How Dead is the Author Anyway? Notes on Authorial Intent and Reimagining Canon

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As an English Lit grad, it can be no surprise that I have a deep fascination for the subject “Death of the Author”. Briefly, Roland Barthes concept is that an author’s intentions and biography don’t have special weight in determining interpretation of their work. For me, I’ve floated back and forth over the years, drifting in the uncomfortable in-between of whether I should eddy these waters with my own pen. In the end, I was inspired by Rachael’s excellent “Is the Writer Dead or Not?” post to finally discuss it.

Now, I’ll admit, I’m hesitant to wholly get behind the theory. Dare I say it, part of this is because sometimes I think it gives too much credit to reader- as marvellous as we may be at finding bookish gems, a book’s value is not determined by whether its read (after all, as a tree falling in a forest with no one around to hear it still makes a sound, a brilliant book that never gets read is still technically brilliant. It’s the law of physics 😉). My silly quasi-philosophical musings aside, I do however see the value in “Death of the Author” (or I wouldn’t be discussing it 😉). Though a writer’s background and intentions shouldn’t be totally discounted, ultimately books should be open to interpretation. Looking at books from this angle is the most freeing. It gives readers the power to find meaning without being handheld along the way.

Another reason this theory is helpful, as Rachael brought up, is that it helps us separate an author from their work. As I’ve previously discussed, I’m a big fan of judging a work on its own merit, rather than writing it off because I don’t like the author. While I respect anyone’s right to choose what they read, I prefer not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

And, as I’ve said recently, there are limits to interpretation- any interpretation. Both in the case of authors retconning their own work and when authors definitively say “*this* is what I meant by that”. Not necessarily because an author can be wrong about their intent- but they most certainly cannot say whether they were successful in conveying what they meant or whether an individual will interpret it differently. the dressFrankly, the 2015 tale of THE DRESS (where some people saw blue/black and others saw white/gold) tells us that we literally do not see the world the same way. Thus, an author cannot demand we see exactly what they intended to emphasise and dismiss what they did not want us to see at all. The messages that hit home may not be what they thought; the way we view their characters might not be a reflection of what was in their heart… and that’s okay. Once a book is out in the world, it’s going to take on a life of its own. Authorial intent ends when a story walks out the door and reaches new readers.

Of course, I feel that an author can give interpretations of their own work (though I’d personally prefer if they’d couch it in terms of “it could mean” instead of “I meant it to mean”). However, I am loath to call later additions and commentary “canon”. Like any other reader, I’m going to want proof of their claims; I’m going to expect them to say more than “it was there all along”. Interpretation has little value without textual evidence. Rewriting a book in retrospect is not only irritating, it undermines the fabric of the existing text. It muddies truths with lies. And it is also a sure-fire way to lose your reader. In that regard at least, I can safely say the author is dead to me.

So, what do you think? Is the author dead or alive? Let me know in the comments!

35 thoughts on “How Dead is the Author Anyway? Notes on Authorial Intent and Reimagining Canon

      1. A belated reply here: glad you agree. My favourite character is Plantaganet Palliser, the Prime Minister. The BBC dramatised the Palliser novels back in the 70s. Susan Hampshire played his wife Lady Glencora. She dies young and on her deathbed he goes to see her. In an emotional scene she asks: ‘Am I dying Plantagenet?’ To which he replies, ‘Yes you are’ . Job done!

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  1. I have a slightly different opinion. I’m a big fan of Reader Response Literary Theory. I firmly believe authorial intent doesn’t matter. The subjective reader experience is what matters.
    One of my favorite movies ever is Melancholia. I always thought the greatest theme in the movie was death and the existentialist idea that life has no inherent meaning, we’re alone in the universe and it all ends the same anyway.
    But reading Lars Von Trier’s interviews on the movie, the main theme he wanted to cover was depression (lol the title is subtle). It still doesn’t change the way I see themes of death and existentialism in the movie. It doesn’t change what the movie makes me feel or my subjective experience of it. I don’t think that means Von Trier was unsuccessful in conveying his themes. Communication is always going to be a two way street. It’s always an act of encoding and decoding. Authors and readers make meaning together. Still, a the end of the day, I think it’s just author hubris to believe that authorial intent really matters. Fiction is like an ink blot test. People will see their own values reflected in the work to some degree, and I think that’s okay. It’s part of what makes art beautiful.

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    1. That’s interesting! I think that’s not so far from my pov. I do think that the subjective experience matters and influences how we read a text and definitely get what you mean about authorial intent.
      Oh I haven’t seen or heard of Melancholia before- I’ll have to check it out. But I do get what you mean about that- I’ve definitely watched or read things in the past where I find an interview with the author stating their intentions and just think “no, that’s not what I got at all”. And a lot of the time that can be ok- cos I find that what I got out of it, while different, may be equally worthwhile. I do find it fun though when I watch an interview and the author states their intent and I think that’s *exactly* what I got out of it (one example is when I read/watched last kingdom, I came out of it thinking “oh gosh why don’t we learn about this period of history- it’s so exciting” and funnily enough I found out afterwards that the author wrote the series to inspire people to think about that period of history- his enthusiasm came across so well!) And I agree!

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  2. Really interesting post, and I agree with your points. The reader should be free to interpret the story as they see it, because like you mentioned, everyone sees the world differently. All of our experiences in life color our reality and everyone’s reality is different therefore that all being true of course we read things differently from one another. Books exist for the readers after they leave the author’s hands and part of the reason I believe we, as humans, read is because we are all looking for something to connect our experiences with. I also agree about the additions some authors make later on, saying this or that was “canon”. I NEED concrete evidence in the book! So we are on the same page, looks like. The author is dead to me too! 😀

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  3. As a German Lit grad I also find this topic highly interesting. I feel like both sides can be heard when it comes to interpretation and thus interpretation of intent, but I also need evidence in the published text. So, once such additional shenanigans start, the novel itself stands above the author.

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  4. Separation of author from their text is something that was drummed into us during English lit university studies. But I do wonder if thats entirely possible – what an author commits to paper has to be informed by their view of the world doesn’t it? You can’t fully understand Shakespeare for example, without understanding the Elizabethan view of the world.

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  5. This is one of those places where I can’t go with a concrete answer. I see this a shades of gray, not black & white. (Partly because any time authorial intent gets mentioned, I can’t help but think of a high school poetry unit where my fellow students analyzed one of my poems and made it all about death and regrets and what I was really writing about was lying on the grass looking at clouds.) I guess I feel that nothing exists in a vacuum, and so we have to include both the author and the reader when we look at a piece of fiction.

    Oh — though I am 100% with you on the rewriting after the fact thing. If you really want your book to say something, you need to make sure that it says that thing. That’s what good editors and beta readers are for.

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  6. It’s so easy for authors to gainsay their work, “oh, yes, I did mean that.” My view is that even when you think you’ve got it you haven’t, simply because there are personal nuances, perception issues, filters etc., that make it difficult to be precise. Communication theory has long pointed to the many things that prevent us decoding exactly what is said, and most especially what is written. In my view the author is dying.

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  7. I love your comparison of the blue/black or gold/white dress because no reader will ever reach the same exact interpretation. I think reader author’s notes and interviews about their novels can shine a light on themes as well as intentions, but they can’t tell a readership that it has to be read only in one lens. For instance, you can read The Handmaid’s Tale from a feminist lens or a dystopian lens or science fiction lens in relation to worlds. There are so many ways to analyze a text and authors are valid in expressing intention, but it doesn’t cancel out the readership and the importance of owning one’s interpretation.

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  8. Ah, see, I think an author’s intention is INCREDIBLY important. After all, and idiot like me can’t understand the significance of literally anything in The Great Gatsby and therefore found it stupid, but … that’s because I’m an idiot, not because the book isn’t good. I don’t think the author’s intention is the *most* important thing, but I do think it matters. While we do see everything through our own lens, I think it’s also impossible to completely avoid the author’s lens and still understand a book. I think author’s intention and reader’s experience work together to make a book. But, I’m no literature student. 🙂

    Also, I wrote a post last night (but it won’t publish til next week) about how the entire YA genre is basically author’s intention. The author intended it for teen audiences, so it gets marketed to teen audience. Just because a teenager *happened* to like Red White & Royal Blue and think it would be a great book for other teens does not make it a YA book.

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    1. Haha well I happen to like Gatsby, but don’t think it makes anyone an idiot not to like it (that book is massively subject to taste). I do think an author’s intention can be relevant… but to use the example of Gatsby, there are multiple possible interpretations of the book, which can all be true, even if they’re not in line with the author’s original vision.

      Oh gosh that is such a brilliant point about YA! I do hear you there, because I’ve seen that *so much* with YA. I think I did hear pretty early on that red white and royal blue had explicit adult content- so I was surprised to see so many people defining it as YA (and still see that!) On the reverse side, I’ve seen books that I really think could easily be classified as YA (ie a teen coming of age story with no explicit content) being classed as adult, because that’s what the author says it is… and I’m just totally lost. I think that’s so true about how it’s just defined by authorial intent. Look forward to reading your post!

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  9. I’m also in an in-between place here. I definitely think the reader’s interpretation is important, and you can find things in a text that the author didn’t consciously put there and you can think things the author DID try to put there are not well-conveyed. It’s all about using the text as evidence.

    But I also think readers can impose things that the text (or author?) is really not trying to do, even if they think they have evidence for it. Some things are “reaching,” I suppose. The only example I can really think of off the top of my head is the argument that Frodo and Sam are in love. I think there’s no textual evidence for that. And if you want to bring in the author, Tolkien was very invested in male friendships and their importance. And he was a very orthodox Catholic writing around the 1950’s. I am very positive he meant Frodo and Same to be close friends, not secret lovers.

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    1. Oh yes definitely. And I absolutely agree about sometimes things being put there that aren’t very well expressed as well.

      And yeah very much agree about that too. And that’s a good example- cos I agree that it not only wasn’t Tolkien’s intention, but also doesn’t have any textual evidence to back it up (and Sam’s marriage to Rosie Cotton could also be evidence against that). I’ve definitely seen people make that argument… and it’s reaching (in fact atm, I’m seeing that argument for so many male friendships in classics- and while some of them are possible, I don’t think it’s likely that they are all true and some are just coming from really weak analysis).

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      1. Since I studied medieval literature in grad school, I ran across a lot of articles arguing that good male friends in medieval texts were not actually just friends, and it’s always an interesting interpretation (particularly when you’re talking about a time period that had totally different conceptions of sexuality than we do now). It’s tough because I’m sure there is homoeroticism in some texts and it might be subtle if that was not socially approved of at the time, but I also think some people were just writing about strong male friendships (which also were possibly conceived differently in that time period than today).

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  10. “I’m a big fan of judging a work on its own merit.”
    Moi also. It’s like what’s written is written. You can’t un-write it or wipe it from existence. While I’m not forcing anyone to read a book of they have a problem with the author, but then people shouldn’t point fingers at me if I choose to read that book.

    Excellent write-up!

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  11. OK, first of all, the dress is clearly white and gold. I could see the white looking blue, but … black??? Come on!!!

    I feel like I’ve seen posts with similar themes on your blog before, but yet I never get tired of them!

    I do agree that any work of art – poem, painting, novel – becomes something greater than the sum of its parts, including author intention. When the Muse is really breathing through the author, he or she may achieve something that he or she does not understand at the time. So yes, I do believe it’s possible for readers to find things in the novel or movie or whatever that the author does not remember putting in there. This is more true the better the artwork captures the human experience.

    But I am uncomfortable with the idea that author intent means nothing. Even if the work transcends the author’s original idea, it’s still the original idea and the author’s mind that to a large extent determines the direction of the transcendent stuff that comes through. And I think we can all agree that we wouldn’t like a world where Animal Farm can be interpreted as calling for a socialist revolution, or Fahrenheit 451 as in favor of censorship, or Huck Finn as in favor of slavery … you get the idea.

    So I guess that’s why the phrase “death of the author” rubs me the wrong way. It makes it sound like there is no actual content to a novel. I don’t like the comparison of a novel with a Rorschach blot. Rorschach blots are intentionally ambiguous and almost formless. Novels aren’t.

    I guess, as a reader, I prefer it when instead of “X means Y,” authors say, “At the time I was writing this scene, Y was going through my mind.” Even that can be kind of a shock to a reader to hear, but at least it doesn’t force the reader to incorporate whatever was going through the author’s mind into the final text if we don’t find it helpful.

    And as a writer, I hope that readers will receive my novels as stories that are mind-expanding rather than limited and limiting.

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    1. Hehe well I actually see blue and black- which is crazy, cos I know it’s not right!! (but I don’t have a very good eyesight… but then again I am wearing my glasses to look at it… 😂 just crazy how different it is for different people!)

      Thank you! (hehe yeah no doubt I repeat myself quite a bit 😉)

      Yeah absolutely! I like your point about it being more true the more complex it is- because I definitely see that (to think of it in a more negative light, a more propagandistic novel may have fewer possible interpretations because it was designed just to act as a mouthpiece for the author’s thoughts/beliefs).

      And I agree with you there- I think to discount the author entirely is to be wilfully blind in some way. I think it goes too far to pretend like that’s irrelevant (especially when the text clearly points in a certain direction). Animal farm (and 1984) are good examples of this, cos I’ve seen people arguing that they’re “not really critiquing communism” and to me that’s not only a bad interpretation from a standpoint of ignoring the author’s intent- it’s also ignoring the textual evidence that arises from the author’s intent. So yeah I think those are really great examples- and they clarify for me why I can’t quite get fully on board with this idea (but haven’t been able to put my finger on)- so thank you!

      Yeah I agree with that as well. I guess trying to do away with the authority of the author goes too far when it implies it’s all just a random collection of words, arranged by accident into something that resembles a story, that’s not impacted by the author’s intentions… and that’s just too far! That makes sense!

      And that’s completely fair! I like to hear from author’s what they were thinking when they were writing something (I guess it’s just like the prescriptive “this means X”, especially if the text doesn’t support that). But I like listening to/reading interviews that give an insight into the author’s perspective when writing it.

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      1. Ha, don’t worry, mostly kidding about the dress. I have seen pictures of it where I can make my eyes switch back & forth between white/gold and blue/black, but in the picture you posted here, I just can’t get black out of it no matter how hard I try.

        Yeah I think it’s important to discuss these things iteratively, because they become clearer every time.

        Whoa, that’s a good example, mentioning how propagandistic novels are less complex. Reminds me of the Jordan Peterson quote, “The artist should be not able to tell you exactly what it is he or she is doing.” If the author knows EXACTLY what they are doing, then probably the novel is just as shallow as their own thinking at the time. And it should be bigger than that.

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  12. I think the biggest risk with the Death of the Author theory is that people may true to “shoehorn” in their own interpretations, disregarding the author’s original intent and using the Death of the Author as excuse to make up anything they want, whether or not their interpretation makes sense!

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  13. I used to be completely on board with the death of the author theory (we studied it in school and I had to write so many essays arguing reader interpretation was all that mattered that I guess I convinced myself) – but I’ve since come to inhabit more of a middle ground… a bit like you were saying at the start of the post that you’re hesitant to wholly get behind the theory.

    I do like to know what the author intended and think it’s an important aspect of analysing/appreciating a book for me, and at the same time I also see the value in separating author from book and looking at the text itself and different reader interpretations… especially as I think often authors achieve things unintentionally or subconsciously in their work that they never intended. So I guess for me the author is only half dead… if that even makes sense 🙂

    Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking post!

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    1. Ah yeah I hear you. I think it’s a tempting theory to embrace wholeheartedly- though I’m a little hesitant to go all in. Cos yeah, I do think authorial intent can be relevant. That’s a really good point- because I do think it can help add another layer of interpretation. And yeah for sure!

      Thank you for reading! ❤

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