Death of the Author

"A narrator should not supply interpretations of his work; otherwise he would not have written a novel, which is a machine for generating interpretations."
Umberto Eco, postscript to The Name of the Rose the birth of the reader.

Death of the Author is a concept from literary criticism; it holds that an author's intentions and biographical facts (the author's politics, religion, etc) should hold no weight in regards to an interpretation of their writing. In other words, a writer's interpretation of his own work is no more or less valid than the interpretations of any given reader.

Intentions are one thing. What was actually accomplished might be something very different.

The logic behind the concept is fairly simple: Books are meant to be read, not written, so the ways readers interpret them are as important and "real" as the author's intention. On the flip side, a lot of authors are unavailable or unwilling to comment on their intentions, and even when they are, they don't always make choices for reasons that make sense or are easily explainable to others (or sometimes even to themselves).

Although popular amongst postmodern critics, this has some concrete modernist thinking behind it as well, on the basis that the work is all that outlives the author (hence the concept's name) and we can only judge the work by the work itself. The author's later opinions about their work are themselves a form of criticism and analysis, and therefore are not necessarily consistent with what's written unless the author or publisher actively goes back and changes it—and it can still be argued that, since the original work still exists, the author has merely created a different version of it. One critic's understanding of the author's background and opinions is likely to be just as accurate as another's, especially if the author has an idiosyncratic or even anachronistic perspective on their own work. Modernists are more likely to appeal to the similar-yet-different concept of the Intentional Fallacy, which does not discount biographical information or other works by the same author.

Needless to say, many writers don't especially like this. Margaret Atwood famously remarked that if the Death of the Author theory became prevalent, then "we [writers] are all in trouble". However, while J. R. R. Tolkien acknowledged the influence of his experiences on his works (The Lord of the Rings), he denied that he had written allegory, insisting that his works simply had Applicability; this arguably makes him an early supporter of the Death of the Author, since pointless speculations about an author's allegorical intent are exactly what the concept seeks to avoid, favoring an analysis of the "applicability" of the text itself. Some people have joked (with delicious irony) that Roland Barthes, who actually wrote the trope naming essay, probably had to say "No, that's not what I meant at all!" at least once in his lifetime while discussing it. Playwright Alan Bennett claims he responded to students asking for assistance on analyzing his works as part of their A-Levels to "treat [him] like a dead author, who [is] thus unavailable for comment".

Of course, numerous authors including the likes of Ray Bradbury and William Gibson can't be bothered to stay consistent when talking about the major themes or concepts in their books for more than a few years at a time.

Worse yet, if the author comes to reject their own work, they may express dissatisfaction with certain parts and not others. Hence, "the perfect is the enemy of the good" (i.e., "coulda, woulda, shoulda"). This is why some auteur filmmakers oppose the notion of a Director's Cut on the grounds that the "real" film will always be the one people saw in cinemas in the year of release, not the ideal film in the director's head.

This is a given in works where the authors don't hold copyright and can be replaced, especially Shared Universes; if a writer is fired and replaced by another, anything the old writer has stated in interviews can be (and often is) freely Jossed by the new writer.

Isaac Asimov often repeated an anecdote based on this: He once sat in on a class where the topic of discussion was one of his own works. (He did this in the back of a large lecture hall so he could remain semi-anonymous). After the class ended, he went up and introduced himself to the teacher, saying that he had found the teacher's interpretation of the story interesting, though it really wasn't what he had meant at all. The teacher's response: "Just because you wrote it, what makes you think you have the slightest idea what it's about?"

There is an echo of this concept in Asimov's short-short story "The Immortal Bard", in which William Shakespeare is brought into the present day and takes a college course about his writings. He flunks.

There is an Older Than Feudalism example about some Jewish sages having an argument about their law...and ignoring God's interpretation in favor of their own. Because, you see, the Torah is not in Heaven. There is another in the Apology of Socrates: Socrates testifies that in his search for a wiser man than himself, he listened to the great poets. He thought their works very fine, but when they tried to explain them, he thought they were hopeless—and that the dumbest spectators around would do a better job. (He took this as proof that their poetic skills were a divine gift rather than an exercise of intellect.)

A concrete dramatization of this theme appears in Jorge Luis Borges' story Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, an analysis of the work of an imaginary author. The text is a literary essay written by an unnamed critic about Pierre Menard, a 20th Century writer whose life project was to write Don Quixote, not as a copy or as a remake of the original work, but as a book which would coincide, word by word, with Cervantes' Quixote.note  The narrator compares both works under the light of the experiences of each author and, thus, an excerpt of Menard's gains an interpretation that is completely different from the interpretation of the exact same passage in Cervantes. This leads to seemingly absurd but perfectly consistent claims, such as the identification of Nietzsche's influence on Quixote, or that Cervantes in the 17th century clumsily opposes to the fictions of chivalry the tawdry provincial reality of his country and easily handles the current Spanish of his time, while Menard writing in the 20th century deserves praise for eluding the “spagnolades” (local color) of the seventeen century Spain: (gypsies, conquistadors, mystics, Philip the Seconds, or Autos de Fe), but he is obliged to write in an archaic and affected style. The short story ends with a proposal that an exercise such as attributing The Imitation of Christ to James Joyce could impregnate the former with new significance. As for the question of whether or not one should take this as sharp irony, it is a matter of the reader's willingness to attribute Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote to Borges.

This is subverted by Pablo Picasso; when asked how to distinguish between his genuine works and the numerous fakes that were circulating, he answered simply, "If it's good, it's mine. If it's bad, it's a fake."

Despite the theory's title, Barthes never says that the author's own interpretation is completely unimportant—just that it is only one of many possible interpretations. This also does not necessarily mean that every interpretation is equally valid; an interpretation that is based on a flawed, incomplete, and confused reading of the text will always be flawed, incomplete, and confused regardless of how much Barthes' essay is raised in protest.

It could be argued, however, that this hypothesis removes the only objective standard by which a text can be said to have a given meaning, or even any meaning at all. For since there are few times one could back up their interpretation of a poem with evidence, this hypothesis reduces all possible interpretations to mere subjective opinions (or at best, educated guesses). It might also be asked that, if it is meaningless for someone to say "That's not what I meant" when talking about any literature they might have written, then how can it be meaningful for any other situation where one might say that? How, for example, could a general criticize an underling for getting something absurd out of a set of instructions he or she may have given them? "Sir/ma'am, what makes you think you know what the orders meant just because you wrote them?"

Related tropes include Shrug of God, The Walrus Was Paul (when the author encourages fans and critics to find their own interpretations), and Misaimed Fandom (which is what can happen when they do so). Often the driving force in Fanon Discontinuity where the fans dislike the author's interpretation to the point of ignoring it. This trope can be particularly useful and sometimes even encouraged in regard to tropes like Accidental Aesop, Broken Aesop, Unfortunate Implications, and others; see Warp That Aesop.

This trope does not mean "there is no such thing as canon for a work's events", which is a common misinterpretation of this theory used to justify Canon Defilement. We are completely aware of the irony in telling you how not to interpret it, but putting it in practice this way is just generally a bad idea.

Compare this trope with Applicability and the Fiction Identity Postulate. A somewhat related trope is Word of Dante. Do not confuse this trope with Author Existence Failure, a literal death of the author.