The Death of the “Author”

It is one of the ironies of postmodernism that Roland Barthes’s claim to literary immortality comes from having pronounced the “death of the author.” What he meant was that an author’s intentions in creating a text are irrelevant in interpreting that text. The death of the author was life for the critic.

Academics immediately fell in love with the notion because it seemed to place them on an equal footing with genius. Meanwhile, authors who knew what Barthes’s theory amounted to were powerless to do anything about it. The announcement of the death of the author came after the fact, recognizing a dramatic shift in cultural power that had already occurred.

Today it all seems obvious. If you look at it from an economic viewpoint, academics and critics are more important than creative writers. Professional critics enjoy far greater job security, social status and employment benefits than authors. And the money! Every year the salaries of Canadian English professors making over $100,000 a year are published in the newspapers. Dare we compare how many writers in Canada are making six-figures? The average annual income of a professional writer in Canada is only around $12,000, a salary that even the lowest of contract or sessional workers in one of our English departments would despise.

If anything, Barthes’s pronouncement was a little late, even in 1968. But after a revolution it usually takes a while for the winners to let us know what happened.

I mention all of this because the recent controversy over the authorship of Notes From the Hyena’s Belly is a clear indication that another revolution is nearing its completion. And as was the case in 1968, an obituary may be overdue.

Who wrote Notes From the Hyena’s Belly is not an important issue except for those directly involved: the “author” Nega Mezlekia and his “editor” Anne Stone. What is important is what people in the media, people who should know, have had to say about authors.

Anne Stone’s own comments are a good place to start. “Authorship is an industry concept,” she tells us. “It doesn’t identify or see the communities from which a work comes.” Elsewhere she is even more to the point: “I’m still completely unclear of what it means to be an ‘author’.”

Confusion about what being an author means may seem a little strange, especially for someone who has written a couple of novels. Stone’s attitude, however, has found a good deal of support in the media.

One of the judges for the Governor-General’s prize, and no defender of Ms. Stone, testifies “Many editors have placed profoundly transformative hands on my work.” A column in the Globe and Mail quotes one editor’s opinion that 50% of Canadian non-fiction is significantly re-written. Later, the columnist describes her own initiation into the “dark art of hands-on editing”, which is “code for saying the book will be restructured and rewritten, and very few paragraphs will resemble the original.” Hoodwinking the “author” into thinking the book is their own is, apparently, just part of the game.

Alas, the quotation marks around the word “author” are all in the original.

Now even Philip Marchand has come out of the closet, admitting to completely rewriting a children’s book that was, strangely, accepted for publication despite being unpublishable. He goes on to opine, “The notion of the author as the solitary genius, owing nothing to the collaboration or input of others, is an invention of print culture.”

An “invention.” An “industry concept.” The “author.” Could it be that the postmodernists, who declare the process of a work of art’s production is more important than the art itself, were right all along? Are these “communities” that supposedly write books the disguised social forces of the New Historicism?

In any event, the message to take from all of this couldn’t be clearer. “Everybody does it,” and the idea of any author, or “author,” creating a masterpiece all on their own, shivering in a garret or hiding out in a log cabin somewhere, is just naïve. Such romantic notions of solitary genius belong to a myth of creative individuality that doesn’t apply any longer. Indeed, listening to some of the comments that have been made, you’re left to wonder if it ever did.

Such is the effect of the rear-view mirror. Poor William Blake. Maybe all he really needed was a good agent.

Now if you’re thinking that authors are going to speak out against this loss of face (to put it mildly) you had better think again. After all, the people I’ve been quoting are authors, and, quite obviously, they know their place. Even in the acknowledgments made by today’s “authors” you can see how the landscape is changing. Twenty years ago how many novels had acknowledgments? I can think of very few. Now they are the norm, and growing at an alarming rate (for more on this, see here).

Meanwhile, even more surprising than the comprehensiveness of today’s acknowledgments is the nature of what they are actually saying. In many cases they not only make it clear that the book wouldn’t have been successful without the support of a certain publisher and/or agent, but that the book could not have been written “but for” that support.

Do they mean it? And has it always been so? It’s enough to make one wonder how the historical novel was invented at a time when there were no research assistants. Or how Emily Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights without an agent to hold her hand. Compared to the authors of previous eras, today’s “authors” seem a pretty frail bunch indeed.

The cause of this sad decline in the idea of creative independence isn’t hard to locate. BookWorld is converging with an entertainment industry where the costs of production, promotion and advertising have skyrocketed. (Leading, not coincidentally, to ridiculously expensive books. Make no mistake: Somebody has to pay all those suits.)

What this means is that the entertainment product has to be managed every step of the way. These books do not “come out of” a community, they come out of a corporation, and what corporations produce are largely anonymous products. This is BookWorld’s business model, and it has lead to predictable (and uninspiring) results. Why anyone thinks the publishing world should be any different than, say, the recording industry, where the biggest stars and most celebrated “artists” often don’t write or in some cases even perform their own music, is a mystery to me.

A column I wrote a few weeks ago concluded with the observation that in the future the book industry wouldn’t need writers at all. I certainly hope no one thought I was being facetious. What I was suggesting was only a common sense solution to problems like the Mezlekia/Stone dispute.

Seeing as the book industry is now modeling itself so completely after the movie biz, it only makes sense that they borrow movie industry practices for attribution. Disputes over authorship (or who gets a “credit”) should be handled by an independent review board that will look at the drafts and find out what percentage of the text can be attributed to whom. And seeing as the “author” may only be a celebrity image or brand name, the corporation behind the image or brand should receive full credit too.

I imagine the title page of the future looking something like this:

Giant Publishing Press
In Association with XYZ Talent International
Proudly Present
A Novel
Produced by Corporate Publishing, Canada
Edited by Collins, Jones, and Becker
Written by Jane Doe & John Smith
With additional dialogue by Billy Canuck
(Based on an Original Idea by Joseph K.)

If it sounds a little strange now, just give it time. In a while you may get used to it.

After all, given the reality of the situation confessed to in the past month, how long can it be before more “editors” follow Ms. Stone’s lead and demand the public recognition that, from all accounts, they richly deserve? From the number of interviews with prominent editors and agents that I have seen on TV and read about in the news in recent months, I think it fair to say that Mr. Marchand’s notion of editors shunning public recognition is old-fashioned at best.

So, only thirty years after Barthes’s pronouncement, we find ourselves in mourning again. There is no reason for putting the business off. Let this column be the obituary. But don’t feel that you have to personally attend the service. Rather send an empty carriage, like those tokens of affliction that attend the funeral of Sir Pitt in Vanity Fair. Mourning by proxy will be a wholly fitting tribute to the death of the “author.”

Essay first published online December 20, 2000.


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