The Author Is Dead (was Re: Jane Austen was a lot of re that I snipped off)

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Wed Jun 20 19:09:27 EDT 2001


I hope this addresses all of what Ven said in her whole post, even though
it's specific to just the last part.  This was the only part I could latch
on to adequately.

Melissa wrote:
>> Besides, I really don't think it matters.  Reading isn't about illuminating
>> the mind of the author.  It's self-revelatory, as I think I said before.
>> You might be passionate about discrediting racism, and criticize _Vanity
>> Fair_ with that end in mind, but continuing along that line to draw
>> conclusions about the author is just a dead end.  You're reading the text,
>> not its writer.

and Ven said:
>Ooh Melissa, I can't agree with this. What does one do? Pretend a 
>text was beamed in from the universal creative mind?

That depends on what kind of literary critic you are. :)

The title of this post comes from Roland Barthes, one of the early
postmodern critics (I really hope I'm remembering this right) who actually
did declare "The author is dead."  He specifically meant--and postmodernism
mostly embodies this idea--that the experience of reading a text is a
transaction between reader and text in which the author doesn't matter.
Doesn't matter what the author intended; doesn't matter what the author says
he or she was trying to do; doesn't matter what kind of
political/social/economic/religious/racial background he, she or it came
from.  (I'm grossly oversimplifying, but I can do this because I know
Deborah will set me straight if I make too many errors.)  The text you
respond to as a reader is a product of your reading.  End of story.

Personally, I can't get behind this.  The author did exist and did come from
some kind of background.  I may not believe there's only one right way to
read a text and that only the author can tell me what it is--in that sense,
the author is indeed dead, or at least mortally wounded.  But sometimes it
helps to know a little about who the author was and what he or she thought
or was concerned about.  Dante leaps to mind, as does John Bunyan.  Context
is very valuable in producing a certain kind of reading.

Think I'm reversing myself?  Read on.

This started with two different kinds of readings.  In the first (Austen's
_Persuasion_) you drew evidence from the text to make assumptions about the
writer.  In the second (Thackeray's _Vanity Fair_) you took knowledge about
the author's life and applied it to the book.  With this second one, I said
I thought it was irrelevant, not that it was wrong.  But I'll come back to
that later and in more detail.

The first way is, in my opinion, always wrong.  It is simply unfair to
accuse a writer of anything based on one's reaction to a plot element.  It
would be one thing to say "I didn't like this book because I thought Mary
got a raw deal."  It's completely different to say "Because Mary got a raw
deal I think Jane Austen has no sympathy for others and is mean."  And I say
this precisely *because* I'm aware of the author's existence as a real
person.  To me it seems like hating a complete stranger because of a single
item of gossip.

The second way is at the very least supportable.  And you're right that
knowing about the author usually enhances the reading experience.  So why do
I think it's irrelevant?  Because I think reading a text ought to stand for
itself.  You shouldn't have to know that Thackeray was a racist to read his
characterization of the black woman in _Vanity Fair_ as racist.  Your
original question was:

>[If] we know 
>from other sources that the author was actively racist, does this 
>not change the picture we have of her and of the author's intent? 
>Can we still treat her as the author depicts her?

My answer is, why did we have to take his depiction at face value in the
first place?  If you read a book in which every (or the only) black person
is stupid, or every woman is vain, or every religious person a hypocrite,
doesn't that ring a few hundred warning bells about the author's
credibility?  From my perspective, what the author intended doesn't matter,
because I'm not drawing any conclusions about him or her.  I could still say
this was a racist characterization even if I knew the author was a committed
abolitionist.  Tanaqui and I had something of this discussion talking about
Heinlein: no matter what he *said* in real life about women, no matter how
much respect he gave his wife, he's got a lot of one-dimensional females
cropping up in his books.

>I can't ignore 
>what I know of the author and the origin of a book. And I can't stop 
>being interested either.  Speculations and sometimes judgements 
>about where an author is coming from are very much part of this 
>reader's experience. 

I think we will just have to disagree about this.  It sounds to me like you
are interested as much in the history of a book (by which I mean all the
elements leading to its creation, including the author's life) as in the
book itself.  My reading of a text may include facts I know about the
author, but it doesn't go the other way.  Most authors are people I will
never know except through their books, and those books offer a very limited
definition of who their authors are.  Because I have this sense of them as
real people, I am very reluctant to judge them based solely on what I get
out of their books--or even what other critics have said about them.
 
>This is becoming about what it is and isn't right to comment on in  
>criticism.

I'm torn between believing everyone can read texts any way they want, and
disagreeing about what makes good Criticism (I was going to say "the
official sort" of criticism, but Philip would hate that word).  I'm also
torn between my ideas of what's right and my knowledge of what professional
literary critics think is right.  So, sure, you can comment on anything in
any way, but in some instances you're going to have people challenging not
only your conclusions but your methodology--because that's part of criticism
too.

>  As I said above I had trouble with seeing why I 
>shouldn't criticise the way an author had written something.

That answer depends on who is telling you what's right and wrong.  In
school, you're not supposed to do it that way because that's not what they
grade you on.  In the critical community, it's because that way is Wrong
(actually just outmoded, because critical ideas keep changing, but try
telling that to a professional critic).  In talking to other people--you can
do it anyway you like.  I'm just going to keep disagreeing with you.  :)

I think I'm beginning to understand how you read a text.  Is it accurate to
say that you're trying to read the text the way the author intended, but you
use historical sources to decide how trustworthy the author is?  Or is that
an oversimplification?

Melissa Proffitt
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