February 17, 2019

Do Authors Matter?

“SINCE THE 1940s among professors of literature, attributing significance to authors’ intentions has been taboo and déclassé. The phrase literary work, which implies a worker, has been replaced in scholarly practice — and in the classroom — by the clean, crisp syllable text, referring to nothing more than simple words on the page. Since these are all we have access to, the argument goes, speculations about what the author meant can only be a distraction. Thus, texts replaced authors as the privileged objects of scholarly knowledge, and the performance of critical operations on texts became essential to the scholar’s identity. In 1967, the French critic Roland Barthes tried to cement this arrangement by declaring once and for all the “Death of the Author,” adding literary creators to the long list of artifacts that have been dissolved in modernity’s skeptical acids. Authors, Barthes argued, have followed God, the heliocentric universe, and (he hoped) the middle class into oblivion. Michel Foucault soon added the category of “the human” to the list of soon-to-be-extinct species.

Barthes also saw a bright side in the death of the author: it signaled the “birth of the reader,” a new source of meaning for the text, which readers would provide themselves. But the inventive readers who could replace the author’s ingenuity with their own never actually materialized. Instead, scholarly readers, deprived of the author as the traditional source of meaning, adopted a battery of new theories to make sense of the orphaned text. So what Barthes’s clever slogan really fixed in place was the reign in literary studies of Theory-with-a-capital-T. Armed with various theoretical instruments — structuralism, psychoanalysis, Marxism, to name just a few — critics could now pierce the verbal surface of the text to find hidden meanings and purposes unknown to those who created them.

But authorship and authorial intention have proven not so easy to dispose of. The most superficial survey of literary studies will show that authors remain a constant point of reference. The texts upon which theoretically informed readers perform their operations continue for the most part to be edited with the authors’ intentions in mind, and scholars continue to have recourse to background information about authors’ artistic intentions, as revealed in public pronouncements, private papers, and letters, though they do so with ritual apologies for committing the “intentional fallacy.” Politically minded critics, of which there are many, cannot avoid authors and their intended projects. And this is just a hint of the author’s continuing presence. All the while, it goes without saying, scholars continue to insist on their own authorial privileges, highlighting the originality of their insights while duly recording their debts to others. They take the clarity and stability of meaning in their own works as desirable achievements while, in the works created by their subjects, these qualities are presumed to be threats to the freedom of the reader.”

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