The idea of “death of the author” primarily means that once a work is created that the author’s influence on it is non-existent, that it is solely in the reader’s hands to place meaning in a text. This is to say that whatever intentions a writer has for a book (or a director for a movie or TV show, too), the reader is the one who actually determines what the text means. The author’s intent is secondary to the readers’.
And for a while, I thought this was the most useful way of looking at literature. I adore the idea that Wolfgang Iser puts out about every book having its own implied reader, and outside of that implication, each person can interpret a text anyway he or she sees fit. But I think that way of looking at literature is incredibly limiting, especially given the celebrity authors tend to enjoy these days as well as the ease of proliferation of knowledge actually regarding works.
This theory worked well when authors let the work speak for itself, but the literary landscape has changed so much that only having something like an end-note is passé. Now authors blog about the writing process, have interviews about in-progress works, and document the who what when why where and how of every new word they put on paper. Because of this, it has become impossible to separate the author from the text. I assert their exclusion is simply not an option.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a very strong proponent of reader-response theory (it is my preferred critical mode, actually) and that we all bring something unique to a text as we read it, but I don’t think we can discount the author any longer, at least not contemporary authors.
Now, this doesn’t apply only to books and the written word, but to films and television as well. Really any narrative form of art. I just use books and authors to introduce this because that’s where my training primarily comes from.
Let’s use LOST as an example of this. The first season of LOST sparked a certifiable phenomenon with its serialized plots and ever-expanding mythology. Fansites and blogs popped up all over the internet with theories of where the show could be going, exploring the various levels of the narrative, and thinking of new theories regarding where the show could be going. In addition to and because of this, the LOST creators began to keep close tabs on their rising fan community.
During the first couple of seasons of LOST, there was an idea pervading viewers that the Island was purgatory and that all the so-called survivors had actually died in the crash and they were spending their requisite time before moving onto the later, greater who-knows-what. The show offered strings of evidence which basically culminated with various main characters’ dying after achieving some level of redemption based on past sins. The theme of salvation was so prevalent, and this theory was so often cited that the series’ writers and producers had to step in and out-right say that the Island was not actually purgatory.
Yes, they said, one of the show’s primary themes is redemption, but the Island is not physically purgatory. The answers to the show’s mysteries lay somewhere else. The viewers’ proverbial princess was in another castle. This revelation did not change people exploring the purgatorial metaphors, but it did shift a lot of viewers’ perspectives as to what the “in-text” explanation for the Island would be.
Because the creators stepped into the fan community, I posit that it is impossible to discount their feedback. The authors cannot be dead in LOST’s case (or any case in which the author places him or herself into the community, responding to the evolving criticism and perspectives on the art) because when a fan derives a theory contrary to the original intent (as in reading LOST as a physical purgatory for the characters), the author is able to step in and place them back on the right track. The reader is not “wrong,” and any analysis or criticism regarding themes and narrative is still valid, but they must take into account the author’s intent because, at this point, the author is no longer a bystander who’s job of creation is over and done with, but he or she is an active participant in the critical community, affecting and being affected by ideas outside of his or her own.
On top of all that, when exploring themes in television shows, one of the main ways the medium is ingested these days is through DVD collections. While I have no hard evidence or statistics, the anecdotal evidence I’m privy to shows me that many people I know (including myself) tend to watch TV shows not when they originally air, but when the entire season is collected as a set. The convenience alone makes DVD seasons prominent for many viewers now. And as we all know, a good DVD set can’t be released without a bevy of special features, many feature length, and most behind-the-scenes. Because of these special features, viewers no longer even have to seek out creator comments; they’re packaged with the series, basically as a part of the show itself.
These DVD special features act in the same capacity as the online proliferation of authors in fan communities, only this time, authors ensure that fans have access to the information. Instead of the authors’ intent only being available to those who actively seek the information as a part of the chosen community, features included on DVD sets are available to anyone wishing to watch the show. In much the same way a Director’s Cut gives audiences a glimpse at the creator’s original vision, DVD commentaries and special features enhance a viewer’s experience by granting additional insight into what went on as the series was created.
That said, it is obvious that neither looking for interviews/commentary online nor watching the DVD bonuses are required to understand or even enjoy a series. On the surface.
Why is that? Because it’s there.
I think it really is that simple. When doing research, one would not discount an expert’s opinion. And in the case of creative art, there are no better experts than the creators themselves. So discounting something they say about what they created is, in effect, limiting one’s research to only speculation.
For another example, J.K. Rowling said in an interview that Albus Dumbledore is homosexual. Nowhere in the entire Harry Potter series does she directly impart that information. His sexual orientation has nothing to do with the series’ narrative, so it was not included in the text of the series. It is, however, important when looking at the series from a critical standpoint, so she told the world about it. It would be naïve to explore the series critically without taking Rowling’s intent into consideration. Albus Dumbledore’s sexuality might have no pertinence on my co-worker whose Ph.D. dissertation topic is “Good and Evil in Harry Potter,” but a paper exploring character dynamics and motivations certainly might make good use of it. To not utilize all information available simply because of the idea that Rowling lost control of the series after she wrote it places unnecessary barriers on one’s standing as a scholar.
But all this is only one way of looking at it. There are many avenues to be taken when looking at literature, and this is but one. The idea of a close reading, for example, negates my argument entirely because it deals with only what is in the text with no outside influences. I just think that it is incredibly limiting to ignore an author’s additional contribution to a published work if one is dealing with outside research to begin with. In cases (such as Shakespeare) where very little, if any, authorial voice exists outside the text itself, then the reader must be the one to interpret meaning; there is no one else to do it. If, however, the author goes out of his or her way to expound on reader/viewer concerns, I feel it is our duty as readers to at least try to understand that intent.