This has been on my mind a lot lately. For a lot of reasons. The premise of the original essay (Roland Barthes, 1967) is that the author should be excluded when considering a work of art. You shouldn’t talk about Beethoven being deaf. You shouldn’t talk about Sylvia Plath having severe depression and committing suicide. You shouldn’t talk about J.K. Rowling’s tweets expanding/explaining the Harry Potter universe.
When critiquing a work, you should only rely on the text within the work itself.
The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; the unity of a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination; but this destination can no longer be personal: the reader is a man without history, without biography, without psychology; he is only that someone who holds gathered into a single field all the paths of which the text is constituted.Page 6
I strongly disagree with this. Both as a writer and a reader. Just a few examples that I think are pertinent – how can you look at Macbeth without looking at James I being Shakespeare’s patron? The Scottish king (son of Mary Queen of Scots) becoming King of England and there is a Scottish play?? The context of that is just too important. The Gunpowder Plot happened during James’ reign (like super early too) – you know, Guy Fawkes’ day… “Catholics were still pissed at the protestants” And I remember talking in college how there MIGHT have been some influences from the Gunpowder Plot in Macbeth – but according to Barthes we shouldn’t have considered that because it isn’t written in the play.
The Scarlet Letter is another great example. There is a long rant about the governor’s house and his walls being covered in bits of glass which meant there is this symbolism about his hypocrisy and blah blah blah (it was high school and I remember rolling my eyes then too). I hated that chapter. I remember sitting in class and thinking to myself “how the hell was I supposed to get that symbolism???” Apparently, you have to understand the context of Puritan austerity and the shiny-pretty of his house doesn’t mesh with the faith… and how the hell would I in my twentieth-century context have known that if I hadn’t been told?
On the other hand, when J.K. Rowling tweeted that Dumbledore was gay I had two thoughts. The first was “who cares?” and the second was “I wish you hadn’t ret-con’ed that” because there is nothing in any of the books to give the least indication of it. Nothing. And does it change Dumbledore’s relationship with anyone in the books? I don’t think so. If she wanted him to be gay, I would rather she did it in the throw-back series she has since published. Now, if she makes sure it’s clear he was gay in the 1930’s/40’s/50’s whatever – sure, he’s gay and the fact when he’s like 90 there is nothing his high school students ever see of that preference la-dee-da. But to just announce it…. It ended up feeling forced and weird to me. (Don’t get me wrong, I think it adds tragedy and poignancy to the Grimwald story if they were lovers and I think it would be awesome).
There is also the second half of Barthes’ claim that I take to point:
the reader is a man without history, without biography, without psychology; he is only that someone who holds gathered into a single field all the paths of which the text is constituted.Page 6
I would absolutely argue this is impossible. I can’t read To Kill a Mockingbird without my own psychology and experience with racism. I can’t turn off my understanding of lynchings and MLK’s speeches and Colin Kapernick kneeling in protest to dozens of young black men being shot when there have been dozens of young white men who were not for much more. (Just compare half the stories about blacks being shot with the Charleston Church shooter or the Sante Fe school shooter.)
I learned the meaning of “liberal” because of Pride & Prejudice. It kept describing men like Darcy as “liberal” and sometimes it just rang weird in my head. They didn’t mean liberal the way we use the word – it means “generous” in the time of Austen. Ah, ok. I needed that context to understand the use of that word.
When I read Collapsing Empire, I couldn’t turn off the fact Scalzi wrote this on the rise of Trump. I couldn’t ignore some of the things in the book which echoed what I was feeling in American politics. How am I supposed to turn off my own thoughts, feelings, and experiences and truly subsume as a reader “without psychology”?
Or when I read Octavia Butler’s Dawn – I literally yelled at my audio book more than once “CONSENT DAMNIT. IT’S CALLED F%&KING CONSENT” and I couldn’t get past the first few chapters of Adulthood Rites. It was too much for me – I couldn’t let go of my own convictions and disgust with the abuse. I know she wrote this in the 80’s before these conversations that just started as I was coming into college. I know she was in her own way trying to address it. I still can’t bring myself to read it.
This is my case – the death of the author and the “death of the reader” (which was not Barthes’ direct hypothesis, but he DOES mention) tries to ignore both the author’s context (see Austen’s use of “liberal” for the simplest) and the reader’s own context (will readers in twenty years see Collapsing Empire the way I do? Will their context – and what happens in America over the next twenty years shift it significantly?)