I write. I’ve debated the validity of this statement in the past, and I’ve decided–based on desire, publications, and output–that I am a writer. I also consider a readership to be (kind of) important in that. I’m not saying that one needs to be listed on the New York Times Best Sellers list, but I wrote for a long time before I started letting people read it. I never felt like a writer until I knew people were bringing my art into themselves and doing whatever with it.
Additionally, I’m a reader. I study other writers. It’s part of the job, right? In fact, I just bought Ernest Hemingway’s autobiography, A Moveable Feast. I effing love Hemingway even though I’m not keen on some of his literary practices.
But I bought the book because I want to know more about the man behind some of my favorite stories (see also The Snows of Kilimanjaro). I took a course in autobiography in college, and it is no secret that memoir is one of the top-selling genres in traditional and ebook publishing. It’s safe to assume (but is it ever really safe to assume?) that the reading population is interested in the real life stories of the people who write those stories.
Look at other elements of our culture, though. Talk shows are on almost every hour of every day on some channel somewhere. And on those talk shows, the hosts interview authors, musicians, and directors. We know more than we would ever want to know about Miley Cyrus and Lindsey Lohan, for example.
In 1967, a French literary critic named Roland Barthes penned an essay called “The Death of the Author.” The essay, in true Nietzschean fashion, declared the writer of any literary work dead at the moment when the text is consumed by any reader.
To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author…beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is ‘explained’ –victory to the critic.
In these lines, the argument is that placing emphasis, or even acknowledging, the author of any given text limits the meaning. In other words, if we focus on the author, there is a more fixed meaning. That author can only mean so many things with those words–based on his upbringing, his religion, his time period, his race, his social class. You see, Barthes argues that we restrict the meaning of a text with a whole host of social nets.
A lot of folks in my line of work love that shit, though. They love knowing why someone wrote something. It means that they get to tell students that they are wrong. You’d be surprised at the number of English teachers that start with the old “there are no wrong answers” and end with “except this, that, and the other.” (And certainly there are some wrong answers, but maybe the list of possibilities could be longer..)
Later, Barthes writes about where real meaning is made:
The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.
So it is in the reader where real meaning is made. I want to believe that’s true. I want to believe that I can read/watch/hear something and let it belong to just me and enjoy it for the art that it is, but we live in an age of Celebrity in which we are almost commanded to know more, more, more about the people who create the art we consume.
And that changes the art, doesn’t it? What if we could hear songs without knowing their stories? What if we could read books without knowing their authors? What if we could see Transformers without knowing Micheal Bay’s affinity for making terrible movies? Would we be better at enjoying it with that expectation removed?
In the coming days, we will explore this idea together through contemporary examples. I hope you’ll stick around.
But until then, what do you think?
Do you like to know the back-stories of the people who make your art?
Why do you think we, in general, want to know as much as possible about the people who make the things we enjoy?
Where does it come from?