succeed? You’re endorsing evil. Depict bigotry—even when you’re an author who is the victim of that bigotry and using art to explore your experiences—and you’re a bigot. Etc. Never mind that in reality injustices persist, bad people succeed, and good people fail all the time. Art, in this framework, is never a reflection of reality or multifaceted exploration of themes. It’s a space for straightforward moral instruction.
The problem here is perhaps less in the interpretation of old art than it is in the creation of new art. The author’s duty is now to guard against every possible misreading or bad faith reading. It’s a defensive posture that can only produce bland art. If you’re always guarding against your worst reader, you’ll never create work that appeals to your best reader.
This mode of criticism isn’t just common among rando social media users. I also see it in scholars and writers. E.g., it’s common to see people blame authors of science fiction for inspiring the Silicon Valley assholes making the world worse. (I saw a professor say this just this week.) While I understand where this is coming from, I have to ask… is it actually the fault of say a dedicated leftist like Iain M. Banks that Elon Musk reads his utopian anarchist SF novels and comes away with nothing more than “spaceships cool!!!”? Is it really George Orwell’s fault that his novels about the dangers of authoritarian governments are reinterpreted by authoritarian-friendly billionaires and online fascist trolls as being “anti-woke” or some such? As the old meme goes:
In my experience, there’s no way to prevent bad readings of a work. People tend to take whatever they want from art. I doubt anything about Musk’s career would be different if he hadn’t read Banks’s Culture novels. He’d probably have the same politics and simply cite some other science fiction work as inspiring him. When it comes to the likes of Orwell, I doubt many of the people who invoke him have actually read him recently or sometimes even at all. “Big Brother” and “Orwellian” are just terms in the popular culture long divorced from their origins. The only way Orwell could have prevented this would have been to write books that weren’t widely read and thus never entered the cultural lexicon at all.
Anyway, I’m sure I repeat myself here.
I’m always a fan of multiple readings of a text. The best art is ambiguous and multifaceted. Barthes was right to encourage us to seek out new interpretations and ways of reading. But we should always guard against mindsets that seem to diminish art. To reduce meaning, flatten, and simply. Nothing interest is made that way.
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