The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Ryan James Kernan

The author has been traditionally understood as the sole originator of the written work, as the figure possessed with the vision, creativity, intellect, experience, knowledge, and skill requisite to combine all of these factors into a literary medium. Conceived within this paradigm, the author, as both creator and controller, inscribes her or his text with an inviolable authority and authenticity. Authority is a function of his ownership of the idea, and authenticity derives from the author's unique position as the ultimate authority on the meaning or truth of his text. This notion of the author—sometimes labeled as humanist because it posits the classical Cartesian unitary subject as the work's originating consciousness—has occupied a relatively stable position in the history of modern thought and is still not without its proponents and apologists.

A History of the Term

The word author and its predecessor auctor were interchangeable when the former first came into usage in the Middle Ages and referred either to a writer who was considered to be a source of authority or to an “author” who wrote in strict adherence to an established expert. Every discipline in the trivium had auctores that established its founding rules and principles (Cicero in rhetoric, Aristotle in dialectic, the ancient poets in grammar). The same was true for the quadrivium (Ptolemy in astronomy, Constantine in medicine, a God-authored Bible in theology, Boethius in arithmetic). The scribe's good reputation rested on his ability to interpret or explain problems in terms that both reified the ideas of these auctores and sanctioned the moral and political authority of medieval culture. With the decline of feudalism and its cultural constraints in the fifteenth century, the term “author” became increasingly associated with its current usage, referring to the figure responsible for the creation of literary works. Nevertheless, the “author” remained the beneficiary of the esteem formerly ascribed to auctores well into the early twentieth century, and, with the consolidation of copyright laws, was frequently the financial beneficiary as well.

New Criticism and Russian Formalism

Beginning in the 1920s, New Criticism and Russian formalism began to challenge the traditional, or humanist, notion of the author. Critics from these camps refuted the idea that the author could understand his own work as comprehensively as could a trained critic and denied the centrality (and even the importance) of the author's implicit or explicit intentions to an authoritative interpretation of the text (see EDITING). For example, the American New Critics W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley not only argued that “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art” but also that the “demotion” of the author's intention was indispensable to the work of literary criticism (1946, “The Intentional Fallacy”). The New Critic's task was to scrutinize the textual level of the “autonomous” or “autotelic” literary work—to examine the “internal evidence” of “the work itself.” Similarly, the leading exponents of Russian formalism such as Boris Eichman, Roman Jakobson, Viktor Shklovsky, Boris Tomashevskii, and Yury Tynianov saw the literary work as an object distinct from both its author and his society. Their critical methodology primarily concerned itself with “literariness,” a quality that they saw as both the distinguishing feature of literature and the exclusive property of the text's artistic devices.


With the advent of structuralism and the concomitant notion that the source of meaning is not in an individual's experience but rather in the patterns, IDEOLOGY, and systems that govern culture and language itself, the author's position in literary criticism became still more decentered. The structuralist claims that language “speaks us” and provides the subject with only the illusion of autonomy led to a widespread conception of the text as an embodiment of culture. For example, structuralist-marxist Louis Althusser's seminal essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (1971, in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays) rejects the notion that a work's author can be its final guarantor of meaning. This is the case because writers (like all individuals) internalize and act in accordance with what Althusser labels ISAs, or Ideological State Apparatuses. These institutions generate the ideologies in which we come to believe, but also produce “distortions” that cause us to misrecognize or to misrepresent ourselves as self-realized human beings unalienated by the machinery of capitalism. Hence, literary and scientific efforts to authoritatively portray “existence” are necessarily plagued by the fact that texts do not represent “the system of the real relations which govern the existence of individuals,” but rather “the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live.”


Perhaps the most famous challenges to the traditional notions of the author and his relationship to textual authority come from the poststructuralist critique contained in Roland Barthes's “The Death of the Author” (1968). Barthes's essay refutes the very idea that the author is the source of the text by, in part, arguing that authorship—a concept traditionally associated with the author's legal right to the work—is a multidimensional space where the demands of language, discourse, and tradition collide. The author, or Barthes's scriptor, is therefore best conceived of not so much as a creator but rather as a rearranger of nothing less than the whole of writing, and the text's unity is not to be sought in its origin (with him) but in its destination (in the domain of the READER). Hence, corollary to the “death of the author,” Barthes's “readerly text,” and the critical “tyranny of the God author” are the “birth of the reader,” his “writerly text,” and a continuing allowance for openness of interpretation. The reader is positioned as actively engaged in a creative process that creates the text anew, while the residue of authority lies with the literary critic.

Several of the tenets that underpin Barthes's argument “to kill the author” find deconstructionist predecessors in ideas set forth by Jacques Derrida in Of Grammatology (1967) and have been embraced in the works of several other notable critics like Edward Said (1975, Beginnings) and J. Hillis Miller (1982, Fiction and Repetition). Nevertheless, “The Death of the Author” did not escape its poststructuralist critiques and Michel Foucault's “What is an Author?” (1969) is arguably the most notable among them. Foucault does not see the author as the creator of the text but rather as the construction of discourse—where discourse is understood to be a body of thought and writing united by a common object of study, a common methodology, or a set of common terms and ideas. The author exists as a product of the text, while the text exists as part of a wider discourse in which the author is also said to be included (or, more precisely, to be a function within). Since the author continues to play a crucial part in the material life of culture—Foucault hypothetically argues that the disappearance of the author would (among other things) eliminate the warrant for criticism and prove devastating to the idea of the work—he cannot be dispensed with in the manner Barthes prescribes. Rather, the “author function” must be accounted for as “the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning,” and the remnants of the traditional understanding of the author are best ascribed to figures that Foucault labels “fundamental authors,” figures like Freud or Marx whose writings can be said to found discourses and disciplines that are discontinuous with previous ones.

Traditionalist Objections to the Poststructuralist Challenge

Traditional critics (neo-Aristotelian, biographical, historical, and formalist) have raised strong objections to the “death of the author” and the denial of the “author function,” generally arguing that the concept of the author checks against the unmitigated multiplication of textual interpretations, especially ones competing or contrary. E. D. Hirsch is among the most conservative, and posits that there can be one and only one “valid interpretation”—that which captures the author's meaning (1973, Validity in Interpretation). Thinkers who have “banished the original author” only to then have “usurped his place” are, for Hirsch, guilty of leading literary criticism “unerringly to some of [its] present-day confusions” concerning canonical texts and textual authority itself.

The Implied Author

Several critics who have challenged both the validity of biographical criticism and New Criticism's eradication of the author have focused increased attention on the idea of the implied author (James A. Parr being among the most prominent), building on the work of Wayne C. Booth, whose Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) first set forth the term. The implied author is the real author's “virtual” or “second self,” a figure discernible by readers who (in Booth's estimation) will always infer the existence of an author behind any text they encounter. This “second self” consciously and unconsciously chooses what we read but is also the “ideal, literary, created version of the real man ... the sum of his own choices.” In this sense, the implied author is an amalgam (usually composed of: the narrator created by the real author, the virtual author created without the real author's private bias, a particular side of the author in a given work, the whole group that made or effected the work, and the “core of norms and choices” that govern a work's style, tone, and technique).

For example, Parr—who prefers to use the designation “inferred author” instead of “implied author”—argues that the “inferred author” of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's sequel to Don Quixote (1605, 1615) adopts a consistent attitude of “festive mockery,” despite the cacophony of narrative voices that inhabit the work's paratextual prologues as well as its chapters (see METAFICTION). This cacophony is not only the result of the fact that the narrator of Don Quixote qualifies the text as a translated history written by the fictional character Cide Hamete Benengeli, but also the result of an unusual literary twist surrounding the work's appearance in print. Cervantes was outraged by an unidentified Aragonese author who published a work entitled Second Volume of Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha: by the Licenciado (doctorate) Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda of Tordesillas in September 1614, and he responded by writing elements of the book into his own sequel. Thus in Cervantes's text, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza kidnap one of Avellaneda's main characters and also overhear talk of Avellaneda's pirated version of their adventures: “Believe me, your graces,” said Sancho, “the Sancho and Don Quixote in that history are not the ones who appear in the history composed by Cide Hamete Benengeli, the ones who are us: my master is valiant, intelligent, and in love, and I'm simple, amusing, and not a glutton or drunkard.” The “implied narrator” of the above passage offers the reader a voice that Cervantes created, that presents a certain sardonic side of the author, and that is also the product of an (albeit small) group that effected the work; while Sancho's objections to the inaccuracies contained in “that history” point to another “implied narrator” whose work is governed by a separate and distinct “core of norms and choices.”

Contemporary Restorations of the Author

Current theorists working in the fields of minority studies, feminism, queer theory, and postcolonial studies have posed some of the most serious challenges to the poststructuralist displacement of the author's status as the unmediated consciousness at the origin of a work (see RACE, FEMINIST, QUEER). These challenges often concern themselves with how systems of oppression (including critical approaches to literature, aesthetic conventions, and language itself) operate to erase particular voices or identities, as well as with how texts can be inscribed with distinct minority outlooks or perspectives. For example, the French feminists Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous have both argued that woman must “write herself” into language to redress the inequities produced by the fundamentally patriarchal foundations of language and literature. Prominent critics like Houston Baker argue that the “deep aspects of culture” inscribed in African American literary texts are predicated on the “culturally specific values and experiences” of black authors. In a similar vein, the postcolonial subject's aspiration to affirm a speaking- and writing-self—one whose unique interiority is meant to represent an oppressed (or formerly oppressed) collective—is necessarily invested in the preservation of a certain relation between author and text.

See also: Frame, Genre Theory, Intertextuality, Life Writing, Narrative Perspective, Publishing, Translation Theory.


1. Abrams, M.H. (1977), Mirror and the Lamp.

2. Baker, H. (1976), “On the Criticism of Black American Literature,” in Reading Black.

3. Barrett, M. (1980), Women's Oppression Today.

4. Burke, S. (1992), Death and Return of the Author.

5. Cervantes Saavedra, M. de. (2003), Don Quixote, trans. Edith Grossman.

6. Cixous, H. (1976), “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Signs 1(4):875-93.

7. Erlich, V., ed. (1975), Twentieth-Century Russian Literary Criticism.

8. Harari, J., ed. (1979), Textual Strategies.

9. Madan, S. (1989), Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism.

10. Minnis, A.J. (1984), Medieval Theory of Authorship.

11. Parr, J. (2005), Don Quixote.

12. Spivak, G.C. (1993), Outside in the Teaching Machine.

13. Todorov, T. (1980), “Reading as Construction,” in Reader and the Text.