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Space for Rent: Stop Killing the Author


Tweet of the Day: Saluting the Women Behind the Screen

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I’ve have written extensively about arguments in writing, authorial intent, and ownership of works. But it seems that more and more everybody but the creator of a work, say a book, film, or video game is entitled to the content of the work in question. And I am not talking about revenues or copyrights but the meaning of the content itself. When it comes to fiction in any form, the content creator is not even a part of the equation.

In other words (and quoting TV Tropes for conciseness/cohesiveness):

Death of the Author is a concept from literary criticism which holds that an author’s intentions and biographical facts (the author’s politics, religion, etc) should hold no weight when coming to an interpretation of his or her writing; that is, that a writer’s interpretation of his own work is no more valid than the interpretations of any of the readers.

It is one among many schools of literary analysis, emphasis on the word one. It is, by no means, the only way to approach a given work. Yet I see many a critic treating Roland Barthes ideas not as a useful tool to understand a work, but as undeniable fact. They treat the author’s intent as if it were some kind of putrid slime that covers the page and must be rinsed off before the purity of thought imbedded in the words can shine through.

Bullshit.

You can separate the work from its author like you can not separate the work from its audience. While trying to divine the intent of an author whose dusty old bones lie bury in a patch of ground or whose ashes sank to the bottom of the sea can lead to a quest without end, you can not divorce a work from its creator, their intent, their word choices, or the time that gave birth to both. Yet many persist on doing just that, specially when the author is very much alive.

The inevitable question is….Why?

The answer usually comes in threes.

  1. The critic has an agenda. They intend to use the work in a manner not intended by the author thus they must slay him (metaphorically) in order to clear the way for their own interpretation. Once the beast of authorial intent is dead, the way is clear to write pretty much whatever they want about the work without the meddlesome author tapping on their shoulder.
  2. The fan craves ownership: And not simply of the physical copy of the work. They want it all, they want it now, and they want to be catered to what are times foolish degrees. The author did not pair up their favorite characters? Doesn’t matter, the author is dead and therefore it is up to the fans to do with it as they please. A character has an inconvenient sexuality, attitude, race or other characteristic the fan doesn’t like? No worries, you can ignore them at your leisure regardless of what the author said or even wrote about it.
  3. The author wants cover: Yes, authors use this as well. Are so and so gay and in a relationship? Oh, I don’t know, we will leave that up to the reader, viewer, or player to interpret. After all authors, we can’t be lambasted by the audience in a million online forums if we leave it to audience interpretation. The author that doesn’t own what they create is free from the mistakes they make. Even the very idea of a mistake is lost in a deep dark sea of interpretation never to surface again.

I believe in the theory that no work comes alive until it comes into contact with the audience. However, that does not mean that one should make the work an orphan at the moment of birth. A book is an intimate conversation between reader and writer. To slay the creator damages the creation by breaking the continuum from author to audience. It turns the conversation into a soliloquy. Soliloquy can be elegant, but they are also lonely, one side affairs. The theory has some merit but like I wrote in another post:

Each lens (theory) narrows the focus: Like a microscope a certain school of thought will narrow the focus on a particular set of ideas, but at the expense of the larger whole.

Remember that before you rush to murder a works creator.

Metaphorically, I hope.

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