The Significance of the Author: It All Depends

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

March 2016

 

Advertisements

What’s in a Name?

 

After reading Foucault’s “What is an Author?” and Barthes’s “The Death of the Author” I still couldn’t answer the essential question “should the identity of an author impact a reader’s interpretation of a text?” I believe this is because for the most part I believe the identity of the author does impact how the text is interpreted whether we want it to or not.

For example, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is one of my favorite books and has been very influential to me in many ways. I don’t think I could separate Plath’s own life and the struggles Esther’s (the protagonists) goes through and have the same kind of connection or impact it had. Having known Plath’s own struggle with depression prior to reading the novel is what makes the story so much more real and why so many connect with it. I know when I first read it as an undergrad and English major just weeks before graduating I felt as if I wasn’t crazy, someone else had felt as I feel. If I later found out that a man wrote this book that had never struggled with depression, I would have felt cheated and deceived. It is in the knowing that there is a connection between the author and reader that makes the impact so strong. However, Barthes believes “ 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” (1325). I believe Plath (as am I) would be perfectly okay with that.

Although there are times when I know quite a lot about the author before reading a book, there are also times when I know next to  nothing. Currently I am reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami knowing nothing other than it was published in the 90’s by a Japanese writer and has 133,833 4/5 star ratings. Still as I was thinking of the essential question all the books I have read that created an impact on me, the author was a crucial part of that as well.  Another example of this is Edgar Allan Poe. I teach mood and tone reading Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” as part of the curriculum. Prior to reading the short story we read a short biography as a play because I feel it is important that my students understand what his life was like, his heart breaks, loneliness, and despair, prior to reading his works. How could one possibly read the poem Annabelle Lee without knowing he wrote it for his young wife who died of the same illness that took his mother at a young age? So many of his works were influenced by his life experiences that it is important to know the author to feel his work.

We all know Poe himself is a man of mystery and he has once veiled the gender of one of his narrators and many critics believe it was a very purposeful decision. In “The Tell-Tale Heart” there is an unknown, nameless narrator. In the story there is only “I” used, no gender pronouns so the reader can put themselves in the place of the narrator or analyze the story debating if the outcome would change if the narrator was female or male. Some critics believe that Poe being a male author would assume that readers would know it was a male narrator but the idea is plausible either way.

During this conversation my class also discusses authors such as J.K Rowling and why she used her initials and not her full name when publishing her books and you would not believe how many of my students did not know that the author is indeed female. In this case gender veiling worked. I explained that she and the publishers were afraid that seeing a female writer on the book would deter boys from reading them and by the conversation in my class, I believe they were right. We also discuss the reverse in gender veiling, I have not seen or heard of any instances of the reverse happening (male authors shielding their gender). I did some research and found an article titled “Meet the Male Writers Who Hide Their Gender to Attract Female Readers” who interviewed three authors who use initials to simply sell more books when asked how one author feels about it he seemed to be in it for the money. “Does it help to be identified as a woman, or to have no gender at all?” asks Thomas. “No one can say for sure, but it is certainly arguable. And given that every ‘debut’ novelist wants to give themselves every possible chance, why take the modest risk that using a male name might bring? Why not just use initials? Get rid of gender altogether?” This got me thinking, during a time when gender and sexuality is so fluid what would happen if authors only used initials? Would all potential readers run to their nearest devices to look up photographs and biography information or would we stop caring about the author and more about the text? In this case would Bathes and Foucault be more understood in their beliefs? Would this then end the prejudices that are still a problem today just as it was for the Bronte sisters in the 1800’s?

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” 1967. Rpt. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch, William E. Cain, Laurie Finke, Barbara Johnson, John McGowan, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Jeffrey J. Williams. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. 1322-1326. Print.

 

Oswell, Paul. “Meet the Male Writers Who Hide Their Gender to Attract Female Readers.” Alternet. 11 Aug. 15. Web. 22 Mar. 16. .

Authors’ Impretents Throughout Ages

Throughout the reading, I found it very difficult to see where Barthes and Foucault were coming from.  To me, an author always has a purpose for writing, therefore, it is nearly impossible for me to separate an author from his work. An author is always inspired whether it be by a life experience, a deadline, or by money to write. I see contradictions in the fact that Barthes and Foucault clearly have a belief that they want to convey through writing.  I can concede that, “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 (1325).  I don’t think knowing Barthes’ or Foucault’s background would matter in reading either of their essays.  It doesn’t changing the message or meaning.  However, knowing their background wouldn’t box in the reader, like how Barthes’ believes.  Everyone has their own experience when reading, so it wouldn’t box anyone in.  For example, I have read The Catcher in the Rye several times in my life and every time I’ve read it, I’ve had a different experience with it.  Knowing about J.D. Salinger and his tendency to be a recluse didn’t and doesn’t affect my reading of the novel.  It helps me understand the motivation behind Holden Caulfield’s behavior and how lonely he is, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that either just because I know that J.D. Salinger preferred to be alone.  Barthes mentions a could of times how writing is made up of all kinds of quotes and cultures, like, “The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (1324).  I guess, in a sense, he could be saying that knowing the background of the author doesn’t matter because his product comes from so many other places, but to me, that would just mean that there are so many more things the reader should understand before reading a text.

I can also understand Barthes’ and Foucault’s arguments from the lense of reading a book for pleasure, for simply just the story.  In reading Jane Eyre without knowing anything about Charlotte Bronte, the reader experiences a very interesting story with many characters that you can relate to, but also many characters that you can’t relate to either.  It’s like going to the movies where the audience doesn’t usually know a ton about the director or writer or producer because the audience goes in with the suspension of disbelief.  In studying literature, or film for that matter, I don’t think you are truly studying the text unless you know all the aspects of it.  Did the fact that Charlotte Bronte, and her sisters, all wrote with a male pen name affect the novel?  Did how Charlotte Bronte grow up influence the story she wrote?  These are all important aspects that must be analyzed for students to understand a novel, especially in this day in age where students are so curious, but also don’t fully understand unless you bring this biographical context in as well.

As a teacher, I think I go back to the statement I made earlier that an author always has a purpose for writing.  I think it is important to focus on this because it usually lends itself to cross curricular instruction.  Teaching The Crucible could lend to history through both the Salem Witch Trials and the fact that Miller was using the play as an allegory for the Red Scare.  With Shakespeare, you can give the historical context of the play as well as Shakespeare himself, while possibly lending the math and science to build a model of the Globe theatre.  With The Odyssey, it’s always important to discuss the oral tradition of Homer’s time to give the context of the style.  The only time I can see a pure break from the author through teaching is perhaps through teaching non-fiction, for the most part.  You don’t need to know the author’s experiences to read a biography of someone, however, it is important to know if that person is credible, so knowing about the author could be vital even in those instances.

Identity of an Author

Reading and analyzing Foucault’s “What is an Author?” and Barthes’s “ The Death of the Author” allowed for an understanding of a Post-Structuralism approach to analyzing text and also an understanding the role that the identity of an author can have, or not have, on a given text. When critically analyzing texts it is important to take into consideration a variety of perspectives in order to create a well-rounded interpretation. Taking into consideration the author’s identity, as well as disregarding it, allows for different perspectives of the same text, which students can use to think critically and become critical readers.

Post-Structuralism literary criticism takes the approach of disregarding the author’s identity and opposes the analysis of literary text based and centered on the author of that given text. Both Foucault and Barthes believed that literary criticism should focus on the reader and their culture and society instead of focusing on the author’s biographical, personal, or cultural circumstances. In “The Death of the Author” Barthes states “The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his life, his tastes, his passions, while criticism still consists for the most part in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of Baudelaire the man, Van Gogh’s his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice. The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us” (Barthes, 1322). Barthes argues that literary work should not be analyzed by the information about the person who created but instead should focus on a reader response critical theory. “Thus is revealed the total existence of writing: a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not as, was hitherto said, the author” (Barthes, 1325). Teaching students to disregard the author will teach them that writing can have many interpretations and doesn’t need to be limited by the biographical, personal, or cultural circumstances of the author.

Although, Foucault pointed out that some types of texts have not always needed authors and were accepted and circulated without the need of knowing the author’s identity, the identity of the author can greatly impact the interpretation of a text. Authorship matters and is not only used for classification but an author’s biographical information can also be used to interpret a text and help put it into context. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s biographical information has been used with several different literary critical theories, which have resulted in many interpretation of Jane Eyre. In “The Father, Castration and Female Fantasy in Jane Eyre”, Dianne Sadoff uses Bronte’s family history, especially her relationship with her father, to connect and critically read Jane Eyre from a psychoanalytical perspective.

As an instructor I feel that it is important to allow students to understand that there are multiple perspectives to critically analyzing and interpreting a text and that knowing the identity of an author and the author’s background can lead to an interesting, new, and different perspective. Student’s can learn a great deal by understanding the gender, race, or nationality of an author and how it ties into the context of their work. Understanding when, and when not, to take and author’s identity into consideration and the perspectives that come with the decision will help students’ develop into well-rounded critical readers.

Keeping an Open Attitude toward Authorship

After reading Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author” and Michel Foucault’s “What Is an Author?”, I believe that both arguments have merit and, as such, critical readers would benefit most from learning how to both consider and disregard the identity of an author when interpreting a text. What I mean is that readers should be able to shift gears and question a text from all directions, ultimately arriving at the certainty that there is probably no certainty when it comes to delineating the extent of the author’s presence. What is certain, however, is that pondering the dueling presence and absence of the author is what makes for interesting discussions about the texts we read.

One benefit of approaching a text as Barthes does–with the belief that writing is “voiceless” or “neutral” (Barthes 1322)–is that the text then becomes open and accessible to all who read it. The reader need not have any biographical knowledge of the text’s author to make meaning of the text. Using textual evidence alone, any reader may engage in thoughtful argumentation about how the elements of a text combine to create meaning. As Barthes suggests, this frees the text from being “tyrannically centered on the author” (1322) and allows “the birth of the reader” (1326), which I think could be an empowering idea for young readers especially. If young readers understand a text as containing many supportable meanings or “multiplicity” (1325), they might see more room for themselves as literary analysts.

I definitely saw this engagement with meaning-making while studying with my freshman English students the poem “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks. The students had so many different interpretations to offer about words and phrases appearing in the poem, such as “Jazz June” (Brooks 9)–interpretations which would not have arisen had I shown them an interview with Brooks in which she explains her intention with each line. Imagine what learning opportunities would have been lost had the author been fully present from the start!

On the other hand, considering, at least, the potential “author-function”, as Foucault does, acknowledges the elephant in the room–the reality that, in general, readers care about authorship and the concept of authorship matters in our society. Furthermore, authors care about authorship, many writers consider their works to be deeply personal, and one of the most beautiful aspects of writing is that it allows for an empathic connection between reader and writer.

To illustrate this concept is another experience with my freshman English students, our study of the poem “Fast Break” by Edward Hirsch. Sitting with the text alone and noticing how the poem opens with an epitaph, “In Memory of Dennis Turner, 1946-1984” (Hirsch),  students can understand right away that there is some connection between this lost loved one and the content of the poem–a detailed, moment-by-moment description of a young man’s completion of a basketball play. However, in my opinion, the poem achieves its greatest impact when its reading is followed by the presence of the author, captured in a short YouTube video from the American Academy of poets, “Poet-to-Poet: Edward Hirsch, ‘Fast Break’” (Poets.org). In this video, Hirsch explains not only the story behind the poem’s creation but also the intended symbolism of the poem’s imagery–meanings which may or may not be evident by examining the text in isolation.

I and many of my students have found this video to be worth watching, I think, because it reminds us that writing doesn’t always need a narrator detached from the author, a  “second self” (Foucault 1484). Nor does the author necessarily become “a victim of his own writing” (1478) or lose the power of immortalizing the self or others through writing (1477). Allowing some wiggle room to consider connections between a text and its author ensures that writing can still be personal and human. Moreover, it can still have layers that will only be visible with the help of another person or another text.

Perhaps beginning with an authorless reading of a text, as Barthes would recommend, and then considering the potential value of some biographical criticism, as Foucault would recommend, is a way to find a happy medium between these apparently disparate approaches to literary criticism. Being open-minded to both approaches makes the most sense to me because I think the point of learning about literary criticism is to be able to look through many different lenses. As a teacher, I hope that this is one of the lasting lessons that students will take with them when they graduate from high school: the world is better when people take the time to consider how others–perhaps people of different genders, races, nationalities, sexual orientations, etc.–experience and express their lives.

 

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” 1967. Rpt. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch, William E. Cain, Laurie Finke, Barbara Johnson, John McGowan, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Jeffrey J. Williams. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. 1322-1326. Print.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. “We Real Cool.” The Bean Eaters. New York: Harpers, 1960. Print.

Foucault, Michel. “What Is an Author?” 1969. Rpt. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch, William E. Cain, Laurie Finke, Barbara Johnson, John McGowan, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Jeffrey J. Williams. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. 1475-1490. Print.

Hirsch, Edward. “Fast Break.” Wild Gratitude. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.

Leitch, Vincent B., William E. Cain, Laurie Finke, Barbara Johnson, John McGowan, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Jeffrey J. Williams, eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.

Poets.org. “Poet-to-Poet: Edward Hirsch, “Fast Break”” YouTube. YouTube, 4 Feb. 2014. Web. 20 Mar. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BfgleFAyaY&gt;.

Controversial Cultural Studies Incorporated into The Diary of Anne Frank and the use of Propaganda

As you can imagine introducing any controversial topic to eighth graders from a small rural community is a challenge. Of course depending on your administration it may be easier if you have their support. For example, if my content coordinator came into my class to observe or evaluate me as I was teaching a lesson that incorporated Marxism she wouldn’t question my choice, trusting my teaching abilities, experience, and knowledge. However, as public school teacher I am not sure I would feel comfortable straying away from the common core standards that much. In the last five years our creative ability and teaching freedom has been slowly taken away. Student success on state testing and our teacher evaluations are now linked, this means if our students don’t show a significant amount of growth, our jobs are at risk. As you can imagine this is why ‘teaching to the test’ is becoming an epidemic through many districts.

Cultural studies have never been part of the eighth grade curriculum and we have little say of what are units consists of based on the constrictions of the common core standards and the limited available resources. It is difficult for me to even image bringing up Marxism to my students considering just bringing a pencil to class is considered a huge success on most days. I wouldn’t necessarily stay away from saying specific words like Marxism mostly because my students wouldn’t know they were “hot button” words at all. However, I would need to take a middle ground to be strategic in how I introduced the topics in a lesson so the students are engaged and also retain the information once they leave my classroom.

One way I could include Marxism and cultural theory in the classroom is when I teach the drama unit which revolves around a play adaption of The Diary of Anne Frank. I have a lot of interviews, primary documents, posters, videos, and articles that are incorporate into the unit. Some of these are propaganda postcards with images of Hitler building highways and making improvements as well propaganda children’s books depicting Jews as animals.

Prior to this unit I would have taught a small lesson on propaganda during the dystopian unit as an extra credit assignment. Students can create a poster based on the book with guideline and use of examples. For a refresher and a more in depth explanation I would begin with this video  https://youtu.be/-WpFzTplp28. This does a great job explaining what propaganda is as well as the history and the role of mass media influencing the use on a much larger scale. There is also discussion on Hitler’s use and his opinion on propaganda with ties the unit together.

After the propaganda video and some discussion I would show the biography of Theodor W. Adoro https://youtu.be/4YGnPgtWhsw and explain how he was an influential socialist in Germany after WWII who made valuable contributions how he blamed the use of mass media such as the propaganda and the complacency of society to be so easily manipulated for the Holocaust to continue. I can also take this further and ask students if they can give me examples of modern day propaganda just to see how aware they are or if they are like the complacent society that Adoro describes. Are we being easily manipulated by mass media and so easily influenced by what is being projected that we lose sight on what is important?  I can then show the students modern examples of propaganda such as “MODERN DAY WARFARE” which is a great example of internet propaganda http://www.skiptomalouuu.com/2011/10/modern-day-warfare.html as well as commercials and they can identify which technique is being used to persuade https://youtu.be/0eWPbr_KzN4

From the video:

1) Simple solutions (Google)

2) Name calling, card stacking, repetition (Bounty)

3) Appeal to tradition, emotional transfer (Gap)

4) wit and humor, simple solutions, small print (Boost Mobile)

5) repetition, jingle, plain folks (Clapper)

6) jingle, bandwagon (Snuggie)

7) wit and humor (Doritos)

As a writing piece students  can compare the difference between the propaganda used in WWII and the propaganda used now. Students can also write about the differences between how we use or free time and if that influence our subconscious. This lesson could be a great lead in activity to reading The Wave by Todd Strassar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Integrating Controversial Critical Theory into the Classroom

Implementing controversial and ideological charged concepts into classroom curriculum can be a challenging task for teachers, especially when dealing with controversial topics such as Marxism. I believe we must take into consideration several aspects when making this decision and try to find the best method to incorporate these types of ideology. We must look at the complexity of the material and find ways to make it easier for students to comprehend. We must also establish an environment for learning that fosters critical thinking and open- mindedness. Critical thinking is a very important tool for high school students to learn and teachers should strive, not only to educate students, but also to help develop well-rounded individuals that are capable of thinking for themselves and developing their own ideas about particular material, despite how controversial it may be. When developing and teaching a unit in literature and class, that incorporates critical theory like Marxism, I believe it is my duty, as an educator, to find a middle ground, in which, I am able to provide material and instruction objectively using outright terms but also subtle enough to avoid overwhelming students.

Before incorporating these concepts and introducing them to my students, I believe it would be important and necessary to first introduce literary theory to them. It is very important for students to understand that various theories exist and that literary theory is a means of understanding the various ways people read texts. Students will grasp the idea that “All literary theories are lenses through which we can see texts”(Appleman). Students will also understand that theses theories, controversial or not, are the proponent’s ideas and using these theories we can read texts through different perspectives regardless to whether we agree with them or not.

Critical theory is important in implementing critical thinking in literature and when teaching my students about controversial topics, such as Marxism, I wouldn’t be afraid to use Marxist terms, despite them having negative connotations. I would give students background information on Karl Marx and think it is very important for students to have an understanding of his background and his contributions. I believe vocabulary is very important in understanding Marxism/social class theory and simplifying difficult terminology is a crucial in helping students learn content, but we should not shy away from using Marxist terms. When thinking of the best way to integrate this critical theory, I believe I would take more of a subtle approach. Instead of diving deep into “From the Communist Manifesto”, which students would find very overwhelming, I would introduce main ideas that Marxism, such as class structure, capitalism, and the allocation of power in different groups of society. Discussion on how these terms would apply to the world we live in would allow students to make connections. In the society we live in today students are already aware that their exists a separation of classes and a culture of the haves and have- nots. Taking this into consideration, we could discuss why this exists and Marx’s thoughts were on it. Reading material from Deborah Appleman displays different methods and alternative ways of introducing this type of controversial material. Reading passages from Hamlet and The Great Gatsby, through a Marxist lens, are perfect examples of how we can integrate this critical theory for high school students in a more subtle way. By introducing literary criticism and controversial concepts we accomplish the task of opening student’s eyes to different perspectives while teaching them to think critically.