Recently, I came across the following quotation from Roland Barthes, the late French literary theorist:
“The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”Roland Barthes
The statement appears in Barthes’ 1967 essay “The Death of the Author” ( La mort de l’auteur). The translation given here is by Stephen Heath.
I saw the quotation out of context. Nevertheless, I felt that I had an idea of what it meant. I write short stories and poetry. Sometimes, after completing a piece, I feel as though I am one of the greatest unrecognized authors of all time. I read the poem or story to myself over and over again, smiling at my genius; then I read it to my patient, loving, wife, who does not totally share my feelings about the work, though she is gentle in letting me know, hinting at possible improvements or ways to alleviate potential “misunderstandings” on the part of future readers.
After this less than glorious experience, feeling a tad deflated, I will sit with a cold drink and relax by reading a work by one of what I had come to believe, while writing, were my peers – Tolstoy, Chekhov, or Raymond Carver, a particular favorite, for instance. It is not long before the small puncture inflicted by my wife in my heady balloon becomes a gaping hole through which escapes all of my literary phantasies. And soon I find myself wondering how on earth someone as untalented and ungifted as I am could even consider writing anything except a shopping or to-do list perhaps. I should spend my time doing chores, dishes, laundry, that sort of thing, and use any leisure time only for reading.
So, this was how I understood Barthes, that is, as soon as one begins to pursue serious reading, all attempts at writing are, and should be by any right-minded reader of classic literature, abandoned. My motto morphed from “How great I am,” to “Better to read great works of art than to create poor ones.” The author had died; only the reader survived.
Curious about what else Barthes might have to say on this topic, I decided to read Barthes’ quotation in context. Boy! was my understanding wrong. The quote can be, I believe, aptly described as a concise statement of one of the fundamental principles of New Criticism, a formalist literary movement of the mid-20th century. As a graduate student of aesthetics at Temple University in the 1980s, I had the good fortune to study with one of the giants of contemporary aesthetic theory, Monroe Beardsley. In 1946, over twenty years before Barthes’ essay, William K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley published “The Intentional Fallacy,” one of the seminal works of 20th-century literary criticism.
In his book Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism (1956, second edition, 1981), Beardsley writes an excellent summary of New Criticism’s understanding of the difference between the artist’s intention, on the one hand, and the work of art, on the other. He writes: “To put the difference colloquially, and no doubt oversimply, the objective critic’s first question, when…confronted with a new aesthetic object, is not, What is this supposed to be? but, What have we got here?”
Barthes is saying the same thing. Once you present a reader with a literary object, the author’s intentions are dead.
Well, at least I don’t have to stop writing—yet.