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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

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.

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

The logic is fairly simple: Books are meant to be read, not written, and so the ways readers interpret them are more important and "real" than the ways writers write them. There are also the more practical facts that a lot of authors are not available or not willing to comment on their intentions, and even when they are, artists don't always make choices for reasons that make sense or are easily explained to others — or, in some cases, 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 name) and we can only judge the work by the work itself. The author's later opinions about their work are a form of criticism and analysis themselves, and therefore are not necessarily consistent with what's written unless the author or publisher actively goes back and changes it (and even then it can 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 but not identical 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, in favor of analyzing the "applicability" of the text itself. It has been 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.

Or worse, 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" (Translation: "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 one'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 repeated in several places an anecdote based on this: He once sat in (in the back of a large lecture hall, so semi-anonymously) on a class where the topic of discussion was one of his own works. Afterward, 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 was "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.)

This theme also appears in Jorge Luis Borges' 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 Quixotenote . 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 absurd claims such as the identification of Nietzsche's influence on the 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 proposing 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.

Subverted by Pablo Picasso who, 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."note 

It is important to note that, despite the title, Barthes never says that the author's own interpretation is completely unimportant; just that the author's interpretation 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 misunderstood reading of the text is always going to be flawed, incomplete and misunderstood no matter how much this essay is raised in protest.

See also Shrug of God and The Walrus Was Paul, when the author encourages fans and critics to find their own interpretations, and Misaimed Fandom, what can happen when they do so. 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.

It's important to note that this does not mean "there's no such thing as canon for a work's events", which is a common misinterpretation of this used to justify Canon Defilement. We're 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 with Applicability. Somewhat related is Word of Dante. Not to be confused with Author Existence Failure, a literal death of the author.


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