The Death of the Author

Roland Barthes, both a structuralist and a poststructuralist over the course of his career, was one of the first to strip the author of a unique role accorded by Western culture and traditional literary criticism. In “The Death of the Author” (1967), Barthes characterized the author not as an original and creative master manipulator of the linguistic system but, rather, as one of its primary vehicles, an agent through which it works out new permutations and combinations. —The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms on “Postructuralism”

They [contemporary semioticians] are especially indebted to Barthes, who in works such as “La mort de l’auteur” (“The Death of the Author”) (1967) and S/Z (1970) pronounced the death of the author; emphasized the role of the reader (or, more precisely, lecture, or reading); and differentiated the lisible (readerly) text (one that provides readers with a world replete with fixed meanings) from more open, scriptible (writerly) text (one that invites readers to create meaning). —The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms on “Structuralist criticism”

At the end of my last blog post titled “Dionysos the Author and Vlepo the Reader,” I spoke briefly about the possible representation of the actual occurrence of an author’s death at the end of Percival Everett’s Frenzy. Throughout that blog post I argued that, in the text, Dionysos shares many traits with an “author” archetype—and, additionally, Vlepo shares many traits with a “reader” archetype. If this analogy stands, I argued that Dionysos’ death by Vlepo’s hand at the end of Frenzy can be viewed as the literal death of the author. And, like the reader finally finishing the novel Frenzy, Vlepo is left alone to do what he will with the knowledge he’s gained. There is no Dionysos to guide him, just like there is no author to guide the reader—what matters, in the end, is the reader’s own interpretation of what they have read, and not what the author’s original intentions might have been. 

In this blog post, however, I would like to thoroughly analyze what the Death of the Author theory means by defining, discussing, and citing relevant examples—and, in so doing, I might arrive at a deeper understanding of how a reader can interact with a piece of text. Before I unpack that, however, I would like to clarify some details of the Death of the Author historically. The theory was first mentioned in Roland Barthes’ essay of the same name (in French, “La mort de l’auteur,” published in 1967). From there, it developed as a facet of structuralist criticism. Structuralism, as defined by The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, is the “theory of humankind whose proponents attempt to show systematically, even scientifically, that all elements of human culture, including literature, may be understood as a system of signs.” Because the Death of the Author emphasizes the separation of the author’s intention from their work in favor of the reader’s interpretation, it refutes the connectedness of structuralist ideas.

To define Death of the Author more simply, it is the theory that the author’s intention regarding their work before, during, and after writing holds no more weight than any other factor when a reader determines an interpretation of that work. Whether it was intentional or unintentional by the author, what a reader interprets cannot be wrong, even if it does not align with what the author’s idea originally was. Books are ultimately meant to be read, not written, so the ways readers form interpretations are as important and “real” as the author’s intention. However, the Death of the Author is a theory that continues to develop to this day—as media changes and evolves, what the Death of the Author means when it comes to intention and interpretation also changes.

How Death of the Author can be interpreted in the works of Percial Everett, however, is a different matter. In my previous blog post I spoke about Dionysos and Vlepo in Frenzy, but Everett introduces a very different element that may be important to the Death of the Author theory in his book I Am Not Sidney Poitier. In this novel, instead of presenting the blasé, humorous character of Dionysos, he introduces himself as a character—the Professor Percival Everett. While I may do an entirely separate blog post on what Everett is trying to communicate by having “himself” as a character in his novel, for now I will only lightly dissect it as it pertains to the Death of the Author theory.

Should we take what the character Percival Everett says as what the author Percival Everett says? Is not the entire book I Am Not Sidney Poitier “what” Percival Everett is saying, or what he has said, because he was the one to write those words down? This I do not dispute—the book is Percival Everett’s, but how does this relate to the Death of the Author? If the author’s intention does not matter any more than the reader’s own interpretation, does that change if the author inserts themselves into their novel as a character, who shares their name and their personality? All of these questions are highly situational, and may change depending on what book you are reading, but it is an interesting question to ask—and it is a question that Everett may or may not have intended to present by including himself as a character in I Am Not Sidney Poitier.

In the end, the Death of the Author can be defined as the theory that the author’s original intention for their work and that author’s background matter no more than the reader’s own interpretation of that work. What matters is what the reader gains from the story. Before I conclude this blog post, I suggest reading Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” essay for more information. It clearly clarifies how one can separate the text from the author, and provides the best example of the beginnings of the theory. Going forward, I do wish to pay attention to how Percival Everett includes the theory of Death of the Author in his work, but for now I am satisfied with my analysis of both Frenzy and I Am Not Sidney Poitier.

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