There are many points of view and schools of thought regarding the importance of the author in relationship to the work which he/she has created. Some would say that the background of an author should be made known to those who are reading the work of a particular writer; while others would say that the reader should let the individual works of the author stand alone, allowing the language to speak independently. After reading Roland Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author” and Michel Foucault’s essay “What is an Author?” I have come to a synthesis of these ideas and would have to say: it all depends.
What I mean by this, is that there are times where a great work can stand alone, be significant, all without a bit of information about the author. Yet there are times when this is just not the case. Many pieces of literature can be enhanced once a reader becomes aware of an author’s personal life, struggles, triumphs, and historical context. These aspects can add to the enjoyment of reading the work, shed light on the themes which are present in the work, or even help the reader to understand why the author choose to write a work regarding a particular topic.
For example, if one is to read The Dairy of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, one would not be able to separate the significance of the author with the work itself. The reader is with Anne, hiding from the SS, during a dark period in world history. The work and the author are one in the same. A similar experience would occur if a reader were to read Elie Wiesel’s Night. One cannot help but to take the journey with the author and come as close as anyone would want to regarding such an experience of horror and atrocity. If the reader was unaware of the elements of WWII, he/she has now been informed.
I recently read The Giver by Lois Lowry, and I enjoyed it very much. I knew very little about the author, but the work had a significant impact on me. In this case, I didn’t know much about Lois Lowry, but by reading The Giver, I would like to know more about her, and also read the remainder of the works in The Giver Quartet. There are times when a great work can spark your interest in the author. I would say the same regarding a writer like Sylvia Plath. If a reader had never been exposed to Plath’s poetry, once in, you are in and going for a ride. Any reader would be hard pressed to let a poem like “The Rabbit Catcher” just stand alone, with no background information on the author. The two are too intimately interwoven. Once a reader has read “The Rabbit Catcher,” he/she can move on to Ted Hughes, her husband’s response poem with the same title.
I like the idea of presenting individual chapters of a work to my students, and not letting them know anything about the author. I feel that a good book to try this ELA experiment with would be Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman. Each chapter of the book introduces a different character who slowly becomes involved in a community garden in urban Chicago. The diversity of the characters is the key here. I believe that my students would speculate many possible backgrounds for an unknown author. It would be interesting to see what they come up with, and why.
So in the end, yes, it all depends. Can a great work of literature stand alone, without a connection to the author? It is possible and it does happen. In each great work, there are elements of who the author truly is. He/she may not write him/herself as a character in the work, but to one degree or another, the author is present. A piece of writing given birth by one’s brain, experience, education, and passion. How significant is the author to the reader? It just may bring one’s experience of the work to a new level of appreciation. It all depends on each of us as a reader.
Justin J. Gallagher