Theory Teacher's Blog

authors and the difficulty of questions

I’ve been reading a lot of your blogs and noticing that many of you are finding the readings to be painfully difficult, so I want to say something that I hope will clarify things a bit. And I’m also worried that many of you are overstating the author’s death, either because you are glad the author is dead or because you are really angry that anyone might suggest such a horrible thing.

Let’s start with Orwell’s essay “Why I Write.” There, Orwell narrated his own development as a writer. He said he began to write because he wanted others to appreciate him. This was his egoistic phase, right?

Just as Orwell said that he wanted to be appreciated, so does a baby want its mother’s attention when it cries. And so, we can compare the act of writing literature to the act of communication in general. Although people do talk to themselves, usually they are talking to others, and writers who are published were almost always writing for somebody.

Orwell eventually grew out of his baby-phase, and because of the terrible things he witnessed (e.g., war, torture, exploitation, poverty), he felt compelled to write in order to change the way people thought and acted. This was the fourth phase of his development as a writer, and you probably noticed that it was this phase when he actually published things people wanted to read. (In the other phases, he wrote boring things.)

However, I hope you notice something about the way I have just now written about Orwell’s intentions. Certainly his desire and his intentions are important, but in writing about Orwell’s development as a writer, I have also talked about his readers and his context. Without readers and without a context, Orwell would have nothing to write and nobody to write to. So, isn’t the context and the reader just as important as the author then? Authors aren’t just dropped from the sky fully formed with beautiful quill pens and flourishing imaginations. They are born, grow up, have conversations, learn from others . . . . And for those authors who actually get published, they will tell you that they read a lot, practice and practice and revise, read some more, and get feedback, and revise again.

Let’s put Orwell’s “Why I Write” in conversation with T. S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” for a moment. Orwell says he wants to change the way people think, and Eliot says that good writing always involves a “depersonalization.” These are two very different statements about writing. But imagine that you are writing a story because you want to change the way people think about the Iraq war or immigrants or poverty. Or more modestly, perhaps you are writing a poem because you want to convince someone to go out to dinner with you. Do you simply express your feelings about these issues? How successful will your self-expression be? Considering that the people whose minds you most want to change might disagree with you, probably you’d have to be more strategic about how you go about “expressing yourself.” You’d have to pay attention to your reader, to the past, to your context and your reader’s. You probably would make an effort to learn a bit more about the subject (and novelists often do quite a bit of research — e.g., Hawthorne.) In fact, it’s kind of unfair for you to expect someone to pay attention to you if you’re not also willing to pay attention to them, right? And likewise, thinking ahead to our next unit on “readers and subjects,” perhaps we shouldn’t just be analzing the author.  To understand a text, maybe just knowing something about the author isn’t enough. We also have to think critically about who we are as readers.

Now let’s consider Eliot, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and the Theory Toolbox. Are they saying that the author should not be important at all? Some of you seem to think that’s what they are saying, but I don’t think that’s the argument. They aren’t saying the author is nothing. They are saying that the author isn’t the ONLY thing.

True, Barthes says the author is dead, but the dead are not unimportant. The dead are not nothing. (And by the way, for the record, I think Barthes is overstating his point in a dramatic fashion because he was a bit of a drama queen. Moreover, Eliot and Foucault don’t completely agree with him.)

What is our personal connection to an author? Certainly, when we have conversations, we have some kind of personal connection to the people we speak to. If you are having an argument with your mother, sometimes the whole history of your personal connection seems to affect the things you and she are saying at that moment. 

 And if the simple act of communicating with your mother (or whomever) can get this complicated sometimes, then the relationship between you and book would be even more complicated, right? 

And because there is always an imagined relationship between a reader and an author, Foucault shows us that the author still functions. But Foucault also argues that in order for us to be truly free readers and writers, we need to pay attention to how we and the authors we read are affected by so many, many things. How free are you really if all you do is repeat what others have said? In any act of communication, writing, or reading, how free are you really if you are both trapped by a history of stuff and a matrix of social relations that you aren’t even always aware of?


January 24, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Saying the author is dead is tantamount to saying the individual is dead. Believing or being an author takes a lot of belief. It involves assumptions that contemporary thinkers are reluctant to make, though these assumptions are made at an unconscious level. The author is a creator; the author is a demi-god, a demagog, a demi-urge, an entity bearing news and views that are new and newsworthy. Above all else there is belief. The author believes in him/herself. The author believes in his/her message. The author does not doubt one iota. The author is original and energetic; the author is a dynamo. The last 2 authors were Jean-Paul Sartre and Francoise Sagan. One can be a writer and not an author. To be an author means to be original. This perception still existed in the 60’s, but it began its death then too. The 60’s were the harbinger of originality’s demise. Andy Warhol impersonated himself at his “be-ins”; he re-created Marilyn ad infinitum; his art is the antithesis of originality. Essentailly Warhol was no one. He created nothing. He was the new “man” of the 60s. I am wondering if the present commentator knew the 60s? Lived the 60s? Living and dying were never so noble nor so attention-grabbing as during the sixties. Death and life seemed much less real after the 60s. As a phenomenon of the 60s, Warhol ushered in the sensation of unreality along with a sense of super-reality. Warhol was great, don’t get me wrong, but he was a harbinger of changing times. The times indeed they were a-changin’. But the yapping, hoarse-voiced coyote was a helluva lot more creative than the xerox-fueled mutator, even as he announced the end of creativity. The individual and his/her status were called into question during the 60s, and the author forged on, into the darkness of the future, losing footing and lacking foundation, undergoing a lengthy, long-suffering demise that continues today. Beckett more than anyone else announced this disappearance. The character as well as the author were called into question.

    Comment by miles karter | February 22, 2008 | Reply

  2. […] about the world and by the writer’s unconscious. So, as I discussed last year in a blog post here about the nature of authors, not only “occasional poems” like Alexander’s, but all […]

    Pingback by No “si, se puede” in Alexander’s inauguration poem « Theory Teacher’s Blog | January 24, 2009 | Reply

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