Death of the author has become a more and more prevalent idea in recent times, as the ideas of whether an author’s intent or views matter when discussing the text become more relevant to more people. “Death of the Author,” an essay originally written in French by Roland Barthes in 1967, has become the basis for a literary criticism. The whole idea is that you separate the author, what they think about the text, and who they are as a person, from the text itself. Basically, does the author’s interpretation of the text matter any more than a reader’s interpretation? Or, should an author’s views affect whether you enjoy the text or think it’s important to history or literature?
Death of the author introduces a lot of difficult questions and not a lot of simple answers. Some people believe you should completely ignore the author, others think you should take their word as gospel. It’s complicated. So, to help you understand death of the author more and to give different perspectives and ideas about the topic, here are some videos and articles to check out.
1. “Death of the Author” by Lindsay Ellis
In this YouTube video, Lindsay Ellis discusses death of the author. She uses The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, which, while also being an infamous tearjerker, deals heavily with this concept within the story and without. The idea of death of the author is baked in the plot and the character arcs, and Green himself agrees with the concept—which in itself is a little ‘the author is alive’ because his intent to show death of the author is clear in the book—but Ellis explains this concept very clearly through this example.
Then she and John Green himself collaborate to discuss whether death of the author is really viable in modern life, with social media and brands and public life. Is it even possible to fully divorce text from author? Anything you know about an author will inevitably inform your understanding of the text, whether you are purposefully subscribing to their views of the text or mindfully defying them. Lindsay Ellis’ video covers all these concepts and more in a very informative an engaging discussion on death of the author. Go check it out!
2. “JK Rowling and Authorial Intent” by Sarah Z
Sarah Z discusses the idea of death of the author and authorial intent in this interesting video. Authorial intent is basically the opposite of the death of the author, she explains, and if you believe in authorial intent, you believe the author is the only person who gets to decide how the work should be interpreted. If death of the author is on one side of a sliding scale of how should this work be analyzed, authorial intent is on the other.
Sarah focuses more on how authorial intent relates to critical thinking and literary analysis. Under the theory of authorial intent, the author’s word is gospel and nobody else’s matters. This discourages critical thinking, because it says that the way to learn more about these books is not to look closely at the text and analyze, but to ask the author and the author will tell you. It also cultivates the idea that an author can retroactively decide things about the text, and that their decisions, post text, are indisputably true. Death of the author counters that idea, as Sarah explains. This video is a really comprehensive look at authorial intent and the effects that it can have on readers and fans.
3. “Death of the Author” on TV Tropes
Yes, really. TV Tropes actually has a very comprehensive article on death of the author. Interestingly, this article connects the concept of death of the author with the… debate about whether Shakespeare actually wrote his plays or if some other person wrote them under his name. When you take the stance of authorial intent and give the author sole power in determining how a text should be interpreted, you assume that the author has to be an intellectual, that “works with deep meaning and ideas come only from people who are culturally and philosophically learned, rather than deriving from instinct, observation, creative inspiration, and artistic genius.” So the idea that Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have written his plays because of his intellect or his education is a derivation of the idea that an author has to be this brilliant all-knowing genius who has more knowledge and experience with literary analysis than the readers do.
The article also goes into some new questions about what death of the author means. That is, does death of the author mean that all interpretations are equally valid? And even if you don’t take the author’s interpretation as the be-all end-all law, isn’t the author’s interpretation still better than the reader’s? They wrote the work, after all. If they get to decide what’s canon within the text, why should their words be less canon after the fact?
All in all, death of the author is absolutely a confusing and contradictory concept, but this TV Tropes article brings up some interesting questions. Go check it out!
4. “The Afterlife of the Death of the Author” by Matthew Sini
This compelling article gets into the nitty-gritty of authorial intent—if the author’s intent doesn’t matter and has no bearing on how a text should be interpreted, can the author be held accountable for harmful or hurtful interpretations of the text? If the author’s interpretation is no more or less important than a reader’s, and the reader’s interpretation is that the text has a hurtful meaning, is the author responsible for that hurt?
But one thing is for sure about the literary criticism death of the author, and this article puts it very well:
We need not succumb to the Great Men of Literature style of interpretation Barthes bemoans in acknowledging the author’s role. Few writers are truly great or geniuses or symbolic of their age. But nihilistically disavowing authorship as a crucial part of the process of myth-making might just be worse. If authorship no longer matters, we may soon find that nothing much matters at all.
Death of the author is a complicated, complex concept that covers many different ideas, thoughts, and questions. In fact, one person could agree with the idea that the author’s interpretation doesn’t matter while thinking that authors should be held accountable for any hurtful or harmful interpretations someone has of their text. Or someone could think the exact opposite. Or any other combination of the questions asked in this article and elsewhere. There are no simple answers when it comes to death of the author, and that’s the only interpretation of this concept that should be taken as true.
Featured Image Via Writing and Wellness