I’d never heard of death of the author until a few months ago. It blipped on my radar because of this phenomenon where some authors make us privy to facts about their worlds or characters after the novel came out, and this new knowledge somehow changes the way we read the book.
What is Death of the Author?
It began with an essay by French literary critic Roland Barthes, in which he discussed his thoughts against authors offering any kind of information about their intentions or personal experiences behind novels. According to him, the author shouldn’t be allowed to influence the reader and the way they interpret the story, because the author should disappear from the equation as soon as the novel leaves their hands.
It’s up to the reader to make with the story what they will, because ultimately, the book belongs to them.
“Literature is the question minus the answer.” – Roland Barthes.
I think Mr. Barthes would have an apoplexy if he could see what’s been happening with authors and readers in the digital age.
Social media makes it so much easier to connect with authors, personal blogs give us a window into author’s lives, and we are often influenced by what we learn about them.
And this applies to more than just authors, if we’re being honest. Knowing the tears belonged to John Krasinski and not Jim Halpert in that final scene with Steve Carell makes me cry so much harder when I watch The Office. The extra context has irrevocably influenced how I view that show.
But is Death of the Author a Good Thing?
Sometimes, the information offered by the author makes no difference in how we interpret the story. Knowing what the author’s snack of choice or playlist was while writing a novel gives us more insight into the author as a person, but doesn’t change the story itself. Sure, we may be more lenient and forgive typos or plot holes when we like the author, but between the pages, the hero still goes on their quest, they still evolve, still defeat evil (most of the time).
Knowing the author’s favourite colour doesn’t change that.
When the author explains their state of mind to us, or share commentary on the world, classism, oppression, politics, minorities, etc. after the novel is completed is a different story.
For example, I read The Lord of the Rings as a teenager for the first time, not knowing much about the man behind the books. Later, I learned Tolkien injected the story with events inspired by his and his son’s experiences in WW1, which has offered me a level of empathy in every reread that didn’t exist that first time.
The new knowledge has influenced and enriched my reading experience.
This new trend is different, though. Lately, a number of authors have dumped information on us, usually according to what’s happening in the news, to show us how woke they are. The problem is they usually don’t think this all the way through, and we end up with information that doesn’t really bring meaning to anything written in the book, but instead damages characters or their intentions.
Because now the character is a part of the LGBTQ+ community, but is also a bit of a sleazebag and child predator, and people are pissed.
The new knowledge has influenced and devalued my reading experience.
Unfortunately, there’s no black-and-white, love-or-hate answer to this one.
One of my all-time favourite quotes is by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux,
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Sometimes, the author has the best of intentions, but end up upsetting their readers, or opening plot holes that hadn’t previously existed by adding additional context to the things they wrote.
Additionally, I place no value this idea of being ‘woke’. If your stance on something wasn’t clear in the novel, maybe it didn’t have any impact on the story, and doesn’t need to be included after the fact just so you stay in with your readers.
Though I don’t agree fully with everything Barthes said, I do agree that the story belongs to the reader.
I believe sharing information with readers just to show how trendy one is, is ultimately detrimental, and maybe amounts to no more than an author digging a shallow grave for themselves. Maybe they should have buried their authorial voice in there to begin with.
What are your thoughts?