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Last week, a lecturer claimed that ‘we don’t do autobiographical readings at Cambridge’. It’s something I’d half worked out in my time here, but had never given proper thought to. The comment got me thinking: just how important is the author in the texts that we read? Separating the author behind the work from the work itself might seem to neglect important experience that might have informed that work. However, there’s a stronger case for this separation, not least because it gives the reader more autonomy in interpretation.

In his 1967 essay The Death of the Author, Roland Barthes argues – pretty radically, if you’re into that kind of thing – that the Author with a capital ‘A’ becomes obsolete in producing his text. The idea thus proposed is that the Author’s intended meaning is no more important than the textual interpretation of any given reader, taking the original creator down from their pedestal. In the words of Barthes: “The voice loses its origin, the author enters his own death, writing begins.”

It’s also interesting to think about this in terms of writers crafting under pseudonyms. Mary Ann Evans wrote as the man George Eliot, and maybe her texts would have read differently to a nineteenth century audience disinclined to respect the literary work of women. Alternatively, maybe the very point of her texts, and of her writing under a pseudonym to gain wider acceptance, is that authorship is unimportant in light of that bigger thing, the text itself. It shouldn’t matter whether she is male or female, only that she disappears a little under the writing she has produced. Perhaps it is thus better that we don’t analyse her, but her writing.

“Does it matter if Shakespeare wrote all the plays that we think he wrote, or is it just the plays themselves as texts that matter?”

Similarly, does it matter if Shakespeare wrote all the plays that we think he wrote, or is it just the plays themselves as texts that matter? Historians seem to enjoy a good squabble over questions of undetermined authorship. There seems to be no reason, though, why we can’t just appreciate the plays as texts of art without having to assign them to a particular author and his life. Even if it’s been a while since 1967, there’s still a danger – and it’s one easily slid into – of mythologising the Author into the kind of omniscient proper noun that Barthes evokes. It’s interesting to know, of course, if Shakespeare really did author all the texts we think he did. But it shouldn’t be the be-all and the end-all to our enjoyment or analysis of them.

Aside from anything else, it’s fairly boring to read works in terms of the author’s life. We can’t explain and explain away The Metamorphosis by the fact that Kafka himself had an oppressive father, and we can recognise the role of the father in the text without knowing anything about Kafka’s life. Some might argue that such knowledge enhances our understanding of the text. However, it only advances one particular understanding. If we appreciate particular themes in writing, that these root from the author’s own experience doesn’t necessarily give them more weight. What’s more, a heavy focus on the author narrows the tracks for our own original interpretations of the text to burgeon.

Maybe this is even more the case with authors who seem deeply and personally involved in their texts. We read an experience in Wilfred Owen’s line, “hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge”, without knowing explicitly that he himself fought in the First World War. Perhaps his dying a week before the signing of the Armistice lends a post-poignancy to his poetry. However, he didn’t pre-empt this in writing, and it doesn’t affect the words there on the page, read as they easily can be as isolated black letters of print.

But all this raises questions of morality. If we read a text without biographical or historical context, we may neglect experience of the author or of their historical contemporaries that is emotional, painful or disturbing. How do we read ethically a text like Anne Frank’s diary, for example? I think we can answer this, though. Even if the text is autobiographical, words do not always express historical truth. In writing in the first person, the author creates a character for his or herself, and it is that character that we as the reader are introduced to. If someone expresses themselves in literary form, we may have only this literature in front of us to interpret, and with autonomy we do so.

Never fear – nobody’s actually going around killing off authors. However, it’s evidently a good idea that we liberate ourselves from narrow biography. In this way, we prioritise our autonomy as readers, interpreting as we choose as we allow the original work of art to speak to us on its own accord, as it were


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