The Death of the Author and When It Can Work

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In 1967, French theorist Roland Barthes published an essay called The Death of the Author. In the piece, he evaluates the classic approach of analyzing literary work, which was centered around the author’s beliefs, personality, and background. Unlike most critics of his time, Barthes argues that as soon as the author publishes a piece, he or she has no more relation to it. In other words, the author isn’t any more superior in his or her reading of the text than anyone else. From that point forward, the text has its own life and might have limitless interpretations if a reader can justify them by referring to the piece.

The concept of the death of the author is sustainable for various reasons. Barthes states that making an author the sole source of truth limits the text itself because then nobody else can provide a different reading. To Barthes, an author is just a mediator between a piece of writing and its reader, but not a master of the piece.

Having this approach, readers can study texts based on their background and beliefs without relying on the author’s values. As an example, critics from the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. perceive Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966) differently. The Soviet ones focus on religious leitmotifs of the piece, stressing how strong faith can create miracles. Meanwhile, the analysts in the United States point to political and social criticism of the U.S.S.R. While these two readings differ from each other, both righteously exist because they are based on elements from the film. Like Andrei Rublev, other films, songs, and books (i.e. Don Quixote) can change their meaning depending on the place and time they’re analyzed.

Another reason why the death of the author might be useful in literary readings comes from issues with an author’s personality. We, as readers, simply can’t say what an author meant. In many cases, authors themselves don’t know what they were trying to say. However, if we distance our analysis from an author, then we don’t have to guess what they tried to say.

Now, we work with the piece, which is much easier because the text itself won’t change. We should remember that authors, after all, are humans. Therefore, some of their ideas might be subconscious. In some cases, authors realize only later that their message was different from the original thoughts. Additionally, we can’t be sure that authors are completely honest in their explanation of a piece.

To illustrate this point, the Serbian director Emir Kusturica originally argued that his Underground (1995) wasn’t a nationalistic movie. However, many years later, he changed his reading of the film because his political views changed. Does it mean that our reading of the movie should change? The answer is that it doesn’t have to.

Another argument in favor of the death of the author is that we can’t say that a person who produced a literary piece is its author. After all, no person is raised in an informational vacuum. All our thoughts come from somewhere. We keep constantly combining and interpreting them, but we never create something completely original. Because of this occurrence, nobody can purely author a piece.

Quentin Tarantino might be a vivid example of such a mixture of past ideas. Despite his constant homages to and adaptations from old movies, he is praised as one of the greatest scriptwriters and directors of our time. Based on this viewpoint, we can once again argue that an author is just a mediator between a piece and the audience because he or she only recycles old information without producing new material.

While the death of the author is an important concept, it has been criticized for various reasons. While scholars don’t argue with the idea itself, they question how realistic it is to apply this approach to the real world. American novelist William Howard Gass argued that the death of the author can be achieved only in theory. Gass states that most authors don’t want to be underappreciated after finishing their pieces. Moreover, authors reinforce the idea of themselves being the sole creators of their pieces.

Besides creators being unwilling to die, the audience doesn’t allow them to do so. Whenever we watch a movie or read a book, we’re trying to draw an image of an author based on what we see. When we read The Old Man and the Sea (1952) by Ernest Hemingway, we instantly think that Hemingway wrote it about himself.

When we hear a racist comment from one of the movie characters, we start assuming that the line was made by the scriptwriter, not by the character. We try to find realism in fiction stories so we can link ourselves with the pieces. Because of this action, we associate the author with his or her work.

So, when an author like J. K. Rowling receives hatred for her statements, it affects her readers’ perception of the Harry Potter book series. Therefore, the death of the author is far removed from our realities because of the author’s desire to be remembered and our aspiration to see a person behind the work.

Despite issues with exercising the concept, we have a myriad of examples of when authors “died” after publishing their pieces. Gass writes that “the elevation or removal of the author is a social and political gesture, and not an aesthetic one.” Simply said, an author can die if society allows him or her to do so for reasons coming from society itself.

However, some pieces are valuable only when they’re related to their author. Gass draws a parallel between a piece and the author with a vehicle and a driver. According to him, if the driver abandons the vehicle, then it needs to take care of itself and interest us using only its “four wheels”. If it doesn’t happen, then the piece gets neglected. On the other hand, if the piece doesn’t need to rely on its author, it can outlive its creator and, eventually, transform through time and space, leading to both the death of the author and the birth of the reader.

If you like what you read, check out more articles on screenwriting in our blog where we offer tips to improve your scenes and explain how to write a good story ending.

If you already have a script and need help with sharpening it, or you need help with editing your story, check out our services. Best Edit offers different editing and proofreading services because we care about your growth and improvement as a writer.

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