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. .

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