Who Killed the Author? – Understanding Reader Response Criticism

Foucault asks, “What does it matter who is speaking?” Foucault, however, is not the first to ask this question concerning the authorial function. Questions about the purpose of the author or rather if the author truly even serves a purpose at all has been asked by critics from an array of  different studies of literary theory for decades – from New Criticism to Structuralism and from Post-Structuralism to Reader Response. Primarily, the essays by Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Wayne C. Booth work succinctly together to create a web of ideas that attempt to explain the author’s purpose and existence, and in the end they all three agree who is responsible for the death of the author.

In his essay The Death of the Author, Roland Barthes argues from a deconstructionist’s stand point much along the lines of what Jacques Derrida argued but in regards to authorship. Barthes begins his essay with his argument that writing destroys every voice. In essence, what he is saying is that rather than the author it is language that speaks. Barthes says literature as well as interpretations used to center themselves on the author, but presently, literature, in the words of Derrida, focuses on decentering and turning away from the author. In terms of linguistics, rather than stable meanings, the gap between the signified and the signifier widens and gives way to the “free play” of language, which as a result multiplies meaning; similarly, the death of the author gives way to ceaseless meanings within a text instead of one cohesive interpretation.

Barthes then recalls previous moments in history when the author was “thought to nourish the book” thus making the author the predecessor to the text (Barthes 876). However, Barthes says that by removing the author the language is instead the origin, and since all language is borrowed “the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original” – similar to Bakhtin’s idea of double-voicedness (Barthes 876). Therefore, since language is fluid and constantly borrowed and interpreted differently by different individuals, there can never be a singular fixed meaning because what the author says and what the reader reads can be entirely different. Readers, then, apply meaning, not authors because once the text is published the author no longer has any control over the direction of the text.

Drawing from both Derrida as well as T. S. Eliot, Barthes says that the death of the author means that the text is no longer an expression rather it is an inscription of what is culturally ideal (for instance a tradition), but since “life never does more than imitate the book” and books are merely imitations of language, the ultimate meaning is always deferred (Barthes 877). Because of this idea of différance, introduced by Derrida,  which produces a multiplicity of meanings because the perfect meaning is unattainable, the Author, with a capital A, functions within literary criticism as a limit – “a final signified” (Barthes 877). Essentially, the Author functions as a way to categorize works of literature, so by figuring out what the Author is, the text can begin to be explained. Even with categorization, writing still posits an endless stream of meanings, and Barthes, in conclusion to his essay, argues that “there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author” (Barthes 877). Transitioning from deconstruction to reader response theory, Barthes argues that in order for meaning to be derived from a text the author has to die and the reader has to be born.

In agreement with Barthes, Michel Foucault in his essay What Is an Author? says that the author is indeed dead and from there he expands on this idea and attempts to explain “the relationship between text and author and the manner in which the text points to this ‘figure’ that, at least in appearance, is outside it and precedes it” (Foucault 904). Like Barthes, Foucault says that the Author, in its proper form, functions as a way of organizing literature. For instance, the name Shakespeare, a reference to the man himself who wrote plays and sonnets, encompasses a myriad of other texts from that same era opening an intertextuality among texts. In other words, the classifying function of the author acts as a guide for the reader as they wade through the myriad of possible meanings.

While the author possesses a classificatory function in the form of the Author, it also maintains a discursive function. Foucault says that “the author’s name manifests the appearance of a certain discursive set and indicates the status of this discourse within a society and a culture” (Foucault 907). Basically what Foucault is insinuating is that the author incorporates the language and ideologies of a culture into a text very similar to Barthes argument, which echoed Bakhtin’s idea of double-voicedness. Foucault takes Barthes theory and elaborates that language is an imitation of the culture’s language so the author acts only to transcribe the discourses of society; the author is an ideological being. Since the author is a reflection of the discourse of society, it retains the ability to shift and change as society changes. In other words, the author-function mirrors the language and ideologies of its readers, who can change thereby changing the text.

Another way in which the author functions is as a standard to which all other works are compared and judged. The endowment of the author-function onto a text ensures authority and with authority comes acceptance. For example, Harry Potter fans will readily read anything J. K. Rowling publishes because they trust her and have already accepted her form of discourse; therefore, it is the reader that allots the author with authority. The reader determines the function of the author. Foucault reiterates this idea when he suggests that the author “does not develop spontaneously” but is instead constructed by the text and the reader through a series of “complex operations” (Foucault 909). Similarly to Barthes, Foucault concludes that the author acts as a limit; he is “the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning” (Foucault 913). The author is the distance between the speaker of the text and the writer, and in this distance the author operates as the “ideological figure,” who suggests a limit to the multiplicity of meaning. When the author dies and opens up the possibility of infinite meanings, which can cause undecidability, the reader then, through the example of the author, derives one meaning from all the rest. The author may set an example, but it is the reader who decides.

Like Barthes and Foucault, Wayne C. Booth explores the function of the author, but he does so as a reader response critic in his essay Control of Distance in Jane Austen’s Emma. As the very titles suggests, Booth’s essay discusses the distance between the author and the speaker of a text. Since the author, as prescribed by Foucault, is a function of discourse, there exists within it a gap similar to that which exists between the signifier and the signified – a gap between the text and the author, which is filled by the implied author. This distance, which is the implied author, focuses the multiplicity of meanings created by the text and directs it towards an implied reader by asserting certain ideologies. The ideologies of the implied author though do not come into play unless the text is being read so the reader constructs the implied author and the implied author interpellates the reader through its supposition of an implied reader – it’s a give and take relationship initiated by the reader so again the reader holds the power.

Ultimately, the main role of the implied author is to let the reader ascribe characteristics and ideologies to it without tainting the image of the real author. For example, if a reader were to ascribe the ideologies of domination and abuse promoted by 50 Shades of Grey or a novel that discusses Nazi ideologies onto the actual author, then naturally the reader would assume the real author supports such ideologies. Instead, readers can apply questionable ideologies on the implied author. As a scapegoat, the implied author offers a cathartic experience because it acts as the distance between the real author as well as the audience and the text. Writers and readers can fantasize about something they normally would consider unscrupulous from a safe distance. From this notion, which parallels T. S. Eliot’s argument, Booth asserts that an author can write about what they do not know, which then manifests itself in the form of the implied author. Essentially, Booth is making the same point as Foucault. Instead of referring to the distance as the “ideological figure,” he refers to the distance as the implied author. Because the ideology of the implied author only surfaces when it is being read, it is safe to assume that it is the discourse that reveals the ideology pointing back to Barthes’ argument that “it is language which speaks, not the author” (Barthes 875). Since the language only has a voice when it is read, the reader possesses all control.

The central theme argued by Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Wayne C. Booth is simple – the author has been removed from the text, but by whom? The reader. In their essays, they all propose in one way or another that the reader kills the author’s purpose. It is not the author that decides how a text should be read or what overall meaning should be derived from a text. Sure, they can suggest a meaning, which can influence the reader’s interpretation, but the power to decipher meaning ultimately lies with the reader. In terms of relevancy, these theorists through their exploration into the purpose of the author and their ultimate conclusion that the author must die for a text to be read has had a tremendous impact on literary theory as they paved the way for reader response criticism. It is as Barthes said, “The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author” (Barthes 877).

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. 3rd ed. Bedford of Saint Martins, 2007. 874-877. Print.

Booth, Wayne C. “Control of Distance in Jane Austen’s Emma.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. 3rd ed. Bedford of Saint Martins, 2007. 989-1001. Print.

Foucault, Michel. “What Is an Author?” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. 3rd ed. Bedford of Saint Martins, 2007. 904-914. Print.


Published by: andreahektner

I am Texan - born and raised - whose passions lie in praising Jesus Christ and making my family proud. These passions have led me to getting an English degree from the University of Texas at Arlington, where I am a recent graduate. Over the course of my undergraduate, I've enjoyed analyzing the human condition whether it's through literature, film/television, and art with a philosophical, theoretical, and theological lens, and it is with this blog that I hope to share some of my past work and future writings.

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