What is “Death of the Author”?
“Death of the Author” is the idea that a text (a novel, essay, whatever) and its author are separate things, and the author is irrelevant when considering and evaluating that text. In fact, there is no one true interpretation of a work; how each reader is impacted by the work is equally valid.
In 1967, the French critic Roland Barthes wrote La mort de l’auteur, a reflection of the relationship between authors and their texts. In it, he argued that an author’s work should stand on its own merits, have its own meaning, and not be contextualised by the author.
My own understanding is thus:
Barthes’ idea has two parts. One is that authorial intent is irrelevant. What you get from the text, what it makes you think and feel, is everything. Not what the author was trying to do. Nor can the author add details not present in the text (save by expanding it with additional related works, be they sequels, prequels, or whatever).
For a modern example, the author of a certain popular book series has publicly stated that one of the characters in that series is gay. While the author may have thought of the character as gay, Barthes argues that until it is explicitly or implicitly in the text, it is not true because it does not matter what the author intended or says separately. More specifically, some readers have said this ‘revelation’ confirmed their suspicions based on the character’s behaviour, while others see no evidence. Both interpretations are valid for those readers … if they see evidence, there is evidence; if they didn’t, there’s not. What is not valid, however, is where a reader saw no evidence in the text but chooses to believe the author’s statements merely because they want it to be true.
The second part is that when evaluating a text, personal opinions about the author are also irrelevant.
Sticking with the same example as before, the author has been labelled as ‘transphobic’ because of things they’d said on social media. True or not, the merits of that accusation and what that term actually means are for a different conversation. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the charge is true and offensive to the reader. What is relevant here, according to Barthes, is whether or not such opinions are in the text. You can ‘reject’ the author but still ‘accept’ the text.
This second part of Barthes premise does seem to fly in the face of modern trends. But it is essential in evaluating the works of past generations. Public opinion on a range of issues continues to change and evolve. Thus most, if not all, historical authors probably have views that were typical of the time yet offend modern sensibilities. Without Barthes, all historical works would be consigned to the bonfire … and all current works will likewise be burned by future generations.
Note that what Barthes does not cover is whether or not a text should be evaluated based on the context of the time it is from. Thus, it is possible to say a work contains ideas that are no longer acceptable by today’s standards, even if they were acceptable at the time the text was written. (Though it should be possible to acknowledge this historical context when making such criticism.)
Another issue for debate, when a modern work covers a historical period, should the author include ideas of the time that are no longer acceptable? It should be remembered that the opinions and beliefs of the characters are not necessarily the opinions and beliefs of the author. And it would be dishonest if a character couldn’t have opinions appropriate for the time and place the story is set. This also follows for fantasy and sci-fi settings.