So I’m on Week 6 of my literary theory class, and I’ve discovered that I actually like it. Like literature itself, it’s a conversation. A dialogue. And in the best way, it’s skeptical of itself and its own conclusions. It’s curious about consciousness—where it comes from and how it creates our reading experience. And literary theory in the twentieth century kicks off with a great question, a question that my own biases lead me to expect straight white men never to ask:
Who is an author?
And why do we think this idea matters so much?
Foucault and Barthes: Do authors even exist?
Well now there’s a question for you. On the surface, I thought this looked more like philosophy than literary theory. Weren’t these two Frenchmen getting a little too far “out there” to be useful? I mean, of course authors exist.
But neither of them mean the people whose graves we visit, whose birth and death dates accompany short stories printed in anthologies. They don’t mean the individuals who had favorite colors and failed marriages and a barrage of health troubles. They mean the author as a concept. Which I get. Okay. I understand being a little skeptical of the auteur. No artwork is made in isolation.
And this is precisely their point, though they make it in different ways and with slightly different slants. In his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes argues that everything ever written is necessarily “a tissue of citations” drawn from all the ideas, texts, people, cultures, and histories that a person inevitably contains. In a rather Jungian move, he even suggests we consider the unconscious as a further source, and one that is more significant than any conscious intention on a so-called author’s part. An author, he posits, is only an author inside a text. Outside it, as in the writing of it, the “author” is just a human being not unlike any other—a product of their time and society and experiences, mirroring that more than anything else.
Michel Foucault, who really is a philosopher, takes this in an even more abstract direction. In his essay “What Is an Author?” printed in English in 1977, he says the author isn’t even a person at all, ever. There is no author to argue about, and so the whole question of whether the author is dead is hogwash. “Author” is just a function, a kind of social role. And like any function in society, it is more determined by questions of copyright and property law, means of production and dissemination, as well as elements that control the text itself: genre, historical period, style, and the culture’s pervasive ideologies at the time.
Okay. So this is all cool stuff, and I see how this lays a foundation for much later interrogations of masculine, white, and straight hegemonies in the literary establishment. But you can see some problems with it. I mean, Barthes is wandering dangerously close to behaviorism, which argues that cognition is irrelevant. Which we now know is simply not true (thanks to Cognitive Behavior Therapy and other highly effective educational and health models). We are all constantly making choices, and what we think and how we think about it, is one of those choices. So yikes. You kind of missed a crucial piece of the puzzle there, Barthes.
Foucault, in my view, is a lot harder to fault. I mean, he’s right. He’s taking a kind of Marxist view of authorship as a legal and economic function that plays a role in determining the shape of a text. And in some ways, I agree. Absolutely. Everything we write, from a grocery list to an email to a novel, is grounded in what we know and have experienced, which is entirely due to our background and education. We can only react to or challenge what already exists. We can only imagine and build with what we already have. This certainly leads to the creation of new genres and styles, but these are always firmly rooted in what has come before. It seems pretty obvious when you put it like that, and this is maybe the only real problem I have with Foucault.
If an author is just a role, a function, like “teacher” or “parent” or “bus driver,” okay. But so what?
Wimsatt and Beardsley: Does the author even matter?
Their essay actually preceded Barthes and Foucault by a couple decades, but I think “The Intentional Fallacy” (1946) fits snugly right here in the conversation. While Barthes and Foucault are bickering over the importance of the (usually) white man that stood then at the center of the literary world, Wimsatt and Beardsley clear their throats and demand why are we so focused on this anyway?
And this is my favorite part of academic discourse. You think we’re all talking about one thing, and then someone comes along and says, “Well, what if we swing the telescope this way 45 degrees? How do things look then?” And usually, they look radically different.
Call me a pyromaniac, but I love it when experiments like literary theory blow up in my face.
So okay, Wimsatt and Beardsley, lay it on me.
And they do. They say, look. A lot of writers are absolute crap at talking about their own work.
I nod. I studied a lot of art history in college, and this is true there, too. A lot of artist statements in the visual arts are gibberish. The only artist I studied who was really smart about this was Georgia O’Keeffe. She refused to explicate her own work to critics, instead saying:
When you took time to really notice my flower, you hung all your associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see – and I don’t.
Okay then, they say. So if artists aren’t great at talking about their own work, why don’t we just look at their work? We need to judge the merits of a text by what it contains, how it’s structured, and how successfully it conveys certain experiences, ideas, and feelings to the reader.
Ooh! I like this idea. It is the death knell to fanboys everywhere. You don’t get to reference the canon. You don’t get to tell me The Mandalorian makes sense if only you would read these three books and those graphic novels. You don’t get to add dozens of footnotes to your own poem just to make sure everyone “gets” all your references to ancient Greek literature (here’s looking at you, T.S. Eliot). If your poem or your novel or your TV show doesn’t work unless a reader-viewer has already read dozens of other texts, well then. According to Beardsley and Wimsatt, it sucks.
Look at The Mandalorian‘s first episode. I’ve been a Star Wars fan all my life, so much so that I’ve committed social suicide by attending screenings in full Leia regalia. But I’m not familiar with the Mandalorian mythology, so I have no idea what the fuck is going on.
Now look at Watchmen. This is based on what is routinely listed as one of the top graphic novels of all time. And you know what? I’ve never read it. And I can follow every single episode without the slightest trouble. The Watchmen writers are brilliant. There are references. Of course there are. But if you don’t know Laurie’s backstory with all the other “yahoos” as she calls them in the TV show, guess what? The writers will fill you in as needed. And not as exposition, but as succinct and effective character development (man, that phone call to Dr. Manhattan…).
This is what Beardsley and Wimsatt are saying. If it’s important, it belongs in the text. And this is what Kurt Vonnegut said, too. “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible.”
Having to ask an author what they meant or what they intended is, according to Beardsley and Wimsatt, just dumb. If you have to do that, then they’ve failed.
Wolfgang Iser: It’s really the reader who matters.
And here we come to my favorite dude of the group so far: Mr. Iser. Basically, his whole case is that you don’t have a book if you don’t have a reader. Unlike the question of a tree falling in a forest, writing is a form of communication. So if no one is there to receive it, then it ain’t communication.
Of course, Iser says it better.
“The convergence of text and reader brings the literary work into existence.”
But here’s why I adore Iser. He doesn’t leave it at that. He dives deep into the reading experience itself: how it works, what it’s like, and what makes it so pleasurable. “Reading,” he argues, “is only a pleasure when it is active and creative.”
So yes, Mr. Beardsley and Mr. Wimsatt, you need to give the reader all the information they need to make sense of your text. But nothing more.
Iser argues that there needs to be a little space for the reader. There needs to be something for us to imagine. In a recent Guardian Books podcast, Ann Patchett stated that she’d only described two or three details about the house central to her latest novel The Dutch House. But she says so many of her readers have approached her, saying that they have such a vivid image of the house. They know it intimately.
This is because, Iser argues, they created it.
As a reader, I know what he means. I know one young, developing writer who spends most of her scenes describing every single movement that every single character makes. There is absolutely nothing left to the imagination, and I get bored about a third of the way into every scene. An author I’m reading right now, whose prose is otherwise spartan, suddenly details five or six or seven things in a row whenever her character enters a new room. I spend so much time trying to memorize the orientation of a bed to a wall, to the dresser, to a side table, to a bouquet of flowers, to a rug, to the pattern of the curtains that I am completely taken out of the moment and end up feeling like I’m in an interior design class instead.
Iser tells us that if you write, “A woman walks into a room,” the reader instantly imagines several possibilities. Maybe we imagine a black woman, a white woman, a Latinx woman. We read “walks,” so we picture her shoes. Nursing shoes. Or heels. Or canvas tennis shoes. And we picture the room. Is it a boardroom? A classroom? A drawing room 200 years ago? Is she at the head of it? Or does she enter as an interloper? An outsider?
Gradually, the author narrows down a few of these options. Maybe we learn the woman is black. She’s in a boardroom.
But we still have those possible shoes she’s wearing. That’s our invention. And this makes her our character, and ours alone. It gives us the sense of intimacy and familiarity in the act of reading that we don’t get to have in a play or a film.
So we read another sentence, “Her eyes shifted towards the woman in the corner.”
Is this her secretary? Her lover? Her sister? Again, we have another explosion of possibilities. Again, the author whittles a few of them down. But we still retain a shadow of some of the possibilities we thought of, possibilities that may not occur to other readers, and these possibilities influence our experience of the text and make it unique to us.
This is why I love Iser. Whatever and whoever an author is, dead or alive, real or invented, and no matter how successful the text is to critics, our experience reading it is ours and ours alone. As Iser says later in his essay, in our reading process, “we bring to the fore an element of our being of which we are not directly conscious.” And this creative act of reading, of forever inventing a dozen possibilities, of dancing with the text, allows us to discover ourselves, to learn from the experiences of the characters as if they were our own.
He puts down, in precise but nuanced language, exactly what makes the reading process so magical. And I love him for it.