The Author

An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016

The Author

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it. (5)

The opening sentence of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) suggests a number of ways of thinking about the figure of the author. It is at once compellingly straightforward and strangely cryptic. The sentence gives the impression of a spontaneous, candid speaking voice, directly addressing us and showing a specific concern for our wishes and desires (’If you really want … you’ll probably want’). We are being addressed very much on the level — nothing pretentious here, none of ’that David Copperfield kind of crap’. Despite appearances, however, this opening sentence gives little away, rather it is furtive and evasive: ’I don’t feel like going into it’. The most important word in this famous opening sentence may indeed be the word ’it’: ’it’ is the emphatic but equivocal subject (’If you really want to hear about it … I don’t feel like going into it’). Is the ’it’ at the beginning of the sentence the same as the ’it’ at the end?

The ambiguity of ’it’ corresponds to another kind of uncertainty. For what is also unclear from this opening sentence is who is speaking or, more accurately, who is writing. After all, despite the seductiveness of the confiding, colloquial voice here, it would be somewhat naive to pretend that this is not writing. The sentence is playing a type of literary game with conventions of novel-openings. Of course, we quickly learn that the ’I’ here is a 16-year-old American boy called Holden Caulfield, but this is not something that is made clear in the first sentence. All we can presume at this point is that we are reading that particular kind of text called a novel and that it has been written by J.D. Salinger. The literary game that is set in motion by this opening sentence has to do with the relationship between fiction (a novel) and truth (biography or autobiography), as well as between an author and a narrator. This is suggested by the apparently deprecating reference to David Copperfield (’all that David Copperfield kind of crap’). There is, then, a metafictional dimension in this seemingly simple opening sentence — metafictional in the sense that it explicitly refers to itself and draws attention to the fact that a story is being told. The narrator invokes the protagonist of one of the ’classic’ English nineteenth-century novels and implies, even by denying it, a correlation with another literary text.

Both David Copperfield and The Catcher in the Rye offer a mixing of novel and (auto)biography. In doing so, they provoke a series of fundamental questions about the relationship between literary texts, narrators, characters and authors. Above all, they provoke the question: who is speaking? In presenting us with the voice of a fictional speaker, these texts draw attention to the figure of the author as a sort of concealed or cryptic, haunting but unspecified presence. Who is behind this ’I’? The opening of The Catcher in the Rye thus introduces a general question for literary criticism and theory, the question of the presence of another ’I’ — the haunting absent-presence of the ’I’ who writes, of the author. The author is a kind of ghost. Salinger’s novel provides more than one illustration of this. A few pages further on, for example, Holden Caulfield tells us:

What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though. I wouldn’t mind calling this Isak Dinesen up. And Ring Lardner, except that D.B. [Holden’s brother] told me he’s dead. You take that book Of Human Bondage, by Somerset Maugham, though. I read it last summer. It’s a pretty good book and all, but I wouldn’t want to call Somerset Maugham up. I don’t know. He just isn’t the kind of a guy I’d want to call up, that’s all. I’d rather call old Thomas Hardy up. I like that Eustacia Vye. (22)

Again, this passage is delightfully straightforward and yet extraordinarily suggestive. It presents us with what is in many respects an undeniable truth, as well as with what constitutes one of the curious effects of literature: literary texts can generate powerful feelings of identification, not only between reader and character but also, perhaps more enigmatically, between reader and author. You really can be drawn into the feeling that the author is ’a terrific friend of yours’ or that your appreciation and understanding of an author is so intense it touches on the telepathic. Holden’s reference to getting on the phone to the author is uncannily apposite: the rapport that exists between you and your favourite author is indeed a sort of linguistic tele-link. The author is an absent presence, both there and not there. You may feel that you understand like nobody else what it is that the author is saying; and you may be willing to acknowledge that this author can express your opinions, thoughts and feelings as well as or even better than you yourself could. This is, in fact, precisely how the greatness of Shakespeare is often described. It is what William Hazlitt says, for example, in his 1818 lecture ’On Shakespeare and Milton’: ’the striking peculiarity of Shakespeare’s mind’ is ’its power of communication with all other minds’ (Hazlitt 1910, 47).

At the same time, however, this passage from The Catcher in the Rye prompts us to reflect on at least two other points. First, it is not (not usually, anyway) a two-way friendship that a reader enjoys with an author. Indeed, this one-waywardness is part of the fantasy of reading: the ’author’ is generally not someone whose telephone number you can readily acquire and with whom you really can become terrific friends in the way that Caulfield is suggesting. The author, in other words, is not so much an ’actual’ author at all: rather, it is your personal projection, your idea of the author. Second, it is also the case that the author not only may be dead, but in some respects is dead, even when alive. Part of the irony and humour of this passage from Salinger’s novel consists in the blurring of the distinction between living authors and dead ones. For despite his concern with the problem of giving Ring Lardner a ring, given that Ring Lardner cannot be rung (since he is dead), Holden Caulfield concludes his call-an-author fantasy by saying he would like to ’call old Thomas Hardy up’ — as if Hardy, though ’old’, still lived. As we might all be reasonably expected to know, Thomas Hardy is (and was, well before 1951) in his grave. (Or to be more precise, in two graves: his heart is buried with the body of his first wife, in Stinsford churchyard, Dorset; the rest of him is in Westminster Abbey.)

A lot has been said and written over the past few decades about ’the death of the author’. This paradoxical idea refers not to the empirical or literal death of a given author, but to the fact that, in a radical sense, the author is absent from the text. ’The death of the author’ became a catch-phrase primarily on account of an essay of that title, written by the French poststructuralist Roland Barthes and first published in 1967. Barthes’s essay is flamboyant and provocative. In part, he is arguing against the very common ascription of authority to the figure of the author. People often ask, for example: ’Is that what Shakespeare (or Brontë or Dickens) really meant? Is that what the author intended?’ Such questions reflect what W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley described, in an essay first published in 1946, as ’the intentional fallacy’ (Wimsatt and Beardsley 1995). In what became a conceptual cornerstone of Anglo-American New Criticism, they argued that ’the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a literary work’ (Wimsatt and Beardsley 1995, 90). All we have, they argued, is the text itself, and the work of criticism has no business inquiring into the quite separate question of its author’s intentions. Indeed, Wimsatt and Beardsley contend that any answer to the question of what, for example, T.S. Eliot meant by ’Prufrock’ ’would have nothing to do’ with the poem itself (Wimsatt and Beardsley 1995, 99). Even if we were to go to a living author and ask what he or she meant by a particular text, all we would get would be another text (his or her answer), which would then, in turn, be open to interpretation. Just because it comes ’from the horse’s mouth’ does not mean that the horse is telling the truth, or that the horse knows the truth, or indeed that what the horse has to say about the ’words on the page’ is necessarily more interesting or illuminating than what anyone else might have to say. As anyone who has read an ’interview with the author’ will know, the words you get from the horse’s mouth often tell us more about the horse than about the text we were trying to read: an author interview tends to take us away from the strange specificity of the literary work into the labyrinths of biography, projection and fantasy.

We could also ponder the question of ’authorial intention’ in the light of psychoanalysis. ’Conscious intention’, in this respect, can always be considered as subject to the unconscious workings of the mind. With psychoanalysis, it is no longer possible simply to privilege consciousness as the sombre judge of what is intended. The jurisdiction of ’authorial intention’ falters here: what is not meant can still (in another sense) be meant. ’I didn’t mean to hurt you’ might, after all, mean ’I did’. In the wake of psychoanalysis, in particular, it is difficult if not impossible to suppose that intention can ever be pure and unambiguous. Correspondingly, it is important to acknowledge some of the implications of modern linguistics (Saussure, Chomsky, Pinker) on the question of the author and his or her authority. Rather than say that the author is in control of the language that he or she uses, we might consider the idea that the language is as much in control of the author. In this respect, language can be thought of as a kind of system within which any writer must take a designated place: the system and rules of language inevitably dictate the possibilities of what someone can say. An author is not God, after all.

Barthes’s essay provides a strong sense of the ways in which we need, if not to ridicule, at least to be sceptical about the idea of the author as the origin and end of the meaning of a text. But rather than solving the problem of interpretive authority, ’The Death of the Author’ in certain respects simply transfers it. Barthes ends his essay by declaring that ’the death of the author’ coincides with ’the birth of the reader’ (Barthes 1977a, 118). But as we suggest in the preceding chapter, such a claim is manifestly problematic: after all, the critique of the notion of the Author (to which Barthes wittily gives a capital ’A’, thus highlighting the putatively god-like attributes of this figure) is just as valid as a critique of the notion of the reader (who, in effect, simply acquires in Barthes’s account a capital ’R’ instead). Nevertheless his essay does offer some crucial and succinct remarks on the idea of the author and it remains a valuable account. Barthes writes:

We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ’theological’ meaning (the ’message’ of the Author—God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture … Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. (Barthes 1977a, 146)

In a sense the problem here is evident simply from the two words which frame the above quotation: ’Barthes writes’. We are still talking in terms of the author and there could be little more persuasive indication of the idea that the author is not dead (though Roland Barthes, sadly, is) than the use of the present tense: Barthes writes. But at the same time we need to be careful here. The ’death of the author’, in Barthesian terms, is explicitly figurative or metaphorical, and we could say, by way of a sort of corrective to possible misreading in this context, that the author cannot die precisely because, as we’ve been suggesting, the author is — always has been and always will be — a ghost. Never fully present or fully absent, a figure of fantasy and elusiveness, the author only ever haunts. It is also important to stress that Barthes is not in fact talking about ’the author’ but ’the Author’. Insofar as the metaphorical death makes sense, then, it is the death of a particular concept of the Author that is at stake. In this respect Barthes’s essay has to be seen in its cultural and historical context, as providing a simplified but forceful articulation of a variety of intellectual positions that emerged in the 1960s, in France and elsewhere.

Barthes’s essay should be read alongside Michel Foucault’s ’What Is an Author?’ (1969), an essay that is undoubtedly more systematic and rigorous in many respects. More drily but more carefully than Barthes, Foucault provides a forceful and luminous impression of the figure of the author as a historical construction. The idea of the author is not a timeless given: the figure and significance of the author vary across time, and from one culture to another, from one discourse to another and so on. With regard to works of literature, Foucault is concerned to criticize the notion of the author as ’the principle of a certain unity of writing’ (Foucault 1979, 151). In other words, like Barthes, he calls into question the idea that the author is a god-like or (in more Foucauldian terms) saint-like figure, that the author is the presiding authority or principle of coherence for the understanding of a text. He does this primarily by focusing on the historical and ideological determinations of the notion of the author. He notes, for example:

There was a time when the texts that we today call ’literary’ (narratives, stories, epics, tragedies, comedies) were accepted, put into circulation, and valorized without any question about the identity of their author; their anonymity caused no difficulties since their ancientness, whether real or imagined, was regarded as a sufficient guarantee of their status. (Foucault 1979, 149)

And he emphasizes that, more recently, literary authorship has been integrally bound up with changes in law and questions of copyright and ownership of texts. Finally, like Barthes, Foucault is interested in the potentially revolutionary effects of writing. ’What Is an Author?’ affirms the jubilatory — because anti-authoritarian — energies of a writing or discourse freed of the conventional impositions of authorship. (Here the correlations between ’author’ and ’authority’ become explicit.) Foucault emphasizes the paradox that, while we think of the author as ’a perpetual surging of invention’, in fact ’we make him [or her] function in exactly the opposite fashion’. While we think of the author as endlessly creative, in other words, our practice of reading and criticism makes him or her into a locus of authority which confines meaning and significance to a single univocal strand. Foucault thus concludes: ’The author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning’ (159). We want there to be an identifiable author for a text because this comforts us with the notion that there is a particular sense to that text.

Barthes and Foucault are interested in thinking about literature in ways that do not depend on regarding the author as the origin of the meaning of a text or as the authoritative ’presence’ in that text. Contemporary literary theory draws together threads from psychoanalysis (the ’I’ is in many ways by definition not in control of itself, since it is determined by what it cannot control, in other words, by the unconscious), linguistics (language speaks us as much as we speak language), ethnology (creativity, authorship, etc. are differently constructed and conceived in different cultures) and feminism (the Author with a capital ’A’ is in many respects clearly — and oppressively — male: God, the Father, the patriarchal Presence). Nevertheless, the figure of the author remains a decisive force in contemporary culture — for all kinds of reasons, some of them entirely admirable. Thus in women’s writing, for example, or in the study of supposedly non-mainstream (i.e. non-white, non-US-or-European, non-middle-class, non-heterosexual) writing, there has been and continues to be an emphasis on the person of the author, an emphasis that is in some ways quite conventional and ’conformist’. This emphasis is particularly characteristic of what has come to be known as identity politics. Such ’conformism’ is understandable especially if, as theorists of such writing sometimes claim, it is presented as the initial step in a longer-term strategy of disturbing, dislocating and transforming anthropocentric, patriarchal, white, bourgeois or ’straight’ values. It can be argued, however, that the literary works that endure are those which exceed or elide all or any of the constraints imposed by identity politics.

At the same time it is also true that what we think about a particular text, how we read and understand it, can probably never be simply dissociated from what we know (or think we know) of its author. The fact that we know (assuming that we do) that John Keats died of tuberculosis at the tragically early age of 25 cannot but affect the way we read those prophetically poignant lines from ’Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819), written only two years before his death:

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,

To cease upon the midnight with no pain,

While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad

In such an ecstasy!

Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—

To thy high requiem become a sod.

Similarly, the fact that Ezra Pound made Fascist propaganda broadcasts on Italian radio in the 1930s and 1940s cannot but affect the way that we read his Cantos. But it is still important to bear in mind that there is something deeply problematic about any straightforward reduction of a text to what we think we know of the author’s life, thoughts, habits or ideas. In particular, the attempt to settle questions of interpretation through appeals to the intentions of the author cannot but be viewed with suspicion. It is not a question of simply denying or ignoring authorial intention: some hypothesis of what an author intends is a vital element in reading and sense-making. But reading and sense-making invariably overflow ’mere’ authorial intention. Correspondingly, it is not a question (as Barthes polemically argued) of simply ’removing’ the author, but rather of acknowledging that s/he has a less central and authoritative, in some ways more ghostly role. In this respect, we might say, the author was dead from the start. Specifically, as Jacques Derrida has argued, an author is ’dead insofar as his [or her] text has a structure of survival even if he [or she] is living’ (Derrida 1985a, 183). Like any piece of writing (even a text message), a literary work is capable of outliving its author. This capacity for the text to live on is part of its structure, of what makes it a text. This is not something that the author can control. More generally, no author owns the meanings or the readings of his or her text.

As we have attempted to show, then, the idea of an author-centred reading is in various ways flawed. No doubt it will never be possible to give up the sense of phantasmatic identification with an author (’I love Emily Brontë’, ’John Webster is my hero’). Nor, indeed, are we likely to stop reading literary biographies and being interested in the apparently tangential issues of authors’ love affairs, their compositional practices or even, if all else fails, their shopping lists. But the relationship between life and work is highly complex and highly mediated, and a key to the authorial life is by no means necessarily a key to the literary text. Our identifications with and ideas about authors are, in the final analysis, themselves forms of fiction. We may speculate, fantasize and tell ourselves stories about an author; but the author is a sort of phantom. In keeping with the notion that the author is necessarily a ghost, we could suggest that the greatest literary texts are indeed those in which the author appears most spectral. The most powerful works of literature are those which suggest that they are singular, that no one else could have written them, and yet that their authorship is, in more than one sense, a phantom issue. One need think only, for example, of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the plays of Shakespeare, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye or of course J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, to realize that in a sense they tell us nothing about their authors, even if they are texts in which we feel their elusive presence in an especially forceful way. What Keats says of the poet is true of authors generally: the poet ’is not itself — it has no self — it is every thing and nothing’ (Keats 1958, 1:387). The author lives, and lives on, in the strange space of writing.

Further reading

For a general introduction to author theory, see Andrew Bennett, The Author (2005). The brief essay entitled ’The Intentional Fallacy’ (Wimsatt and Beardsley 1995) remains a valuable critical reference point for thinking about authorial intention. For a concise and thought-provoking essay on ’Intention’, see Annabel Patterson (1995), and see Irwin (1999). On the figure of the author more generally, Roland Barthes’s ’The Death of the Author’ (1977a) is vigorous and entertaining but should perhaps be read alongside his somewhat later essays, ’From Work to Text’ (Barthes 1977b) and ’Theory of the Text’ (in Young 1981), as well as Michel Foucault’s classic essay ’What Is an Author?’ (1979). For wide-ranging collections of critical and other material on the author, see Seán Burke, ed., Authorship: From Plato to the Postmodern (1995), Maurice Biriotti and Nicola Miller, eds, What is an Author? (1993), and William Irwin, ed., The Death and Resurrection of the Author? (2002). For collections of essays on authorship in film theory, see Caughie, ed. (1980), Gerster and Staiger, eds (2003) and Wexman, ed. (2003). Mark Rose’s Authors and Owners (1993) is an influential study of the introduction of copyright law and its influence on the ’invention’ of the author in the eighteenth century. Similarly, for a study that challenges poststructuralist thinking on authorship, see Seán Burke’s The Death and Return of the Author (2nd edn, 1998). Two recent books that look at the question of pre-Romantic authorship in relation to life-writing are Daniel Cook and Amy Culley, eds., Women’s Life Writing, 1700—1850: Gender, Genre and Authorship (2012) and Kathleen Lynch, Protestant Autobiography in the Seventeenth-Century Anglophone World (2012). Finally, there is now an online journal concerned with authorship — see