An Author’s Death

All authors experience this, whether they want to or not, but is it necessarily a bad thing?

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© 2016 Seb Reilly / Used With Permission

Back when I went to university I did several essays and my dissertation around the relationship between the creator, the work and the audience. It has always been an interest in mine, and I may well re-produce some of my dissertation to share my findings.

One of the minor things that kept cropping up is, naturally, Roland Barthes’ essay, ‘The Death of the Author.’ The amount of times I read that essay and the amount of times I quoted it, you wouldn’t know I initially hated the whole concept. When I was younger, I was quite proud about my work (and still am, albeit differently as I will describe later). In truth, I took the whole concept to mean that I was unimportant and that didn’t sit well with my teenage ego.

As I grew older I realised that Roland Barthes merely articulates an experience most (if not all) authors go through; a metamorphosis of sorts. Although I denied what he was saying, it was I who was being illogical and irrational. There was no way I could stop an audience from viewing or reading a piece of my work differently to how I wanted. Even essays of the clearest and most concise nature can be re-interpreted or misinterpreted in many ways, depending on what the reader wants to get out of it.

It is how things can be taken out of context, or how a poem about a loss of a loved one can resonate with readers who have recently been left broken-hearted. It is why so many film critics can disagree over the director’s intentions in a film and still come out wrong—but are they wrong? They may have mistaken what they saw as what the director wanted, but it doesn’t make them wrong for seeing it.

Writing, art, music, whatever, is all subjective and that isn’t an overused or cliché statement. It isn’t factual like mathematics, and more flexible in interpretation than the many theories that are currently being tested in the world of science.

The Japanese haiku is a prime example of this subjectivity. When I was younger I used to believe that they were just witty half-poems about monkeys by ponds. (I was naïve and ignorant, please forgive me.) Obviously, now that I am older, I do find myself leaning more to hidden motivations of the author, or projecting my own feelings into those three short lines. Also, after learning to speak conversational Japanese, I found myself being able to understand the haikus at greater depth than before. There are some which I do think are just matter-of-fact or flowery descriptions without being riddled with hidden meanings, and some pieces of art are more open to unique perspectives than others.

Whether authors want to believe it or not, their work moves beyond them and is changed (not necessarily literally) once it has left their hands. It is the final transition from the author to the audience, and that can be a terrifying experience. What if they think the author is racist because a character is racist? What if they think this is a political statement and take offence? What if they take this innocent children’s book about a hungry caterpillar and see it as an attack on Capitalism? What if they miss my amazing pun and take it the wrong way or it goes over their heads completely?

Oh, the possibilities are endless. One of my English A-Level teachers used to insist there was sexual innuendo in everything, and we’d all blankly stare back wondering if he was okay. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that I thought a writer’s character was bi and the said writer was astounded (though quite possibly amused) by this revelation. I wasn’t the only one to notice, but in a group of readers only half picked up on it and the other half shook their heads and raised their eyebrows. Maybe my A-Level teacher has influenced me too much. Who knows?

As I’ve grown older, I’ve started to see it as more of a compliment when readers start debating about characters of mine, and describing the things they see in my work, things I didn’t intentionally place there. It shows that my stories and poems have all developed beyond me as a writer—a similar transition as when the characters start telling you what they want as opposed to being written as the author originally intended. It’s arguably a demonstration of an author’s growth and maturity when they can let go of their work and release it to the world. As long as it is out there, what does it matter? That was always the destination, anyway.

I’ll admit that ‘Death of the Author’ sounds a bit extreme, but how else was Mr Barthes going to get our attention?

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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  • Seb Reilly says:

    Death of an author sounds about right to me. I think once writing is published the author is effectively dead to that piece, as they no longer have any control over it. The words become the reader’s, interpreted by them, as the story takes on its own life. It’s a death I welcome.

  • 1

    I had not heard that expression before but now I’ve read the essay it make sense. I once heard a well know author talking about the film adaptation of one of his novels; he had been delighted with it. I was astonished as I thought the film did not do his novel justice at all! We all take different experiences to the novel we are reading.

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