We’re all authors now. Most of us don’t write books—but we blog, we post on Facebook, we tweet, we create TikTok or YouTube videos. Authorship is everywhere, but it’s not always the centre of our digital experience. For example, we don’t really need to know who first created a meme to appreciate it. Who made a meme isn’t as important as who wrote a book. Now that creativity and culture have exploded online, have we finally succeeded in killing off the authority of the author? Not quite.
Though Roland Barthes is one of those pesky French poststructuralists, he’s no obscurantist. He’s quite readable, and his work aims to untangle the symbols that affect society and culture. His style is friendly but catty, sometimes pithy and often hilarious. Barthes might hate this reverence for his authorial qualities, however, since one of his most famous works is called The Death of the Author. Written in 1967, the essay contends that the author of a text should not be the guiding force of that text’s interpretation.
Barthes disputes the way in which literary critics tend to fall back on biography and other details about authors in order to construct definitive meanings: “The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us.”
Barthes thought this way of reading texts was limited, and to an extent he was right. No one really knows who wrote the great literary works Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example. Their identities weren’t recorded—though scholars have tried to build an idea of them—because the notion of The Author was not as important in the Middle Ages as it became in the modern era.
The concept of the death of the author was important to the postmodern turn in literary and cultural studies in the 1970s. Consequently, it’s something of a given in the cultural sector, especially for those of us who critique books or films, but curiously many resurrect the author when convenient. We’ve all seen a hot take on a film or television programme, in which the reviewer reads something into a story that the author probably didn’t intend. At other times, those same reviewers will identify a specific authorial style, or the impact of that author’s biography on her art.
In recent years, questions of authenticity in fiction have collided with the postmodern adoption of the death of the author concept. One prominent example of this collision was the controversy surrounding the novel American Dirt. Published at the start of 2020, the book concerns a Mexican woman fleeing the drug cartels into America. Jeanine Cummings, the white author, allegedly didn’t represent Mexican culture authentically enough, which caused an outrage. Some writers complained that she’d appropriated a story that wasn’t hers to tell, and occupied a slot in a publishing industry that doesn’t champion enough minority writers. There’s merit to this argument, but what’s more relevant is how this and similar controversies show how authorship is used and reified in one context, while dismissed in others. Authenticity is linked to author biography, and suggests that the author is not dead at all, that who the author is really matters.
Were he still alive, Barthes would have none of this. For him, the author is always preceded by her own language: its idioms, clichés and conventions. She doesn’t independently create her text: her text is responding to, referencing and arguing with other texts. A similar idea about authorship predates Barthes in the New Criticism of the early twentieth century. What William K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley call the intentional fallacy insists that the author’s intention is irrelevant to the meaning of a piece of literature: what is on the page is all that matters. The only time an author’s biography or historical period is relevant to a text’s meaning is if it’s mentioned in the text. The New Critics stressed close reading of mostly poems to draw out what made them work on a word by word, stanza by stanza basis. However, this was different to what Barthes and his followers have argued. Wimsatt and Beardsley aimed to understand the nuts and bolts of literature, whereas Barthes’ aims were political, to suggest what the study of literature ought to be: “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”
This idea has led to a proliferation of readings of books, theatre, films, television and even whole subcultures and their codes and conventions. One common theme running through queer, feminist and Marxist readings of popular culture is that creator intentions don’t matter as much as powerful social forces, unconscious behaviours or the conventions and ideologies of previous texts. The author of a book has little agentic effect on her own creation: she’s merely a step in a long chain of mythmaking. This kind of symptomatic reading has less to do with excising the author in order to reveal the technical effects (as with the New Critics) and more to do with uncovering the various ways in which other forces are realised in the text.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the way the death of the author has passed down to us is the assumption of intentionless meaning. This concept is nonsensical but ethically consequential. Barthes refers to authors throughout his essay as “scriptors,” essentially demoting writers like Balzac, Valéry and Mallarmé to mere stenographers of the literary styles and codes of nineteenth-century France: “it is language which speaks, not the author.”
Later, the deconstructionists championed this idea. For theorists like Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, there’s “no outside-text,” which means that the way we interpret texts is always through other texts. Language is a meaningless, empty structure that arbitrary social convention and repetition fill with meanings that seem natural. There are other meanings hidden, papered over or overlooked due to the way in which convention shapes and changes the apprehension of meaning over time, so that even the author may have been unaware that what she was saying could have a variety of contradictory meanings. This works against the idea of intention by claiming that meaning is largely out of the author’s control because language shapes authors, rather than authors shaping language.
This reversal of standard semantics was a key component of the postmodern academic theory trends of the late twentieth century, and would have us believe that communicating is almost accidental, that we cannot ever mean what we say, that we’re all subject to the language we’ve been raised in. Not only does intentionless meaning seem far-fetched and deterministic, it’s incoherent.
Meaning cannot exist without intention, as Walter Benn Michaels and Steven Knapp argued back in the 1980s, when theory was ascendant. Their wave poem thought experiment lays out this contention. Imagine you’re walking along the beach and come across some lines in the sand. You quickly realise that they’re not mere lines, but words arranged into the first stanza of a poem. Then a wave comes in and sweeps away the stanza and replaces it with another piece of poetry. At that moment, you would realise that something weird had happened. When you witnessed the first stanza, you assumed an author even though you didn’t know who it was—maybe someone had written the poem in the sand with a stick. But the second stanza confuses things. You’re suddenly left wondering who or what is writing this. Is it the ghost of some Romantic beachcomber? Or is this phenomenon just an enormous coincidence, in which random rivulets in the sand just happened to form poetry? If the poem is being written by some supernatural force, its author is an intentional agent expressing itself through language. If it’s a coincidence, there’s no intention and thus the lines in the sand aren’t language, they merely resemble language: this would be a case of pareidolia, the phenomenon of seeing shapes in clouds or faces on the surface of Mars. A text is an intentional object. Language is, among other things, the expression of intention. If writing is just accidental squiggles, then it’s no longer language.
Although erasing authorial intent is nonsensical, it has an ethical dimension. If authors are irrelevant to the process of meaning, then an author’s responsibility for what she writes disappears. Paul de Man, one of the leading deconstructionist literary scholars, is an interesting example of this quandary. Along with Barthes and Derrida, de Man argued that there’s no stable subject in writing, that biography and intention have no bearing on interpretation: “there is no outside-text.” Four years after his death, a researcher discovered that de Man wrote for Le Soir, a Nazi newspaper in Belgium. From 1941–1942, he penned at least 100 articles for this publication, many of them expressing anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi sentiments. If the author is just a cog in the textual machine, then de Man can’t be condemned for consciously writing for a collaborationist newspaper. In other words, a cog can’t be guilty because a cog has no agency. At best, this theory of authorship is ethically ambiguous. At worst, it is negligent and amoral. One can only be responsible for what one writes if one intended it. Writing is, after all, no accident.
These incoherent ideas about authorship are not mere curiosities: they’re useful tools in the culture wars. At any moment, an author’s intention can be invoked or revoked to praise or condemn. Consider the online activist idea of impact vs. intent. Someone might say something without intending to be insulting, racist or sexist, but it could be received that way. The impact of the words matters more than the intent, yet at other times, where intent is considered clear and someone says or writes something unashamedly insulting, racist or sexist, the impact is considered equivalent. If the author is merely a cipher through which language or discourses speak, she can’t be held responsible for what she says. But if intention matters, then she’s accountable.
Conveniently, the culture warrior may also selectively deploy the traditional idea of authorship. Take the recent Harper’s letter on open debate. One common critique focused on who the signatories were rather than what the letter was saying. Several of the authors who signed are considered problematic by some: J. K. Rowling for her views on gender; Thomas Chatterton Williams for his views on race; Bari Weiss for her views on Israel. Clearly, the organisers of the letter, some of its signatories and many of its critics care about the concept of authorship in this instance.
Authors, of course, aren’t the end of the story. They’re the beginning. Stories can’t exist without them. Some authors have idiosyncratic styles, some push language to its limits and innovate how we express ourselves, others articulate perfectly something we’ve been thinking or feeling. Sometimes their biographical details can be relevant to a deeper understanding of what they write, sometimes not. Many of us seem to view the author as a kind of shade drifting between the worlds of the living and the dead, summonable when we need her, banishable when we don’t. We need not succumb to the Great Men of Literature style of interpretation Barthes bemoans in acknowledging the author’s role. Few writers are truly great or geniuses or symbolic of their age. But nihilistically disavowing authorship as a crucial part of the process of myth-making might just be worse. If authorship no longer matters, we may soon find that nothing much matters at all.