Saturday, October 27, 2018

Sidebar VII: Death of the Author or The Dead Writer Sketch

Sidebar VII 
Death of the Author or The Dead Writer Sketch 

Before I launch into this, let me tell you a story that illustrates what I'm talking about here.

Issac Asimov comes upon a group of fans in a convention and they're all going a mile a minute, in a in-depth discussion about one of his stories. One of the fans was holding forth about subtext and allegories present in the story and what they mean. Asimov cuts in and disagrees, telling that his ideas are interesting, but the story isn't about that at all and there was no such subtext. The fan in question turns around looks down his nose and assures Asimov, that he has been English professor at a prestigious university for many years and has made a study of literature for even longer. So he knows what he is talking about. So how could Asimov know more then him? Asimov replies he knows more because he wrote the damn story in the first place. The Professor replies:

“So? Just because you wrote it, what makes you think you know anything about it?” 

As the story shows, Death of the Author is a tool of literary criticism where you disregard the author completely and attempt to grapple with the text without using the author's life or views to provide any context. The idea being that not even the Author of a work can really speak with authority on what the story means or all the hidden themes within the story. Therefore it falls to the individual reader and critic to tease out the meaning of the story through study and examination. Now the rub here is without a singular figure to speak on it, it's entirely possible to have conflicting interpretations of the text and have them all be equally valid. Now the name of this comes from an essay written in 1967 by French Literary critic and theorist, Roland Barthes in which he argues that the author should be more considered more like a parent to the written work. In that yes, the author created the story but the story, like a child, has a separate and equal existence to the author. That means it can be considered completely independent of the author after it's written. This is supported by the fact that most stories outlive their authors. Authors are mortal human beings and stories last as long as someone is willing to read pr tell them. Therefore a reader shouldn't have to be constrained in what they see in a story by someone whose been dead for 402 years or so. In fact many of the classical stories, like Shakespearean plays often adapt new means and overtones according to the time and place they're being performed in. In short it's the affect of the story on the reader that is the primary determination of what the story means and the subtext, or if there even is any subtext in the first place. While I'm here let me define subtext and text real quick.

Text is the original writing of the work, the actual words of the story if you will. Subtext is any underlying message or theme that is not explicitly written into the story. For example if an author were to write a story about a person wrestling with a bout of depression and place them in a room with blue curtains and wall paper and when that person had fought their way through that depression. Wrote that they had changed the curtains and wallpaper to some other color. The text would be, this room is blue. The subtext would be, the blue is an expression of the depression this person is feeling. That's a really simplistic example but I think y'all get what I'm driving at here. So let's get back to Death of the Author.

Death of the Author in many ways removes the hope of an objective, definitive view of any work. If the affect on the reader or the meaning ascribed to it by others is what's important, then that meaning is going to be constantly changing as the society and people reading the story in question change. It also dismisses the idea that understanding the author can help you understand the work. I have issues with that, my own stance is that understanding the context and environment of which a story is created can be pretty damn important to understanding the story itself. Furthermore it simply isn't fair to expect writers from the past to accurately guess what will work in a 100 years after they've been laid down to rest. Finally, any decently written work has a chunk of it's writer in it, in my view. The author's world view and emotions are going to be imparted into the story. Now this doesn't mean that an author who writes about a fascist society is a fascist but his own views on fascist are gonna influence the work. A skilled writer will find ways to communicate the feelings and ideas they want to an audience that is removed from his own situation, even if good number of the details get lost in translation. We see this in works that make cultural leaps from one culture to another, whether it be a novel from Poland or a Japanese comic. A well told story can bridge gaps between cultures or generations. However, that doesn't mean that both sides of that bridge will agree entirely on what they're seeing. Which is why in my view understanding the other side of that gap can give you a deeper and more vivid picture of the story itself. Now, Death of the Author isn't a universal embraced position, there has been and is pretty of resistance to it. There have been entire books written in defense and against the theory and the debate continues even to this day. I'm not going to get to in-depth into this because I lack the interest and honestly I don't think to many of my readers are all that enthralled with digging into the knife fights of literary academia.

My own feelings on Death of the Author are honestly complicated. I feel it's often used as an excuse to ignore the author when they turn out inconvenient, or as an excuse by some critics to try and outrank the author if you will. Which doesn't sit well with me. On the other hand, as I noted an author is a human being, a fallible mortal and as such is full of unrealized bias and influenced in ways they don't realize by their culture, experiences and environment. These bias and influences will find their way into the story and the author may not notice them. but that doesn't mean a reader or a critic is wrong when they do. Additionally, an author may have different opinions over time. If a writer says one thing about their story and a conflicting thing 10 years later... Which statement is the true one? Lastly the author may be untrustworthy (some writers do enjoying trolling their readers or prefer to have the readers come to terms with the work on their own) or even flat out dishonest. If an author were to write a fantasy novel where tall blond, steely eyed men in white robes saved their nation by laying waste to hordes of monsters with... Darker skin tones. It doesn't take a big leap to realize that this person is either incredibly dense or an outright liar when they say there's not meant to be any racial overtones or praise for certain terrorists groups implied. In such cases you kinda have to stand up and point out that the emperor is buck naked, just because the author of a given story says something about it doesn't make it automatically true or right.

That said you can't really separate a story from it's author either. Anymore then you can pretend that a child stops being influenced by their parents when they hit 18. That said, the story can also to a certain extent speak for itself and not even the author outranks the story, so to speak. Th author does have a privileged position when it comes to discussing the story they wrote however. To give a pair of examples, I would argue that when discussing Lord of the Rings, we should certainly take J.R.R Tolkien's word over that of some first year college student who has recently discovered allegory and thinks he's clever. At the same time if George Lucas gives conflicting stories of meanings in Star Wars, we should considered looking at which account has the most evidence outside of Mr. Lucas' word. So Death of the Author is something I would argue should be used sparingly and with the full knowledge that when we use it, say to suggest that a 57 year old Polish novel about a group of astronauts dealing with a power outside their understanding might be a metaphor for people's struggle with mental and emotional illness, we should be aware we are likely adding that layer of subtext ourselves and it very possibly doesn't actually say anything about the story. In fact when you use Death of the Author, you might very well be talking about yourself and your own bias and experiences more than you are the actual story. That's always something to be careful of, because you don't want to let yourself get between you and a great story.

Thank You and Keep Reading.

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