Premature Death of the Author

Literary theory.

There’s a phrase to make any of us go running for the hills screaming. Musty old academics smoking pipes and muttering incomprehensible nonsense. And it’s true. To an extent. There are any number of high-falutin’ theories of literature that get lost up their own thesaurus. I studied for a degree in English Lit and the fact is, I loved it. But I struggled oftentimes to understand some of the literary terms or theories, and I realised that some of the things being talked about, were actually things that I – and probably many other people – had often thought about. They were very simple ideas really, at their base. However, years and years of stuffy literary articles had couched these theories in arcane and indecipherable words.

So, recently I thought, “I know what would be fun. I’ll take decades and decades of existential literary theory and interpret and distil it to the size of a blog post!” No pressure.

So, first up is Roland Barthes. Barthes was a French literary theorist, philosopher, and critic. (He also had one of the most bizarre deaths in literature. Coming from a lunch with President Mitterand, he was knocked down by a van, got back up, brushed himself off, and went home. But, a month later, as he climbed the stairs at home, he finally succumbed to the injuries sustained in the accident, and dropped dead.)

Barthes wrote a famous essay called “The Death of the Author” (which also sounds like a book Agatha Christie should have written). In it, he claimed that it was not the author that gives a novel its ultimate meaning, but the reader. How did he come to this conclusion? Using the old adage, “It’s all been done before”, he claimed that authors don’t create original texts; they simply “borrow” from already-existing texts. (Peter Ackroyd makes a similar claim when he says that writing comes from other writing not from real life). Added to this the different possible meanings in language and the unknowable state of the author’s mind, and Barthes says that any definitive “ultimate meaning” is impossible.

He says that each reader brings their own meaning to the text, and this meaning is specific to each individual reader’s circumstance (age, status, etc.) What this means is that the text is always open to interpretation and will always be constantly reinterpreted. While this last idea is a nice one, many feel Barthes went too far in discounting the influence of the author on the meaning of a novel.

But, while there are many who would disagree with this, the role of the reader in the process certainly can’t be denied. Indeed, the reader’s role has become more and more prominent with the advent of social media. Gone are the days when the Author-God sat on high dispensing wisdom, and never interacting with the mere mortals down below. Commerce has changed all that. Cash-strapped publishers now expect their authors to do the lion’s share of the publicity. This means a lot more connection between the author and the reader. It started with readings and book signings, but in this age of social media when the author often has a website or a blog on which the reader can leave comments, there is a lot more interaction between the two.

This is about to go a step further with initiatives such as, Social Reading. Social Reading is an interesting idea that tries to make E-books more interactive, but what caught my eye was something the creator of the site, James Bridle, said in a recent piece, where he brought up the idea of having a comments thread of sorts included with an E-book. Whether or not one agrees with this idea, it certainly shows how far we’ve come from the days of musty old paperbacks.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments below. Who gives a novel its ultimate meaning – the author or the reader? And if you enjoyed this post, you can subscribe to the blog by entering your email address in the box on the left hand sidebar. Thanks!




19 thoughts on “Premature Death of the Author

  1. ” Musty old academics smoking pipes and muttering incomprehensible nonsense. ”

    My dream is one day I will be one of the people they will be muttering incomprehensible nonsense about!

  2. Oh, are you barking up my tree today! I have a MA in Humanities/Literature, so basically, I am one of those pipe smokers who write about literary theory. lol. I wrote a 30 page paper on the subject you have above and my conclusion….I’m not saying. I want to see what your blog readers opinions are on the subject. Call it research. 🙂

  3. An interesting theory, for sure. I only half agree with, ‘writing comes from other writing not from real life.’ Sure, other forms of a story may have been printed in the past. At the same time (I can’t speak for others, but only my novel) my book is *based* on real life events. Not things I’ve experienced, but events I’ve witnessed and accounts from other people.

    As for, ‘each reader brings their own meaning to the text, and this meaning is specific to each individual reader’s circumstance (age, status, etc.)’ I agree with. When reading a book, we each apply our own experiences. That could absolutely change the impact of a story, make it believable or unbelievable, and influence our whole reading experience.

    Thanks for sharing this post, Derek. 🙂

  4. Yes, authors borrow tropes. We try to put our personal spin on them in our literature, because we are not only readers–who have personal reactions to what we read–but thinkers, and usually, most of us believe we have something to say about that particular trope.

    I think it’s the author’s interpretation of those familiar story lines that makes a book compelling or an otherwise read. Much like music, I expect. You can have two singers warble the same tune. But one singer will speak to you, while the other will not.

    We–author and reader–are looking for a communion of thought and experience. It’s like the writer is whispering to his reader, “do you see it like I do?”

  5. Great post – and interesting for sure. You would like to think that the writer understands the meaning of their respective novels, but perhaps it is fairer to say, that they understand the meaning of them on their level. We all bring ourselves to the books we read, the extra dimension that is as individual as well, the individual. And I also think that there is too much nonsense in some literary circles, which is often rather simple, straight forward stuff blown up to sound intelligent. At the end of the day, the reader will decide – they are the decision makers.

  6. Oh how I’d love to be some mad old literary bird muttering high-brow, nonsensical things to my 49 cats while flicking ash from the cigarette which I hold in an elegant cigarette-holder thingy…….nah, never gonna happen is it?! Interesting post Mr Flynn. I shall now go and stare wistfully out of a window and ponder your questions properly (aka make the kids their tea and trip over the cat several times).

  7. Seems appropriate that I’m sitting up straight and reading this in the library. I’ll go home feeling slightly better educated now. There’s a lot to take in but totally agree with keepiing things comprehensible. Love the: “Up their thesaurus” bit! Did I spell that ok?


  8. I’m surprised by what people read into a work sometimes. The author certainly goes a long way toward getting the guts and structure of interpretation going, but the reader takes over in the end.

  9. While I agree there is nothing new to be written, (we are born, we have experiences and emotions, we die.) it is each author’s perspective and storytelling skills that make the writing worth reading. I disagree with the reader defining the work, though. Readers will interpret any given work a myriad of ways, but I feel the author is the only one who knows what the story is *really* about. Haven’t we all been in a tedious discussion of a work’s “real” meaning and thought to ourselves, “Maybe the guy just couldn’t think of anything else that rhymed, and is laughing himself right out of his grave at all this pretension!” 😀 Fantastic topic, Derek!

  10. Ahh yes. That type of stuff has me running screaming for the hills. I did journalism and lit crit was part of the course. Hated every frickin’ second of it (lit crit, that is). Had you been teaching me, disassembling and bringing it down to my level I think I would have gotten on much better. Interesting piece though Derek, and I even read it through to the end! I’ll leave you with this which has been doing the rounds – ‘the curtains are blue’… teacher to student, what do you think that means, describe the mental anguish the writer was going through…. writer to student, the curtains were f***ing blue. Loved that as it encapsulates exactly how I read – for the pleasure of it, and if the writer wrote something I’ll take their word for it 🙂

  11. 1. There are two meanings. The meaning the author intended. And the meaning the reader interprets. Of course, this second one can be as many meanings as there are readers.

    2. This same debate happens in music and art. In music, you can perform a piece using the interpretative notations, but it may not necessarily bear much resemblance to the way the writer would have performed it. In art, we analyse what message the artist was trying to convey.

    But I’ll let you in on a secret. When I painted an artwork for my final art year, I then had to write a short essay about what the piece was saying. Well, the short answer was nothing. I painted it because I liked it. I got top marks for my essay, and that was a credit to my creative writing skills and not my artistic talent (which I think is probably significantly less than my creative writing skills).

    Often we don’t sit around and analyse what something means until the author/artist is dead. Being dead seems to give you some additional clout. But of course, no one is then asking you what you meant. Cause your dead. I studied Shakespeare in school. Many of you did as well. No one asked him what his plays meant but we sit around analysing them. If we could ask him the answer might be as simple as ‘I needed money.’ That’s not very glamorous though is it?

    I guess I’m not much of one for philosophical or existential debate. Someone once asked me ‘What is the meaning of life?’ Apparently my answer was depressing.

    I write for the pleasure of it. I also read for the pleasure of it. And that’s about all, folks.

  12. You bring up a lot of interesting thoughts. A writer used to work in a vacuum but now with blogging, I wonder how much that changes the writer’s process and output. But I do think Barthes was mistaken. The reader was always in control, from time eternal. Perhaps the mark of a good writer the ability to convey to the reader what she or he really meant to say.

  13. Some writers are ambiguous and leave a lot of space for the reader to project their own experience onto the story, some writers are deeply manipulative and micro-manage the reader.

    Buddhist philosophy describes how the mind projects its own experience onto the external object and colors the object with past impressions. So to a degree, we will always be projecting our own experience onto the work.

    (Doesn’t explain the Human Centipede though. I’m afraid that is considered to be rubbish throughout the known universe!)

  14. If you take a novel and dissect it like a frog, don’t be surprised when you’ve turned a once-living and masterful tale into a corpse. Many a good book has been ruined for me by someone telling me what I’m supposed to be getting out of it.

  15. Really interesting post, Derek. The inter- relationship between novel, reader and author is complex. But authors are no longer faceless and inaccessible and thanks to emerging technology many readers are informed about author’s intentions before they read. Of course, all books are subject to interpretation, but many readers, like me, are just as interested in authors as much as their books. I want to know why an author has written a novel, what’s inspired them and what message they are trying to convey. For me, that’s part of the reading experience. Well done for simplifying Barthes’ literary theory! 🙂

  16. Great post. I am persuaded that literature is much like a silent conversation between the author and the reader. If a writer creates a relevant piece, the reader can glean from it whatever he or she deems relevant and meaningful. That’s why I still enjoy ancient poetry, and why I get nothing whatsoever from…well, I won’t go there. .

  17. Very interesting and timely post. I’d rather that the reader be the final interpreter of my work, but I guess different authors and readers have different, subjective opinions on this, none of them wrong.

  18. I think it’s sort of a team sport. I put my ideas on the page and hope that someone gets something from it when they read. What the reader gets out of it depends on him/her though.

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