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Death of the Author

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"I swear, this novel will be the end of me."

"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

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Death of the Author is a concept from mid-20th Century literary criticism, named after Roland Barthes's groundbreaking 1967 essay on the subject. It holds that an author's intentions and background (including their politics and religion) should hold no special weight in determining how to interpret their work. This is usually understood to mean that a writer's views about their own work are no more or less valid than the interpretation of the reader.

To us Tropers, this is a very interesting concept. We have an entire wiki full of works that list the tropes that appear therein. But sometimes, the list of tropes that we think are clearly present in the work is not the same as the list of tropes that the author intended to be there. In other words, the fact that the author intended to include or omit a trope doesn't mean they succeeded. And on This Very Wiki, the term "Death of the Author" can be used to illustrate this concept, and to point out that Word of God saying that a trope is or isn't present in the work doesn't mean it actually is.


But, as with many things, it's a little bit more complicated than that:

Different ways to read a book

The first issue with Death of the Author is that there is more than one way to read a book. You can extract the plain meaning from the words themselves. Or you can go deeper, looking for subtext, re-reading for something you can only catch the second time around, putting together the Narrative Filigree into a coherent whole. The latter is what's called close reading. A trope might be present in a close reading that might not in a simple reading.

Indeed, Roland Barthes's essay refers only to close reading, specifically of a story by Honoré de Balzac. He notes simply how in the act of writing a complex work, Balzac's voice as an author diffuses into multiple planes, so that one cannot know from a close reading if the narrative voice, character voice, and plot voice truly express the author's perspective. In other words, it is impossible to truly extract insight into the full range of Balzac's thoughts, viewpoints, and beliefs from a close reading of the work. Barthes does not deny that they are present, that they might be useful to interpretation of the work, or that they can be made clear with a basic reading of the book, just looking at the fundamental plot points and story beats.


This more limited view of Death of the Author is not what most people mean when they refer to it. Most people think it means you shouldn't see what the author meant; Barthes, on the other hand, says you can't, at least if you're reading closely. But we can be fair to Barthes because he was writing specifically about a 19th Century author who, while certainly popular, didn't have a vocal fanbase who had questions about everything and a medium to transmit their discussions and views to a wider community. In this day and age, it's much easier to ask the author what they meant, whether through television or the Internet. And they get asked so often that it's hard to stay consistent, meaning that authors can very well change what they "meant" from one year to the next. When they fail to stay consistent with respect to even the major themes or concepts, authorial intent becomes a self-contradiction, and Death of the Author — in the modern sense, not Barthes's — is the only way to go.

Interestingly, this leads to the delicious irony that Roland Barthes, at least once in his lifetime, had to tell people discussing his essay that their interpretation of it wasn't what he meant at all.

Different media have different ways of seeing

Roland Barthes was a literary critic writing specifically about books. Does Death of the Author apply to non-books? It turns out that the material nature of the medium, and the logistics of producing a work, often require some clarity as to authorial intent.

For instance, if you're making a film, there's a lot more to it than words on a page. And in most cases the director, cast, and crew need to know everything about what they're doing. How are we going to read this line? How are we going to frame this scene? What are we going to wear? How do we light the set? Which effects are we going to use, and how much? Where are we going to film? All of these questions require more and more people to be on the same page — cinematographers, costumers, even the hosts when filming on location. This leaves less room for the author to be ignorant of the impact and reception of their work, and Death of the Author defences in such cases can be disingenuous — or even dangerous.

Take Triumph of the Will, for example. Its director Leni Riefenstahl made it during the Nazi era and knew full well that she was making a Propaganda Piece. But after the war, she insisted that she herself had no political intentions and that the work should be judged purely on its artistic merits, not on its politics. But the claim is belied by the obvious logistical implications of the entire production. Rather than mere words on a page extolling Hitler and the Nazi party, Riefenstahl made use of her cinematic skill to visually exhibit them in the most flattering possible light — which had to be a conscious directorial decision. Every scene, every draft, every script, every editing session was overseen by the Nazi political establishment, and all changes therein were publicly documented. So in looking at what changed between iterations and the process of making the whole film, it's a lot easier to discern what Riefenstahl intended than if she had just written a book.

The other thing to think about with film, and other visual media, is that it is necessarily the reproduction of an image in the artist's head — and it will almost never be a perfect one. This leads to the phenomenon of the Director's Cut, wherein a director will present a new version of the same work which is explicitly more in line with his authorial intent. In many cases, this isn't even a matter of a director rethinking what they did before (although there is a lot of that — as they say, "the perfect is the enemy of the good"), but rather having access to techniques, technology, or freedom from Executive Meddling that they didn't have before, allowing them to get closer to their vision than they did the first time.

Poetry is another weird one, because the "plain text" of the work takes a back seat to wordsmithing, and poets are usually given freer rein to present their thoughts more artfully than bluntly. This goes back to 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 — 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, but the fact that the poets had reached such a different impact in plain text than in poetic language suggests that in this particular medium, "intent" doesn't mean very much.

When wordsmithing outside of artistic fields, though, Death of the Author is something of a hindrance. If you're in a court of law and tasked to interpret a piece of legislation, authorial intent absolutely does matter — and indeed, a lawyer can cite evidence of legislative intent by quoting debates and speeches in the legislative chamber when the law was written. This does raise the question of whether the legislators would still have this intent if they were writing the law today (e.g. modern debates about provisions of the U.S. Constitution written in the late 18th Century). This is also Older Than Feudalism; for instance, Jewish sages have argued that the Torah is "not in Heaven" and that their own interpretation of the law can supplant the author's, even when the author is God. This is why authorial intent takes a backseat to the plain language of the law itself. Indeed, many times authorial intent can be gleaned from the plain text of the law (after all, if Balzac wrote your laws, you live in a weird country); lawmakers are smart people, and if they meant for something to be interpreted a certain way, they're certainly capable of writing it in such a way as to leave no doubt. A well-written legal code or contract could be "artistic" in its own way if it achieves this in an elegant manner.

Books are for interpretation, but there's a lot to interpret

Death of the Author raises the question of why an author writes to begin with. Are they opening their minds and souls to a greater audience, or are they giving the audience a piece of work to adapt to their own needs? It's probably a little from Column A, a little from Column B.

This is an important balance. If only the author's intent matters, much of the enjoyment of the work is eliminated; you're simply wandering around inside the author's head. People dislike Author Tracts for a reason — it's not fun to be told what to think at every turn. But if the author's intent doesn't matter at all, then you've removed the only objective standard by which to interpret a text, and every reader's insane interpretation is equally as valid as the author's.

J. R. R. Tolkien illustrated this by distinguishing allegory from applicability; allegory is what the author intended, whereas applicability is not necessarily what the author intended but is a valid way of looking at things. He did this in the context of interpretation of The Lord of the Rings and the extent to which it paralleled his personal experiences, such as his fighting in World War I. Tolkien denied that he had written an allegory — in other words, he didn't intend for his fictional world to parallel his own experiences — but was okay with people drawing their own parallels between his works and what they knew about history. To some degree, he knew that people were always going to interpret his work however they liked, and if he insisted that only the author's intent mattered, readers would happily shoehorn his "intent" into their own view of the work. This arguably makes Tolkien an early supporter of the Death of the Author, but that's up for interpretation. (See what we did there?)

Sigmund Freud addressed this directly in his essay "Creative Writing and Daydreaming". He noted that writers who work in popular genres tend to create works more reflective of the tensions and desires of the society as a whole, and more "artistic" writers' works mainly reflect their own sentiments and desires. This draws a sort of line between works, some of which are more tied to authorial intent than others. While there's certainly something to it, this is again the kind of thing Barthes was cautioning against; even when you have a very "artistic" work, one can't fully pick up the author's mindset from the work alone. A little from Column A, a little from Column B.

The stronger interpretation of Death of the Author argues that a work can only be judged by its own words, not by any external knowledge supplied by the author. The idea is that the work is a snapshot of the author's intent at the time he wrote it. As time goes by, the author's opinion changes, because all people change — and eventually the author dies, because all people die, and the work will outlive the author. Therefore, while the author's intent might be important to the interpretation of a work, by the time you get to actually ask him about it, his intent has changed (whether he likes it or not)note  and his answer is no longer applicable to the work. Playwright Alan Bennett claims he responded to students asking for assistance in analysing his works to "treat [him] like a dead author, who [is] thus unavailable for comment." The strongest interpretation of Death of the Author is the postmodernist one, essentially saying that authorial intent is total bunk and everything is up to the reader to interpret fully. (Or at least that's how we interpret it.)

This creates an interesting question with respect to adaptations — while it's technically the same work, the author's intent has necessarily changed between the release of the original and the adaptation, and the adaptation is usually helmed by a different author with more expertise in the new medium. However, the new author dismissing the original author's intent entirely using Death of the Author is highly frowned upon, not just for artistic reasons but also for legal reasons; allowing the new author to totally take over the work kind of defeats the purpose of copyright. This is why even though Tolkien favoured his approach of "applicability", he and his estate still exercised significant control of adaptations of The Lord of the Rings to ensure that the work did not deviate too far from his actual intent.

Indeed, authors tend to be rather insistent on the idea that while a work can be interpreted, authorial intent cannot be dismissed entirely. As Margaret Atwood famously put it, if Death of the Author became the dominant theory, "we [writers] are all in trouble."

Some writers are better than others

One pitfall that adherents of Death of the Author occasionally encounter is the temptation to adopt Freud's division between popular and artistic works. This leads to two problems: first, that such a division cannot be made cleanly, and second, that works rich in interpretation can only be written by "artistic" people. This leads to a further belief that all artists must be intellectuals — in other words, the frankly elitist claim that only the very culturally and philosophically learned are capable of writing a great work of art.

This line of thought is seen most acutely with William Shakespeare, considered to be one of the single greatest writers in the history of the English language, with enormous influence not only on popular culture but on the English language itself. And because smart people read a lot, people who read Shakespeare and understand his work are considered particularly smart. So Shakespeare is firmly on the "artistic" side of things. But this brings up a whole bunch of problems. First, how can we known Shakespeare's authorial intent when he lived in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and so little is known about his personal life? Second, what does it mean when what little we do know suggests that he was a simple alderman's son from Stratford-upon-Avon? Indeed, the idea that "all great artists are intellectuals" led to what is known as the "anti-Stratfordian movement", suggesting that the historical entity we know as William Shakespeare could not have actually written the plays attributed to him because he was a country bumpkin who was incapable of writing such deep philosophical plays with dazzlingly complex characters. As if to further the point, most anti-Stratfordians point to a member of the nobility as the "real" Shakespeare — most often Francis Bacon or Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.

But modern scholarship is nearly unanimous that Shakespeare from Stratford really did write the plays history says he did. The plays' depth comes entirely from command of language, stagecraft, and dramatic intuition — skills which can be intellectualised but are not innately intellectual. Indeed, there was a lot to suggest that the plays were not written by an intellectual (for example, their portrayals of foreign locales were often criticised by knowledgeable people as wildly inaccurate, but Shakespeare didn't care — they served the story well enough). Shakespeare was also a master at Multiple Demographic Appeal and in many instances threw a bone to the Lowest Common Denominator — romance, violence, puns, and naughty language, all things that would place him firmly on the "popular" side of the Freudian divide.

This leads to criticism of the idea of Death of the Author as promoting the elitist view of True Art, when art cannot necessarily be judged by how many different ways one can look at it. Something can be elegant even in its simplicity. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes Hamlet really is just being a Troubled Teen.

What does this mean for me as a Troper?

Having gone through all of this, it's important to keep the following things in mind when you edit the wiki:

  • Do not use this trope to claim there's no such thing as Canon. Tropers who like to insist on their own version of events may cite this trope to claim that their interpretation is just as valid. On this wiki, canon is what counts. The idea that every work is technically open to interpretation does not mean that crazy fan theories are just as valid as what the work explicitly shows. Only what the work shows is what happens.
  • Where the work does not explicitly answer a question, Word of God on its own is not a sufficient answer. This is the converse; the fact that authorial intent means something doesn't mean it means everything. If the work is ambiguous about something, the author coming out later and saying what they really meant doesn't mean it actually happened in the work. Indeed, this is semi-policy for some tropes like Complete Monster, which have very strict definitions to prevent people from fighting over examples.
  • This has nothing to do with Overshadowed by Controversy. Sometimes this trope is cited in cases where an author did something really bad to say that it's okay to consume the author's work without feeling guilty, whether or not their transgressions had anything to do with the work. They very often don't, and it's a matter of debate whether or not it's really appropriate to continue reading such works, but that doesn't have to do with Death of the Author. This trope only has to do with the author's beliefs and behaviour to the extent to which they're actually present in the work.

The bottom line is that Death of the Author is a balance. A work of art is the sum of what the author intended, how they executed it, and how the author sees that intent.

See also Shrug of God (where the author doesn't actually have an opinion on something they wrote), The Walrus Was Paul (where the author explicitly encourages readers to find their own interpretations), Misaimed Fandom (where fans interpret it in a way the author did not intend and doesn't like), and Fanon Discontinuity (where fans know what the author intended but choose to ignore it). Compare the Fiction Identity Postulate and Word of Dante. Not to be confused with an author actually dying — not even before they finish the work, which is covered by Died During Production. (Authors dying after production fall under People Sit on Chairs.)


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