Embracing the death of the author
When I say “death of the author,” I don’t mean calling for the death of any currently living authors — I’m not a monster. The death of the author refers to a concept in modern literary criticism where the intentions of an author are excluded from the interpretation of their work. It was an idea made popular by French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes in the late 1960s. In his essay, “The Death of the Author” (1967), Barthes argues that the writing and the creator are unrelated, at least in terms of literary criticism.
And while I don’t necessarily agree with everything Barthes posits in his essay, the idea of an author “dying” once their work has been published is something important to consider. A big part of studying literature in an academic capacity is trying to glean meaning from texts that are decades (if not centuries) old. Even though I managed to read a fair amount of contemporary literature while I was working on my degree, the vast majority of the work we discussed was old — old enough where their authors weren’t even alive during my great-great-grandparents’ lifetimes.
Which poses an interesting dilemma. When we are discussing modern and contemporary literature, it’s easy to include (or at least be drawn to) an author’s opinions in your interpretation, because they’re often still alive, giving interviews and writing essays in response to readers’ criticisms. Even if they are recently deceased, a lot of this information remains in the public conscience for a while and can influence the way we read their work. For older pieces, though, this isn’t usually the case. It’s not uncommon to have little or no information about the lives of authors from several hundred years ago (think Shakespeare).
The rise of technology, as well as celebrity culture surrounding popular writers, has also contributed to a very different relationship between writers and their work. Writers can interact with readers in a way they have never been able to do before. So for the sake of interpreting content in as uniform a way as possible, regardless of its publication date, it’s important to assume the intentions of the writer are not as important as the way readers interpret it, because that’s the only thing we can control across the board.
That’s not to say an author should have no say in their work after the public begins interacting with it. It’s important to talk to creators while they’re still around, not only to see how their lives may have influenced the pieces they’ve written, but because they’re also human beings who deserve to have people interested and willing to listen to what they have to say. It’s also important for a writer to see and react to how readers are feeling disconnected from their work, so they can continue to improve their writing and communication skills.
At same time, there should be a limit to how much writers (fiction writers in particular) can get involved in their work after it’s been published. I don’t believe non-fiction writing is as affected by this phenomenon, because the goals of writing a non-fiction piece are often more straightforward than writing a work of fiction. But going back and altering your work after it’s been published or attempting to insert meaning where there is none is not only bad for the writer (because you need to be able to let go at some point), it is also bad for the content itself, because this type of revisionism only takes away from and clouds the original meaning of the text.
There are two modern authors who have always jumped out at me for not respecting the metaphorical death of the author: JRR Tolkien and JK Rowling. Both prominent writers of fantasy, these authors both have really bad habits of overstepping their role as creators.
I mentioned JK Rowling’s revisionism a bit in one of my last posts, particularly in regards to her adding artificial diversity to the Harry Potter series since its been published. The original books wrapped up in mid-2007, yet Rowling has come forward with several new revelations since then, like Dumbledore being gay or Hermione being black, despite never alluding to either of these ideas in the actual books. This is problematic for a variety of reasons, not only because it challenges the importance of actual diversity in the series, but also because it makes it impossible to criticize the books in any meaningful way when she keeps attempting to change their content.
Her refusal to accept the death of her role in Harry Potter is not only bad from a literary criticism standpoint, but also does not do justice to her readers. It adds nothing meaningful to the books because she is not simply clarifying information that was already there, she is adding information that was never there to begin with.
JRR Tolkien is also over-involved in his role as the author of The Lord of the Rings. Not only was he personally involved in most of the revisions made to the books after they were released, he also went back and changed important elements of the Hobbit to match up to The Lord of the Rings.
The most notable difference between the original and revised versions of the Hobbit was the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter where Bilbo plays a game of riddles against Gollum in exchange for the ring. In the original version of this chapter, Gollum willing gives up the ring, which doesn’t make much sense considering his later obsession with it.
And as a writer myself, I completely understand the desire to go back and change the things that you aren’t happy about it in your work, but from a reader’s perspective, it’s really irritating. It also makes it incredibly difficult to talk about these books, because you are forced to do so much additional research to get the complete picture.
Not accepting the death of the author also sets an unfortunate precedent for the writers themselves, because as more people go back and make changes or insert meaning into their work, it becomes increasingly difficult for other writers to step away from theirs. If you make a mistake (which we all do), there becomes an impetus to go back and change it, which takes away time from creating new work and is likely not adding that much to the original work. You should be allowed to back and address factual inaccuracies in a piece of published work or do more copyediting (that’s why editions exist), but it becomes very easy to overdo it and and damage a piece in the process.
So, I think we need to embrace the death of the author more often. If people are understanding something that goes against your intentions as a writer, that’s not only important to know to be able to write more clearly, but it’s also an important part of how reader’s interpret your work. It can be hard to accept that your role is no longer required in your work after it is published, but it is very beneficial to the reader if you are able to step away from it.
Read, write, and talk about your work, by all means, be proud of it, and embrace the work that you’ve created. But resist that urge deep inside yourself to go back and make major changes to it. Go ahead and change wrong dates and misattributed quotes, but if a character’s love for another character isn’t strong enough or you’d rather see them end up someone else, don’t change it.
Because like children, once you’ve released your creation out into the world, it’s still yours, but it also belongs to others. People will interact with it and understand it in different ways than you might, but that’s not a bad thing. In fact, that’s part of what makes literature so incredible, and part of the reasons we are able to enjoy books whose authors were born centuries before us.