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!