The Death of the Author in the Information Age

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. Grace2

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.

I argue, however, that it is entirely required reading/watching/listening if one is planning to delve deeper into what makes the art itself work. books

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.

Images courtesy of http://www.arts.auckland.ac.nz and http://people.ucsc.edu/~myrtreia

Comments

  1. BFU rector

    If a reader can separate their personal connotations and denotations of a work, than they can separate the author's. You end up with four meanings, synthesis creates a personal understanding (or misunderstanding) of a writer's intent.

  2. Tesh

    So what about when the reader response *changes* the author's intent? Who, then is the "author"? Does *that* change critical analysis?

  3. Beej

    @Tesh: I don't think that a reader's response can change authorial intent. I think it can impact how a person reads the text and the impact it has, but as far as the message the author intended to give or the metaphors used to drive the themes home are always going to be in the author's domain and not the readers. That is not to say that the reader cannot find unintended metaphors, but I think that if they do, they cannot be fundamentally contradictory to what the author intentionally put in.

    @BFU rector: I do love the idea of misunderstanding the author's intent because of a synthesis of separate connotation/denotations. I hadn't really thought about that before. I had thought of misunderstanding the text, obviously, but that takes it from an angle I really want to try and wrap my mind around.

  4. We Fly Spitfires

    I'm inclined to agree. We've got no idea what Shakespeare was really thinking or intended when he wrote his work but not, well we can clearly see, hear and read what the author's intent was.

    It's still an interesting subject though because sometimes the work becomes more than the sum of it's parts that no single person can own or control. And when that happens, anything is game.

  5. Tesh

    Well, since we're talking about "live" documents like MMOs or even the Harry Potter series, I've noted on more than one occasion where I suspect that the audience reception has changed subsequent product. Readers can't change something that doesn't have a "live team" or a set of sequels on an ongoing basis, but it's eminently possible in things that are still in flux.

  6. Longasc

    You should know that Wolfgang Iser is the bane of german literature students. He is way too popular at the moment. Roland Barthes proclaimed the "death of the author" in an essay of this or a similar name already in the 1970's IIRC, but for entirely different reasons.

    Barthes did not know that Wiki's were coming, and the internet in general. The internet and shared knowledge platforms are the true death of the author and the concept of authorship IMO.

    I am always sceptical when the Wikimedia/pedia foundations assign prizes to various "authors" for "their" articles. The usual criterium is that the major improvements of an article were contributed by that one person that then gets assigned some kind of "author" status.

  7. Longasc

    P.S.: Sorry for the grammar! This should not happen while posting in the blog of an english professor.

  8. J.Ayers

    I think this is one of the reasons authors such as Alan Moore all but shuns the media in regards to their work. He wants it to be in the hands of the reader, it is what you interprete the "moral of the story" to be that is the ultimate climax in plot.

    Just look at Watchmen for gosh sakes… If that is not a practice in interpretation, I don't know what is.

  9. Anonymous

    A show like Lost poses problems for this sort of analysis. A close reading leads to Nietzsche, and in particular his early take on the tension between Apollonian and Dionysian intentions in tragedy. The first "literary criticism" in the text itself suggests that the authors are *supposed* to be paying attention to the impact they are having on their audience, that a close reading is necessarily incomplete, and that there is a feedback loop in play. Plus, this just fits in perfectly with all the other circularity on display in Lost.

    Because they are known to scour the internet boards for fan reaction, and subsequently "shout out" to the fans through the show itself, there *is* a feedback loop available and quite likely in play for this particular work. Unlike a novel, which is written entirely before it is read, Lost is being written and read with a degree of simultaneity.

    Furthermore, the authors themselves have given (deliberately) contradictory statements regarding the show. "There is no time travel", and it becomes a time-travel show. "Every prop is intentional," but also, "I wish I could say nothing was randomly put in the show, but I'd be lying." If anything is to be read from authorial comments, it's that the show is intended to be contradictory and paradoxical, and do not trust what the authors have to say about it. Rather, it demands paying attention to what *readers* have to say about it as well.

    It's quite possible that the writers of a television show (unlike a novel) can have an intention to hold a mirror up to the audience, especially through a "text" that weaves many different and contradictory metaphors without privilege.

    jane