I finally got around to writing a few words on the 1967 essay, The Death of the Author by Roland Barthes. The essay explores the notion of authorship and argues against traditional literary criticism (structuralism). A text here is any medium, be it literary, photographic, painted or otherwise, that is created by a conscious mind for interpretation by others. Barthes explains the traditional view of authorship, where the background and identity of the author are necessary for the text to be deciphered, ‘once the Author is discovered, the text is “explained:” the critic has conquered’. This view places sole responsibility for the success or failure of the text on the author, a view Barthes does not share. ‘Baudelaire’s work is the failure of the man Baudelaire, Van Gogh’s work his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice: the explanation of the work is always sought in who has produced it.’
Barthes suggests that all texts are manifestations of different cultures, beliefs, languages, philosophies and ideas, and that all words already exist and have meaning. Therefore, the author merely borrows from previously existing text and from them fashions something that he/she believes to be new and original: ‘the writer no longer contains within himself passion, humour, sentiment, impressions, but that enormous dictionary, from which he derives a writing which can know no end or halt: life can only imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs, a lost, infinitely remote imitation.’
The crux of Barthes’ argument is that ‘the true locus of writing is reading’. Essentially, once an idea or concept is committed to paper, the author loses control. The interpretation and meaning of a text ultimately lie with the reader. ‘All the citations a writing consists of; 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 paths of which the text is constituted.’
Although I already share some of the views presented by Barthes, I still found The Death of the Author to be a fascinating and insightful read. I believe that all texts are a product of, or at the very least are in some way influenced by, the author’s experience and beliefs. The content and writing style is informed by the ideas that the author is trying to convey but, fundamentally the reader must decide whether or not the text holds any discernible value for them. Contrary to Barthes’ post-structuralist belief that a text is best deciphered without the necessity for previous knowledge of the author, I prefer to have, if not, require such information. Essentially, Barthes is advocating the blind selection of a book, ignoring the cover, title, copyright and contents pages, and indeed any other information that may enlighten the reader as to it’s possible contents. Barthes’ approach would suggest that the reader commence their experience of a text from chapter one, line one. While this approach would reduce author and genre prejudice, eliminating the formation of preconceptions but, on the other hand, the reader would have to invest a considerable amount of time to each book before they realize whether or not they wished to continue reading it.
When it comes to the selection of reading material, most people, myself included, do so based on the necessity or appeal of one or more of the following factors; their interests, book genre, authors, recommendations, reviews, presentation, and the books blurb. Sources of advise on academic reading generally suggest the opposite to Barthes’ theory. The Open College of the Arts’ guide, An introduction to Studying in HE, suggests that when looking for books appropriate or relevant to your studies, the first step is by “reading the contents list and any notes on the inside or back cover. Then quickly read the introduction and summaries or conclusions of selected chapters to gain an overview of the book. (Occasionally you may find this is enough to give you the key points that you’re looking for.) If you need to make a thorough reading of the text, your initial survey of summaries and conclusions will help you gain an overall sense of the main points and will help prepare you for a more detailed reading”.
I agree with Roland Barthes’ notion, that the purist way to read a text (theoretically), is to do so void of any prior knowledge of the author, genre or content. Some medium or indeed individual texts may lend themselves more favourably than other to such a reading. However, to engage Bathes theory as an everyday method (particularly to literary work) is surely impractical.
Barthes, R. (1977) Image, Music, Text, translated by Heath, S., London: Fontana Press.
Open College of the Art (2013) ‘An introduction to studying in HE’, Study Guide [online], available: http://www.oca-student.com/study-guides/introduction-studying-he (log in required) [accessed 21 Mar 2016].