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It’s now, what?, 40 years since Roland Barthes proclaimed the death of the Author, and that pesky character still won’t go away. But the question that exercised Maureenand I last night (yes, we had another of those conversations) was: what is the author?

The romantics – go away, Ackroyd, now! – put forward the view that the author was, not exactly God but a conduit for divine inspiration. The archetypal romantic image, you might say, is of someone clapping a hand to their brow as inspiration strikes, then scribbling hurriedly away, not so much composing as taking dictation. Given the amount of careful rewriting that such ecstatic works as, say, ‘Kublai Khan’ received, this is a tendentious argument to say the least, but it is a remarkably persistent view. I suspect the popular view of an author still follows this rough model, despite oft-quoted remarks like: ‘10% inspiration, 90% perspiration’ which still rather romantically inflates the divine contribution.

(And the number of authors who still talk about playing God with their characters is something else entirely. I still feel this phrase is more inflated metaphor mixed with folie de grandeur than it is an insight into the authorial process.)

But if we dismiss the holy drainpipe view of authorship, we have to ask the question: what is the author?

Author as Creator. Again this seems like the commonsense position, but I have problems. For a start the author is rarely the sole creator of a work, stories are workshopped or discussed among friends, editors intervene. Creation is something that spreads through every aspect of the work up to and beyond the moment of publication. (The film of Tristram Shandy, A Cock and Bull Story, which I wrote about yesterday, is a perfect illustration of this problem. The scriptwriter had written several drafts, each very different, but the film was actually a concoction of bits from several drafts, but beyond the writer there was the director, the producer, the actors (whose comings and goings changed which drafts might be used), and even the outside ‘experts’ whose suggestions disrupted the nature of the creation between pen and screen.) Beyond that we have the Barthesian position that I as reader am playing a part in the creation of the work as I read it. In other words, my response is (at least as far as I am concerned) part of what makes the book what it is. And my response will vary, so that when I am rereading a work it can often seem that I am reading something completely different. The work, therefore, is being created afresh in every reading. To describe the author as creator hence seems like a misreading of the whole process that goes into the work I read.

Author as Communicator. So, if the creator theory doesn’t quite fit, how about that other old standby, the communicator? But there are problems here as well, primarily what is being communicated, and who is being communicated with? The author is not communicating with me personally, but with me as part of a mass most of whom will be completely unknown. If I stand in the middle of a busy city square and yell out at the top of my voice, am I communicating? And is a text a communication? It’s not a message, that’s for sure (use Western Union, as Sam Goldwyn memorably instructed). There are texts I’ve read which make no sense to me whatsoever. There are texts whose point is story, texts whose point is formal structure, texts whose point is beautiful language, texts whose point is political impact, texts whose point is mechanical facility, texts whose point is didactic, texts whose point is obfuscatory, texts whose point is all or none or some of these in curious combinations. But in only a few of these instances is communication a key component. If an author writes for personal satisfaction, and after death their writings are discovered and published for the first time (examples are legion: Francis Godwin, Andrew Marvell, etc etc) can this be said to be communication? Is intent on the part of the communicator an essential part of communication? To describe an author as a communicator ends up raising more questions than it answers.

Author as Nothing. Let us, then, take an extreme Barthesian stance and say that the author is indeed dead. The author dies, at the very latest, at the instant a text is taken away (for editing? for publication? for distribution?). The text is a thing in its own right, an entity, an organisation of words free of authorial intent and open to any of a myriad of interpretations placed upon it by the reader. But the author was there at the birth of that entity. The reader’s interpretations may be myriad but they are not infinite, in part at least because of the shaping of the entity by the author. The author never quite goes away.

But that still leaves the question: what is the author?

First published at Livejournal, 7 February 2006.

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