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Now Then: I Come to Bury the Author, Not to Praise Him

By Paul Stewart

I spend much of my academic life as Professor of Literature at Nicosia University trying to convince students that the author is dead. They are rarely convinced. Now, with the publication of my own novel, Now Then, I find that I’m called upon to take on the role of the author.

That role – besides the business of actually writing – might often seem like that of my other professional role, the lecturer. The lecturer stands before the class and tells, or rather suggests, what is going on in the novel, what is significant about it, how it means what it does and why so. How much better, then, to have the actual author standing in front of the class, for surely he or she will know all there is to know. Yet my academic half still insist that, to all intents and purposes, and for me in particular, the author is dead.

When, in 1967, the French critic Roland Barthes declared that the author was dead he knew he was being controversial and quite possibly knew that he would be misunderstood. Already, though, I am resurrecting the author. The assumption behind that sentence is something like: what did the author mean when he said the author was dead? Whilst the author may be dead it is very tempting to disinter them and quite hard not to do so. If one does resurrect the author it is to put to him or her a simple question: what did you mean to say? If there is a reply, what does one do then? Do we simply say, “Thanks very much, that’s cleared that one up”? If that is the case, then the reader stops thinking and merely accepts the rule of law as laid down by the author and, moreover, it makes what was actually written redundant. It would be to replace the entirety of Hamlet with “he fancies his mum” on the say-so of a Shakespeare we had dragged Lazarus-like back into the living. Rather than the reader experiencing the novel or poem moment by moment and then interpreting what has occurred, the law of the author would just tell the reader what to think and rob him or her of the pleasure of the text.

 

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This might seem to be an occasion when the high theory of academic criticism comes a cropper on the rocks of the practical, yet I’m quite content with the apparent clash of what I believe as a critic and my role as an author of fiction. This may well be because there is no real clash at all. If I am dead as an author this doesn’t mean I won’t very happily sign a book, do a reading, discuss the business of writing. However, I won’t tell anyone what the book is really about, what it really means, or whether the truth – whatever that is – is to be found in my personal history. Any meaning, any truth (and don’t let’s get into the business of how lies can be true, just yet), is in the words and nowhere else. It is really about the words on the page and how they are read. In effect, as soon as the book has left my hands I am in the same position as the reader: I don’t read it as I wrote it, but in something like amazement that I am actually the person that did write it.

This position is not just laziness, or a desire to be unhelpful, or a form of pseudo-intellectual snobbery. It is not meant to create an enigma, nor increase the standing and authority of the mysterious figure behind the work. It is meant as a form of respect. Readers should be free to interpret the work according to their own preferences, their own moral code, their own ethical sense, without the fear of falling foul of some looming authorial presence, some voice of law-and-order prodding, cajoling and praising them into thinking the right way.

The death of the author is, ultimately, the advent of the reader. As Barthes put it, “the  birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author.” That’s a price I’m happy to pay.

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