The Author Is Dead; Long Live The Reader

Any Literature student worth their salt will have Roland Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’ tucked into their back pocket, waiting for it to be pulled out at any moment: midway through an exam, when picked on in a seminar, or during a spell of writer’s block. For those of you who studied a more practical degree, Barthes was a Literary bigwig whose essay stated that once a text is out in the world, the Author no longer has power over it. It is for the readers to read it, interpret it, disentangle from rather than decipher what the Author meant. The book is an open grave of interpretation. We, the readers, stuck our flag in every book we could find, announcing our own meaning over what the author might’ve, supposedly, allegedly meant. Heck, I have a degree in it.

Even outside of stuffy lecture halls, Barthes’ idea surrounds us. The rise of fanfiction is the perfect example – fans taking texts and diverting from them, taking characters and placing them in different times, with different people and love interests. There is nothing quite so rebellious as fanfiction. If the text heralds the death of the author, each piece of fanfiction is a memorial garden of their words. Everything the author once spoke, for they are the past tense of their own work, has new life breathed into it. We have taken the chicken to the abattoir, but, my, look at the beautiful roast we’ve made from it.

And for those not so creatively inclined, there are scores of video essays and podcasts dedicated to readings and analyses of literature, some even explicitly giving the author’s intent the middle finger. Whether it’s Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, or the works of Austen, there is a podcast about it. Sometimes the readings are common among fans, while there are pearls of niche interpretations that make you have to pause the podcast, sit back and stare into space. At least one of the Bennett sisters was a lesbian? Not only is Austen dead, but she might be spinning in her grave.

But why is this relevant now? Because, like Lord Voldemort, some Authors just won’t stay dead (*cough* Rowling *cough*). Thanks to that little blue bird, Rowling has spent year after year clutching at Harry in a death-grip, releasing apocryphal tweets about Dumbledore’s sexuality and how wizards dealt with relieving themselves before plumbing (just Google it). Authors like Rowling present these little factoids and platforms like Pottermore under the pretence of ‘keeping the magic alive’. But the readers can do that without any misplaced Word-of-God-like platitude.

And it’s not just social media that is a life support for the Author. More and more books find themselves on either the small or big screen, adaptations usually refusing to quake in fear towards the Author’s meanings. Casting, for one, should show the Author is dead, actors only being pretty close to the characters. Yes, Orlando Bloom was the perfect Legolas, but Tolkien never said he was blond. But not even screens are safe now; more and more writers are consulted, demand control or are introduced as producers to see their worlds on screen, as if their opinion matters.  

This is not a lecture or dinner party fodder. This is a call to arms. After Rowling’s most recent transphobic tirade, some of us are caught between a rock and a hard place – can we, in good conscious, continue at the Hogwarts of our childhood, or is it time to grow up and ignore Rowling? Readers and the Authors have forgotten that we own the text now. We’ve put down our highlighters and pens to cow-tow to the next surprise meaning the Author might reveal to us like an oracle. Of course, we can, and should, still indulge in the Wizarding World because every time we read it, every line we mull over or interpret, Rowling’s power diminishes. Each reading is a blow like the Sword of Gryffindor on a horcrux. So, take up the pen that is mightier than the sword, and stab, slice and cut that book. After all, it’s ours now.

Words by James Reynolds

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