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

thoughts orangutan

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!