English Literature

Reassessing the Death of the Author

What do William Faulkner, George Lucas, and J.K. Rowling have in common? They all refused to “die,” for better or worse.

“The Death of the Author” is not a cynical jab at the merit (or the lack thereof) of a work. Rather, it refers to the way the reader applies meaning to a text. At its simplest, “The Death of the Author” can be used to examine the validity of an author’s emendations after his or her own work has been published. After a work or series of works is finished, the author “dies,” or removes herself from that world, and any other amendments after that point in time are no more valid than the reader’s. Per our example, Faulkner, one of the most praised authors in American literature, refused to die with his appendix to The Sound and the Fury, insisting that it be shoehorned to the front of the novel; Lucas, the accomplished fantasy screenwriter turned out-of-touch creator, refused to die with the special editions of the first Star Wars trilogy; and lastly, Rowling, the accomplished children’s fantasy author in the process of turning into an out-of-touch creator, refuses to die with her many additions to the Harry Potter world via her Twitter account. It would seem that these examples support the death of the author theory, as many of these emendations are generally thought to be untrue to the original story. And, to this end, the theory provides a sound way to look at the relationship an author has with her work. However, the theory goes further, and some issues begin to arise. For my EH 603 project, I will examine the literary theory “The Death of the Author” in the context of a few notable examples in literature and assess its merit as a device for reading texts.

Roland Barthes (1967), one of the pioneers of the theory, insists on an unnecessarily secular way to assess literature, stating that “…all writing is itself this special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices, and literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes” (p.1). To Barthes, the death of the author should begin when writing begins. Indeed, some of the best works are those in which the Author seems to vanish from the story (The Sound and the Fury being one of these works), but to remove the Author’s identity and experiences entirely from her own work is to remove its very reason for existence. If we don’t consider the Author while reading a text, much of what makes for literary criticism becomes devoid. Despite what Barthes claims, the existence of the Author does not mean that the reader is unable to derive and define different meanings based on his own experiences.

The issue of the death of the author becomes a surprisingly philosophical one. In James Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Joyce’s autobiographical counterpart Stephen Dedalus famously says that “the artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails” (p. 184). Importantly, this aesthetic philosophy does not outright deny the existence of the Author in the first place; rather, the Author is “refined out of existence” after the work is completed. This does not mean that the reader cannot consider the Author and her background or other works. I will argue for a brand of “The Death of the Author” in literary criticism that is less nihilistic than Barthes’ and more similar to Joyce’s.

References

Barthes, R. (1967). The Death of the Author. London: Macat Library.

Joyce, J. (1916). A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Penguin Books.