Today, I want to dismantle a concept that you've undoubtedly heard of at least once in your life as a lover of literature. It's a media critique framing called "Death of the Author."
For those not in-the-know, here's a basic definition:
Death of the Author is a concept from mid-20th Century literary criticism, named after Roland Barthes's groundbreaking 1967 essay on the subject. It holds that an author's intentions and background (including their politics and religion) should hold no special weight in determining how to interpret their work.
Death of the Author has apparently been a useful rhetorical tool for media critics, readers and authors alike. However, I think perhaps we've gone too far with it, if I'm honest.
First of all, it emboldens readers to imagine any interpretation they may have is valid, no matter how damaging, even if the text doesn't support it.
Not only that, Death of the Author impacts marginalized authors who write about their experiences, because it's been recently fashioned into a bludgeon.
Lastly, Death of the Author gives a free pass to bad-faith authors because it assumes all art is made in a bubble, which is false.
For all these reasons—and more—I'm going to dismantle Death of the Author with just 3 simple examples. Then, I'll give you the only instance of when it works.
Are all reader interpretations valid, because they have them?
No, because that doesn't make sense
I hate to be that guy, but media literacy in 2021 is very bad. New media has made it very easy for people to barely engage with the thing they want to have opinions on, which leads to bad-faith readings.
An example of this is the case of Isabel Fall, a trans woman and author, who wrote a short story titled "I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter."
Many readers flocked to the short story, read only the headline, and walked away thinking a cis man penned the prose.
This lead to an egregious smear campaign that inevitably pushed Isabel into a mental hospital. The entire ordeal also made her flee so deeply into the closet that she tragically erased herself.
I read the short story fairly early-on in its controversy, and as a trans man, it was painfully obvious that no cis man could've written it.
The reasons for war don’t matter much to us. We want to fight the way a woman wants to be gracious, the way a man wants to be firm. Our need is as vamp-fierce as the strutting queen and dryly subtle as the dapper lesbian and comfortable as the soft resilience of the demiwoman. How often do you analyze the reasons for your own gender? You might sigh at the necessity of morning makeup, or hide your love for your friends behind beer and bravado. Maybe you even resent the punishment for breaking these norms.
Now, you could argue that Barthes's Death of the Author essay doesn't necessarily give readers a free pass to interpret media from the perspective of a lemon shooting citrus in eyeballs, but that's exactly what it does—in practice.
Barthes concludes ‘The Death of the Author’ by arguing that imposing an Author on a text actually limits that text, because we have to view the literary work in relation to the author who wrote it. Its meaning must be traced back to the person who produced it. But writing, for Barthes, doesn’t work like that: it’s a ‘tissue of signs’ which only have meaning when the reader engages with them.
I don't know about you, but this looks like nonsense.
Artwork is always intentional, even if the intent is the process of it. Sometimes, the intent is to get the audience to participate and form their own meanings, like with FLUXUS artists such as Yoko Ono.
But to imagine that this act of inviting meaning-making isn't an intent in and of itself is preposterous. Moreover, to imagine all consumers of art are savvy enough to engage with it in good faith is just plain wrong.
Let me share with you another example of this.
If the author's identity doesn't matter, why are readers so obsessed with it?
And what happens when they're wrong?
The curious case of Becky Albertalli sometimes strikes me at random during my morning green tea slurping. Matcha makes my brain leak at bad-faith anything—and considering we're in a constant daily deluge of bad-faith—my grey matter is apparently a liquid now.
How is it that such a universally beloved YA author— one with deeply embraced queer works—was forced out of the closet?
Just as Albertalli’s star began to rise, however, online critics started asking whether a straight woman should be allowed to write—and profit from—queer stories.
And despite the fact that Becky Albertalli, as she publicly revealed for the first time in the Medium piece, is bisexual herself.
Do you know? Because I certainly don't.
"How could we possibly know she was queer?" one might ask. "Well, did you wait and see, or did you react angrily, forcing Albertalli to come out?" I'd respond. Crickets, as usual.
If the author's identity doesn't matter, why does it seem to matter so much to some readers? Clearly, we aren't all on-board with Death of the Author, and for valid, even similar reasons.
Personally? I'd prefer more queer books, written from the perspective of queer characters, to be written by queer authors.
In fact, I'd prefer to read the experiences of marginalized character written by, I don't know, marginalized authors who know what they're talking about? 🥴
However, I'm not such a brute that I react before I get all the info necessary. I assume authors are writing in good-faith before judgement.
That seems reasonable, yet this grace seems so woefully lost for many authors in recent days, penning works readers love and love to find reasons to hate. Because the Authors Are Dead, remember?
I cannot be the only indie author to notice how this can be weaponized against marginalized authors. Right?
I don't want to talk about J.K. Rowling
We have to talk about J.K. Rowling
On the flipside, if the author's politics, identity, et al do not impact a reading of their works, then this gives a free pass to authors like Rowling to pen transphobic narratives. She couldn't possibly be vilifying trans women in a recent novel, because Rowling's antics don't count towards the work, right?
Wrong: Rowling siphoned all her gender essentialist, anti-feminist, transphobic garbage-thoughts into Troubled Blood.
It features Strike and Robin setting out together to solve the disappearance of one Margot Bamborough, a feminist doctor who vanished from the world in 1974. The police strongly suspected that Margot was abducted by the serial killer Dennis Creed (the one who wears women’s clothes), but they were never able to solve the case. And now,40 years later, Margot’s daughter Anna — a lesbian, Rowling notes with an air of triumph, as if to say, see, she’s not homophobic — has hired Strike and Robin to try to bring her closure on the mystery once and for all.
I shouldn't have to explain to you why Rowling's transphobic crusade is, indeed, transphobic, but if you're looking for sources:
- Joanne's absolutely bonkers tweets.
- Joanne pens blog article in support of Maya Forstater, woman fired for being transphobic.
- Joanne suggests woman can't be rapists, and also implies men are masquerading as women in order to rape women. That's not transphobe rhetoric at all, how dare you /s
- Joanne slams trans activists for "doxxing by her home address on twitter" which is easily findable on Google and even has hosted tours, therein she creates one more way to punch down at trans people.
To make it simple: Rowling's personal politics cannot be extricated from her literature, especially if she pens literature in her political ethos. To imagine otherwise is to imagine all art is created in a bubble.
That's certainly a nonsense notion, isn't it?
Perhaps this isn't what Barthes had in mind
Maybe he meant "transformative readings are good"
To suggest every reader interpretation of artwork is always valid doesn't work when media literacy is so scarce. To imagine the artist's identity never matters when grappling with their books is false. To insist we ignore the contexts of bigots for the sake of their books is...laughable.
So, when does Death of the Author matter? To treat Barthes's essay charitably, maybe it only matters when transformative readings happen.
By that I mean: queer-readings, socio-political readings, and anything that gives bright-hope or new-thought to readers. Transformative interpretations are important and good, is perhaps what Barthes meant.
If that's what he meant, I agree.
Let's be honest: some of our literary heroes suck.
Does that mean Ender's Game is not valuable? No. In fact, it is exactly because Card is so blind to his own creation that it's important we hold onto our transformative readings of it.
This is the only time when Death of the Author sticks: when books are more impressive than the person who wrote them.
Maybe I'm being unfair to Barthes
Or, maybe too many people missed the intent of his essay, which is funny, all things considered
I get no joy from being irritated when my fellow authors chortle about dissolving from their own work. I don't have that luxury, as a visibly queer author writing visibly queer science fiction.
I don't enjoy calling bullshit 24/7. It's exhausting. However, as that seems like my lot in life, I'm here to tell you that it's possible the most popular interpretation of Barthes's essay is wrong.
Maybe he didn't mean the author's intent doesn't matter.
Maybe he meant transformative readings are good, can be quite important, and giving space for them is integral.
If that's the case, well, that's rather funny isn't it?
That means author intent is always present, because it's a conversation between reader and author, and sometimes things get lost in translation.