In a German literature class I had last year, the professor had a favorite phrase, “The author is dead!”, and by that she meant that readers cannot speak to what the author ‘meant’, or what the author ‘wanted’ to say. We cannot say we know what the author was thinking, all we can do is look at what the author has actually written. That is really the way in which I study a text. Anything that can be proved from the text is a valid interpretation, there is no one correct meaning of a text. A text means what it means to whomever is reading and understanding it.
I am currently in an English literary criticism class, and we were talking this last week about what the author can teach us about a text. We read a short story one day and then the next the author was invited to come and talk about the story. It was interesting to hear from the author what thoughts and experiences he had had which led him to write the story. That background explanation did help me to understand an element of the story that I at first found confusing and off-putting. But other students kept asking the author “What does _____ mean?”, “What did you mean when your wrote (this element of the story)?”, “Why is ____ like that, and not like ____?” The author never really directly answered any of those questions, he talked around the point, but never concretely answered any of those questions. As well he shouldn’t or couldn’t.
I do not mean to be rude or disrespectful to this author, I will admit that it was interesting to hear him speak about his story, but it had no meaning beyond that. An author has no ability to explain what his text means – all he can say is what he intended when he wrote it, he cannot tell the reader that his interpretation is wrong. There was some upset in the literary world when J.K. Rowling said in an interview that her character Dumbledore was gay. I respectfully say to Ms. Rowling – “You’re full of it!” Having read the text I find no evidence for that claim. There is nothing in the books to prove this. All we have is the author’s word – which is not enough. The author does not have that much power over the text, the author is not god. If the author had wanted the text to say a certain thing, they should have written it.
Literature, in my opinion, is very much communal. I love the fact that multiple people can read the same text and understand it differently. And none of them are wrong. As long as their conclusions have basis in the text, they are acceptable and valid. Readers should be allowed to interpret a text any way they want, within reason. And that is why I dislike Samuel Becket. I have read Waiting for Godot, and quite enjoyed it. But whenever it is produced a very strict contract must be signed, stating that it will be performed exactly as written. No changes are allowed to be made, to character, to lines, to set, to costume, no changes at all. And representatives attend each performance and are allowed to stop the production at any time, for any reason. Seriously, Mr. Becket? Learn to let go! Let other people interpret or reinterpret your work. Let other people have the opportunity of working with the text. That is the strength of Shakespeare, that anyone can transpose it any way they want, and that helps the understanding, and the enjoyment.
Authors need to die! They need to learn to let their audience have free reign with the text. Once the author has finished writing the text, he is dead, and no longer has any control over it. Not that I want to kill authors, I love what they write, but I love being able to read and interpret the text for myself.