“I watch the ink flow from my pen. I observe the moment in which it dries. Perhaps this is the moment when words die. The descent from the living thought to its death is swift. Perhaps this is the precise instant when a manuscript begins to gather dust. It cannot be seen yet, but the process has set in.”
~ The Sea of Many Returns by Arnold Zable
If you follow my writing you’ll know I’m prone to the indulgent habit of navel-gazing. During a recent bout of such, I found myself contemplating how much value we place in the name on the spine of a book over the content within. More extreme navel-gazers than I, such as Roland Barthes refer to this as a question of “authorial identity”; does it really matter who wrote a book and why?
Barthes was a French literary critic, very famous for his 1968 essay Death of the Author in which he argues that knowing the author creates a bias in the reader and the only way a reader can truly interpret the text is by divorcing it from its creator.
The sweet irony, perhaps tragic beauty of this essay, is that while Barthes begs us to forget who wrote it; to liberate it from his selfish grasp, in a cruel twist of literary fate he will forever be lauded for his amazing insight into the topic.
Ah, but perhaps he was playing with us, as the French are want to do, no? *spoken with French accent*
Perhaps I need to step away from the complexities of French philosophers and the deep semiotic posturing of literature nerds and instead find something more relatable to my own reading choices.
Recently I read The God Argument, a fascinating book in which esteemed British philosopher, A.C. Grayling, presents a rational argument for an alternative to religion. But would I take this book so seriously had it not been written by my beloved A.C? Did I, in fact, purchase the book in the first place because it was written by A.C? Would I have laughed hysterically if the author was, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger?
“I was elected to lead, not to read.”
~President Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger in The Simpsons Movie (2007)
Literature has a long history of clandestine authorship, particularly in the case of women writing under male pseudonyms. A great example of this today would be J.K. Rowling’s recent foray into the genre of crime fiction; a genre completely dominated by men. Notwithstanding the first point of interest — that J.K. who has no middle name and chose to use initials so as to be gender ambiguous— it is, I think, quite understandable that Ms Rowling chose the new nom de plume, Robert Galbraith, for a new genre.
It certainly isn’t a unique concept. Many authors write with various pen names to suit the different genres they write in. But in the case of the author of one of the biggest selling children’s books of all time, it’s quite likely people would have laughed as loudly at the thought of a female children’s novelist writing crime fiction as I would at the thought of Arnold Schwarzenegger writing a book on philosophy and God.
Which brings me back to Roland Barthes, his dead authors, and his claim that the relationship between a text and its author is irrelevant.
Barthes argues that we need to liberate a text from the intentions of its author, thus take our own meaning from it and set it free. Indeed I believe this to be theoretically true.
Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber drew attention to the horrors of Dissociative Identity Disorder by retelling the shocking story of a woman with sixteen co-conscious personalities. Norma Khouri’s Forbidden Love heightened awareness of the appalling act of honour killings in its retelling of the murder of the author's friend by her own father for loving a Christian. Should these two instances of literary hoaxes be any less remarkable on the basis of content rather than authorship?
Does J.T. LeRoy’s novel Sarah about a young gender variant drug-addicted prostitute have any less impact on our understanding of the plight of such individuals now that we know J.T. (Jeremy) is a fictional persona and the real author, Laura Albert is married, middle class, and very much a woman?
American novelist, Mary Gaitskill, had this to say;
“It’s occurred to me that the whole thing with Jeremy is a hoax, but I felt that even if it turned out to be a hoax, it’s a very enjoyable one. And a hoax that exposes things about people, the confusion between love and art and publicity. A hoax like that would be delightful and if people are made fools of, it would be okay — in fact, it would be useful.”
All of this leads me in the end to ponder the phenomena of our modern-day obsession with celebrity. Yes, we take our own meanings from text regardless of authorial identity, but our desire to weed out the author, to assess their worthiness of writing a text keeps the author, to my own disappointment, alive and kicking.
And what about Roland Barthes? Well, he’s tossing and turning in his grave despite his desire to be left alone, forgotten, and as dead as any author can reasonably expect to be.