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.
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>.