I really hate this topic. Really hate it. As in: just thinking about it for half a second LITERALLY makes my blood pressure shoot up and it gives me anxiety attacks. So, obviously, this is going to be short, rude, to the point and hopefully not something I get any responses to because those will also just make me unwillingly self-destruct. But this needs to be said.
When French literary critic Roland Barthes came up with the theory “The Death of the Author” in 1967, he meant that a work’s meaning should be theorised from the work itself and not the author’s biographical information (in other words: that it wasn’t okay to tell Tolkien that because he was a soldier in a world war that his Lord of the Rings was an allegory for WW2 or that it wouldn’t be right to go “Well the author of this work where a character questioning their sexual identity dies is Christian so therefore the work is a Christian anti-gay propaganda piece”).
Barthes explicitly did not say that the author’s opinion of their own work (for example, Tolkien writing a very angry preface to some editions of LotR explaining in detail that NO his work was not an allegory of WW2 and stop saying that) didn’t matter. But, whatever his intentions were when he advised everyone to take all works out of context, he might as well have done.
Regardless of what it originally meant, “Death of the Author” has come to mean “I – as a literary critic and thus someone who makes my living leeching off your creative efforts – have the right to say what YOU meant or did not mean about your own work, because your opinion of your work doesn’t matter. Like, you probably only spent years working on it and thinking through all of the options and meanings and stuff, so you obviously don’t know what you’re talking about, whereas I read it, like, once and quickly churned out an essay on what you meant or I’m teaching about it in a school or university so I obviously know better than you what your work means.”
Think of it this way: You work as a cashier in a store. You have a chair behind the desk your register is on because you work twelve hour shifts and when you have a chance you desperately need to take the weight off your feet for a change. Just outside of the store are always loitering a bunch of window shoppers – they browse, but they never buy, yet they claim to know better than you how much everything should cost. But that’s not the worst of it. No. The worst of it is that they’re Cashier Critics by trade, meaning that they get paid (often out of your pay check!) to loiter around outside and tell everyone that you put that chair there to symbolise how everyone is Jesus in Purgatory. Every day you have to explain to customers that you aren’t a fucking Christian (you have nothing against Christianity, but you’re so sick of having strangers tell you that you don’t know your own religious affiliation that you’re angry at the whole subject) and you just put the chair there so you could have a fucking rest once and a while. But the customers never believe you – because the Cashier Critics have told them what you meant, or that you’re opinion of what you meant and why you did the things you did doesn’t matter. Your agency, your ability to make decisions as an adult, your Cashier-ial integrity: don’t matter. Those loiterers outside claim that, because they’ve studied this academically, they know better than you what it is like to actually do what you do for a living. You’ve repeatedly told them to stop LYING to people and putting words in your mouth that you never said and often find offensive, but they just tote out a grand old theory one of them came up with called Death of the Cashier, in which you might as well be a self-checkout till because you’re obviously too stupid to have relevant opinions about your own work and why you do the things you do.
It’s offensive. Worse, it’s a FUCKING SCAM.
Why? Well, let’s stop applying Barthes’ theory to him for a second and ask of his theory the age old question: who benefits?
….Oh, that’s right. Barthes and everyone in his profession – LITERARY CRTICS – are the ones, the only ones, who benefit from that theory. Why? Because now they have “proof” that they can dismiss the author giving factual statements about the meaning of their work and keep churning out empty, meaningless essays and university/high school literature/English classes while arguing over whether the author meant one thing or another – despite the author repeatedly telling them they meant [third thing] and not either of their precious theories. And THAT means they get to keep making comparatively cushy livings off lying to everyone about how they know better than the authors what the authors themselves meant.
Why do I keep saying “lying”? Because no one can know better than someone what that someone meant, thought or felt, so every literary critic or English teacher who has chosen to ignore what the author has said about them meaning of their own work to make essays or give lectures on their/the common theory which is contradictory to what the author said is KNOWINGLY LYING. “The book means [x]” is a lie when you know damn well the author explicitly said “The book does NOT mean [x]”.
Oh, and here’s an example of how important the context of the Author actually is: to someone who doesn’t know a thing about me I’d sound like a violently insane person if I say at the end of this post “The injustice of this dead-author nonsense makes me want to tie up every literary critic and English teacher on the face of the planet who has ever encouraged or benefited from the theory or has said any variant of ‘it/the author means X’ when they knew bloody well that isn’t what the author meant and pour Hydrochloric acid down their selfish, arrogant, lying throats”.
Why is the Author important there? Because I’m a pacifist – and knowing that is the difference, for some very disturbed individuals, between doing nothing because they know that I’m just justifiably venting and doing something because they think that it would actually be a good idea to go out and horrifically murder people who (although not innocent) definitely do not deserve that. Knowing the author isn’t (metaphorically) dead is what makes the difference between thinking someone is a violently insane lunatic and knowing that they’re just a horror writer with a graphically realistic imagination who therefore uses graphic metaphors and examples but would never want any of those things to actually happen. It also has serious affects on the author’s lives and how they are remembered. History has turned Machiavelli into an evil manipulator because literary critics fail to consider that he was a strong proponent of the free republics and almost certainly wrote The Prince as a Satire. Lewis Carroll gets remembered as a druggie and paedophile when he was actually just writing a big complicated math metaphor. This isn’t just about literary theory. It can HURT PEOPLE. REAL PEOPLE. But the proponents of the theory don’t want to admit that, because then they’d have to change and they – in their self-absorbed, spoiled way – feel that they are entitled to ruin lives and lie about what people meant for the sake of their precious theory.
Think about it: how would YOU feel if you created something with an immense amount of thought and effort going into it, and then some entitled arsehole came along and told you that your own opinion of your work didn’t matter, they lied to everyone about what YOU meant in your work, and even made better money off it than you did, all while ensuring that you would go down in history as something you abhor?
Well, you already know how it makes me feel. I quite literally need to go take something to get my blood pressure and anxiety issues under control now.