The Author is Dead! or, My thoughts on Literary Criticism

Tombstone of Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), drama...
Becket's tomb. The Author is Dead. His work lives on.

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.

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7 thoughts on “The Author is Dead! or, My thoughts on Literary Criticism

  1. When it comes to plays, authors REALLY need to let go. Part of the fun of that medium is going to different productions of the same play over the years to see the different ways people have interpreted the same text. That is what makes the live theatre world so vibrant and alive.

  2. Ted

    Phew, you take a pretty harsh stance.

    On the one hand, I hear you when you say that an author’s work is a public commodity.

    On the other hand, whenever I see another knock-off of Pride and Prejudice (like Mr. Darcy’s Diary or whatever), it makes me boil into a frothy rage.

    Such is the trade-off of living in a free, pluralistic society.

  3. On a similar vein, the sacred texts of any religion are interpreted far beyond the limits the authors originally intended.

    Every time anything is read and reread, the reader can find new meaning and application only for the reader, even if it was written for a particular purpose and scope.

    1. dteeps

      That’s exactly what I’m saying. I just find it silly to keep asking the author what he ‘meant’, when the author has very little control over his work once he has finished it. I mean, look at George Lucas, who keeps going back and changing his Star Wars story. That’s okay, you can edit your work all you want, until it is released. Once it’s been published, if you go back and change things you just look silly.

  4. Ted

    I think the scriptures is a very interesting case, though. Certainly, people can come with new interpretations to suit the passage of time, but at the same time, understanding the culture and time that the author wrote the scripture in can greatly enhance our understanding.

    In other words, when Isaiah is prophesying something, I want to know exactly what Isaiah meant, not whatever thoughts I want to ascribe to Isaiah. When someone is interpreting those prophesies, I want to know if they actually know what they are talking about, not simply taking their own interpretations and experiences and trying to piggyback off of the ethos of Isaiah to try and put more force into their own ideas.

  5. T’would be nice to sit with Isaiah and get his input on your studies. It’d also be nice to be in the culture in time. But I’m sure even Isaiah had a limited (albeit much more expanded than my) view of the implications his writings had. I don’t think, for example, he likely wrote vaguely enough on purpose to include all future forms of events that would fulfill his words. He likely simply saw one or two of them and wrote about those. In talking with him, people would then likely discount any other possible connections Isaiah hadn’t planned.

    It would be fun to see their exact vision. But it could be dangerous and limiting as well.

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