This is one of those texts that are absolutely inescapable for literature students. Wherever you live, whichever classes you choose, at one point in your academic career you will encounter Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author.” Whether you agree with him or not, Barthes introduced a concept that was truly revolutionary and is still a game-changing read for many first- and second-year literature students to this day.
So let’s blow some minds.
In 1968, Roland Barthes wrote an essay called “Death of the Author,” a landmark text in the move from structuralism to post-structuralism. According to Barthes, an author should not claim absolute authority over his or her text:
To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing […]
It was up to the literary critics to liberate works from their authors, and open up the floor to the reader, creating a sort of ‘collective authorship.’ Writing, according to Barthes, does not originate from a single fixed source, but is unfinished until it’s read. Every reading writes the text anew, because every reader interprets it differently. Barthes writes:
a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.
So what does this mean? According to Peter Barry’s Beginning Theory, the death of the author is
a rhetorical way of asserting the independence of the literary text and its immunity to the possibility of being unified or limited by any notion of what the author might have intended, or ‘crafted’ into the work. Instead, the essay makes a declaration of radical textual independence: the work is not determined by intention, or context. Rather, the text is free by its very nature of all such restraints. Hence, as Barthes says in the essay, the corollary of the death of the author is the birth of the reader.
Barthes thus saw the death of the author as emancipatory: why should anyone have the final say on what a book “means”? In his view, the author is not an Author-god, but a ‘scriptor,’ someone who produces the work, but is not more equipped to interpret it than anybody else. Practically speaking, authors may not be available or willing to talk about “what they meant.” The information we have on the author’s background may be inaccurate, and might be interpreted differently by another critic. On top of that, since authors are people too, they are inconsistent sources of information: they may not be aware of why they made certain decisions, or change their mind on the work over time. Thus, we should not judge a book by its author, but by its use of language and its impressions on the reader.
Barthes is not saying that the author’s biography is completely irrelevant in literary analysis, but that it is just one of many possible interpretations, and not necessarily the right one: just because the author said it means X, doesn’t make it so. This doesn’t mean that every interpretation is equally valid either. If your reading is based on flawed reasoning or false information, it’s still bad criticism.
Asimov, Isaac. “The Immortal Bard.”
In this short story, Shakespeare flunks a present-day class on his own works.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (Labyrinths).
This short story is a fictional analysis of the work of an imaginary author, Pierre Menard, who decided to write a book that concides word for word with Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Because the critic interprets Don Quixote using the biography of a different author, he comes up with a reading that is unlike any other work of Cervantes criticism (there are mentions of Nietzsche involved). It is geekily hilarious.