In theory: The Death of the Author

By Andrew Gallix
The Guardian

Ecclesiastes famously warns us that “Of making many books there is no end” – the same, of course, applies to book commentaries. George Steiner has long denounced the “mandarin madness of secondary discourse” which increasingly interposes itself between readers and works of fiction. For better or worse, the internet – with its myriad book sites – has taken this phenomenon to a whole new level. Since Aristotle’s Poetics, literature has always given rise to its exegesis, but now that no scrap of literary gossip goes untweeted, it may be time to reflect a little on the activity of literary criticism.

I have chosen to inaugurate this series with a few considerations on “The Death of the Author” because of its truly iconic nature: it symbolises the rise of what would come to be known as “theory”. Even if he never names them, Roland Barthes (like Proust before him) launches an attack on the traditional biography-based criticism à la Sainte-Beuve or Lanson which still dominated French academia in the sixties. The paradox, of course, is that this essay – with its symbolic slaying of the paternal “Author-God” – could lend itself to a textbook psychological reading given that Barthes lost his own father before his first birthday. The “Death of the Author” theme itself takes on added meaning, in hindsight, when you consider that Barthes’s critical career was, at least in part, a displacement activity to avoid writing the novel he dreamed of. Does any of this invalidate his theories? I’ll let you be the judge of that…

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