Roland Barthes says in his essay The Death of the Author, “The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.” For the most part I agree with this statement. There can be no real level of independent thinking achieved by the reader if their thoughts are dictated by the Author’s opinions and biases. For this reason there needs to be a distance between the Author and those who read the work.
Barthes makes two main points as to why the death of the Author is an inevitable and beneficial occurrence. To begin with Barthes states that the author is merely a way through which a story is told. They neither create the story nor form it, these have already been done. The author is merely retelling this story that has already been told many times. His argument against original thought is very persuasive, especially considering the many ways stories have been logically broken down into a predictable sequence of events. For instance, Vladimir Propp (Literary Theory) a Russian Formalist used Formalist theories to determine thirty one plot functions in Russian folk tales. Each folk tale has at least some, if not all, of these functions, typically in the order which he has organized them but occasionally one or two will be inverted. Most modern fairy tales are merely an adaptation of a classic fairy tale and they follow the general functions that Propp outlined.
Even beyond fairy tales, most fiction stories fall into a typical patter with a beginning problem, a training period, a set back of the hero, the hero overcoming the obstacle, the conflict, and finally resolution. There are no original thoughts, just old thoughts combined in different patterns or adjusted to fit the current society. Music, fashion, and movies are an example of the never ending recycling of ideas. There are only so many musical combinations or clothing styles that people find pleasing. It is inevitable that old styles will be used to “inspire” new ones. It is easy to see in all different areas of society how there are few no new ideas, merely old ideas being reused.
Barthes second point is that if the reader were to view the work through the Author’s eyes then they would gain no benefit from the reading. By associating the Author with the text, the text is automatically limited. Instead of drawing their own meaning from the text using their own experiences and therefore stimulating their own thoughts of their lives and how it connects with the world around them the reader is then restricted to trying to guess what the author meant. The reader focuses on understanding the Author’s opinions and whether they agree with the Author and don’t focus on their own thoughts and opinions of the piece.
Barthes claims that it is the status of the reader that should be elevated, not the status of the Author. If the reader gains any deep insight from a piece of writing it should not be considered due to the Author’s genius but instead to the personal experiences of the reader providing them with an insightful interpretation. Barthes believes that if it is the reader who brings meaning to the text then there can be no limit to the interpretations available because everyone in the world has their own unique experiences that have shaped them.
For the independent thinking of readers and the growth of their skills of interpretation the death of the Author is necessary, in most cases. The death of the Author is not always a necessary occurrence however, in some cases the presence of the Author is needed for the reader to achieve a greater understanding of what is being read. For instance, in the book Slaughterhouse 5: A Children’s Crusade, Kurt Vonnegut went through great effort to make himself known at the beginning of the book. The entire first chapter is told in first person from the author’s point of view as he rambles about how he wanted to write a book about the bombing of Dresden. He was there when Dresden was bombed and was one of the only survivors. The first chapter of the book he describes how he has wanted to write a book about the bombing of Dresden for years but he’s never been able to find the right words. “There’s nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” Vonnegut said.
After spending the first chapter introducing the reader to himself Vonnegut then proceeds to take himself out of the story (for the most part) and instead tell the story of Billy Pilgrim. Pilgrim had also survived the bombing of Dresden but a head injury later in life combined with post traumatic stress disorder caused Pilgrim to lose his grip on reality. Pilgrim becomes unstuck in time and being unstuck causes him to flash back and forth from the past to the future and back again. As a reader if I had not known Vonnegut’s background as one of the few survivors of the bombing of Dresden then I would have not been able to understand the book. I would have seen it as crazy and disjointed and not have been able to draw any meaning out of it. However, looking through the eyes of the Author I got an understanding and view of the events that was completely different from what I would have understood on my own.
If the Author is writing on a topic of which the reader will have their own past experiences to compare it to then the birth of the reader must come at the cost of the death of the Author. However, if the reader has no experiences on which to base their judgments or to grasp the meaning of the text with then it might be necessary for the Author to tell the reader of their own experiences. I agree with Barthes when he says that the reader and the readers interpretation and understanding of a text is what is important. However, sometimes the understanding of the reader is best helped by the presence of the Author.
That being said, the Author should only make an appearance if it will help the understanding of the reader. Here again, the focus is on the reader and their understanding, not on the Author. It is inevitable though that some readers will have a certain mindset about a book before they even buy it because of the author’s name on the cover. The reader may have liked a different book the author had written or had disliked it, but depending on which it was before they pick the book up they will already have an idea of what it is going to be like. Some readers have been known to buy entire series after reading the first book because they know they like the Author so much. They are basing four or five books off of their experience from one and the name of the Author. Should it be that way? Authors want to claim credit for the work they’ve done but Barthes says that where the work originated from isn’t what’s important, it’s the destination that matters.
If we were to take Barthes statement that authors are not creating new material merely meshing bits and pieces from previous writings together, then for the author to claim credit of the piece would essentially be plagerism, for they would be taking credit for thoughts that were not theirs. Putting their names on books could qualify for intellectual property theft as well, according to Barthes. Unless, of course, the author is not seeking to take credit for the story itself but instead wants to take credit for the order in which the words are put together to form the story. So maybe the author is not dead at all. After all, if the author was completely dead then there would be no names on the covers of books. Not only would they not be allowed to take credit for a story that has already been told but they would not be allowed to affect the reader’s interpretation of their story.
Even though Barthes thinks that knowing the Authors background would be detrimental to the readers interpretation of the text I wonder if the public would really wish to know nothing about the writer whose book they are reading. Is it possible that reading the book without the name or basic information of the author could be like watching a movie without knowing what the rating or the plot summary of the movie is? To what extent is it right to broaden the readers horizons? Some people choose to live highly sheltered lives, only reading certain things or watching specific t.v. shows. Anything that doesn’t fall under their approved categories is to be completely ignored. So if we were to take the Authors name off of books, would going into a bookstore be akin to playing a game of Russian Roulette for them? Not knowing the author means not knowing if there may be any hidden surprises in the book. So aside from the Author’s objections to not getting credit for their work, would the readers object? In this way the Author isn’t dead, for their reputation still affects the readers choice and open mindedness to the book.
It seems that when Barthes says “the birth of the reader must come at the cost of the death of the Author,” he is thinking idealistically, not realistically. It would help the interpretations and understanding of the reader for there to be no connection between the Author and the text, in that Barthes is correct. If the only focus was the individual interpretations of the reader then the absolute disassociation of the Author with the text would be a beneficial thing. However, I don’t believe that the Author will ever be completely dead. Barthes said that the Author should get neither praise for a good book not blamed for a bad one and yet this is exactly why the Author will never be fully dead. Readers want heroes and villains, people to look up to and people to despise. A good writer earns praise from the readers and social status, but a controversial writer can draw just as much negative attention as an inspiring writer can draw positive attention. In this way people seek to categorize their lives, and to categorize books the readers need labels. Their favorite labels are the Authors who wrote the books. I think that the readers are partially responsible for the continued presence of the Author, as well as the Author’s own interests in being involved. Is the Author fully dead? No, but neither is he fully alive either. The Author is stuck somewhere between.
- Chantal- The Death of the Author Analysis
- Propp, Vladimir- Literary Anthology pg. 72
- Vonnegut, Kurt- Slaughterhouse 5