The Problem of Author: From Platinum to Peafowl

Why do we care who an author is? After all, T.S. Eliot tells us that the author is a piece of platinum, unchanging.  The simplest response to this logic that I can come up with sounds like something Dr. Strangelove might say. The work of an author “could easily be accomplished with a computer.” If the author means nothing, if the author’s work is just an assembly of stuff from some (kind of arbitrary) literary tradition — why not use a computer? A computer could be programmed to formulate new ways of assembling language to express the limited emotions of humanity. It would be all in the name of progress of course; novel writing would become so much faster and similar. Think of all the human effort saved!

Hopefully my sarcasm was overt enough.

Let’s assume that the opposite of a platinum author is true, for a moment. If the author has an unyielding authority, then there can be no interpretation of a text. The life of the author becomes more important than the text itself. The story wouldn’t matter, but what the author says about the story would. The works of the ancients would have to be ignored because they are no longer alive to tell us what they meant or defend themselves.

To accept a supremely-authoritative author would negate all reason to read.

Now, a digression… I recently read Mystery & Manners, a book of articles, essays, and speeches by Flannery O’Connor. Among many things, she goes after this idea of what purpose an author has, though she does it somewhat indirectly.

It seems to me that the method we are using to discuss the function of the author has more to do with the meaning of a particular text. And this is as it should be! The author isn’t the goal; the text is the goal. We want to understand what it means. But if everything is suspect… Does it matter what the story means? Does anything have meaning. Is literature stuck in the cyclically natured Absurd of Camus? Is it just an abstraction — an absurdity we create?

I don’t think anyone willing to take an English course (or read a book) would accept a literature so hopeless.

Back to O’Connor. In talking about the meaning of a story she says, “Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.” I really like this because it gives a sense of purpose for both the author and the reader. The author is not lifeless platinum, nor a fascist. The reader is not a god, nor a biographer. The author’s job is to attempt to convey some kind of experience — and the reader’s job is to become a part of that experience. I’m pretty sure you would never be able to remember all the names in War and Peace without becoming a part of that world. Historical context is necessary (if we don’t know Napoleon is invading Russia, Tolstoy ceases to make sense on some level), but that must not be the endpoint.

I guess the thing that scares me about the question of meaning is that if we reach a point where we can say that a piece of literature means x, y, z… then the text is over. We can teach literature like science that way; just memorize what different works mean. Enacting the rule that all is suspect (again), I think we should treat literature that way. We should consider an author’s background, the historical context, use of symbol, use of allusion (or illusion), and the other stuff. We can psychoanalyze characters or accept them at face value. As long as we always take into question what, exactly, a text is about. If a story is an experience, we should treat it like our own experience — and it is always dangerous to look at things from one perspective only.

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