This just in: the author is dead. Ok, this is old news. The author has been dead for 45 years.
In 1967 literary critic Roland Barthes wrote an essay titled ‘Death of the Author’, in which he claimed the author was no longer relevant to an understanding of the text. Anyone who has done high school English will probably remember writing copious essays about how an author’s context influences their values and beliefs, and how these in turn influence the text and the values it expresses. This traditional approach to literary criticism sees the influences on an author – their historical, cultural, geographical, political and religious etc. context – as shaping the author’s text. To understand a text we must first understand the author.
Barthes rejected this approach, saying that “To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text”. Basically, Barthes was rejecting a definitive explanation of texts that relied only on authorial intent. I agree wholeheartedly with Barthes. Of course it makes sense when trying to interpret a text’s meaning, to look at what the author may have meant. They DID write it after all. Surely they’re the best judge of what the text meant. But mightn’t a text have more than one meaning? Mightn’t a text have no meaning at all? If we focus only on trying to discover what the author intended then we miss many other interpretations. How do we know what an author intended anyway?
That’s what I dislike most about traditional literary criticism. It assumes we can definitively know what an author meant. How? How can we read a text, come up with a single explanation of it and decide that is what the author meant?
We can’t. Unless they tell us. And even then, that’s just their interpretation. We can have our own. And if they won’t let us, then there’s only one solution. Kill the authors!
Too late. They’re already dead.
Zombie authors? I’m going to stop writing now.