In the mid-twentieth century the author died. At least as far as many university English departments were concerned. After critic/scholar Roland Barthes published his essay “The Death of the Author,” whatever the author intended ceased to be of interest to a critical establishment determined to study the text and how it worked devoid of any reference to the author who created it.
I’m oversimplifying an idea I largely support here. I am interested in the lives of authors, painters, poets and other artists, but at the end of the day, I believe, their work must stand or fall on its own. Once the book has been published, the author no longer has exclusive rights to how it should be read. The author may have wanted me to interpret a work a certain way, but after publication, that is no longer important. As readers we are in charge interpretation.
This idea is attacked in Gilbert Adair’s take-no-prisoners satire, The Death of the Author. In his novella Léopold Sfax, literary critic, writes a book about “The Theory” which holds that the life of the author is unrelated to the author’s text. Sfax’s theory takes the post-war academe by storm, sweeping through university English departments worldwide. What the world doesn’t know is that Sfax created this theory in part to hide his own dubious history. While living in occupied France as a young man, Sfax wanted so desperately to become a writer that he was willing to work for the Nazi forces writing propaganda pieces under an assumed name. It’s fear of exposure that leads him to invent “The Theory” as a means of securing his post war work’s reputation even if he cannot protect his personal one.
Later in the novella, Sfax comes up with the idea of denying the existence not only of the author but of the text itself. In a brilliant bit of satire on Mr. Adair’s part, this new theory holds that the only agent truly acting is the reader, that the text itself is meaningless, too amorphous to be pinned down and commented on with authority. Through this essay, entitled Either/Either (pronounce Eyether/Eether – this is important), Sfax hopes to make it possible for his followers to continue their devotion to him once his own biography and his early propaganda become known. By denying both authorial and textual intent he can establish that his writing cannot be pro-Nazi, only readers can be pro-Nazi since the reader is the only true agent in the production and consumption of art.
If you keep the title in mind as you read, you’ll know what’s going to happen to Leopold Sfax. But knowing this won’t spoil the fun of The Death of the Author. Mr. Adair has enough tricks up his sleeve to delight his readers right up to the book’s final sentence.
I expect The Death of the Author is a book I will re-read on a regular basis.
I first ran this review on my old blog back in August of 2011. I confess, in the years since, I have not re-read The Death of the Author though I often thing of doing so. Maybe one day.