Life of the Author

I am super not a fan of death of the author. I suppose it’s fine as it is– sure, a work can be assessed on its merits without looking into the author’s intent– but rarely do its enthusiasts treat it as one tool of many they’re taking out of a box, and rarely do they put it back.

I understand, but don’t particularly like, when authors are taken to task because a regressive message can be read into their work, in part because any work sufficiently unambiguous in its politics to completely turn off all reactionaries would get panned (fairly or not) as didactic. Melville got away with explaining in his text exactly what the whiteness of the whale meant, but the standards have changed. I would love there to be more room for artists who wish to append “and that’s terrible!” to their story of Lex Luthor stealing forty cakes, but I also don’t want to make it mandatory.


Here I feel the need to clarify: I don’t mean racist books or what have you, fuck them. I mean very specifically minority authors getting picked apart for writing complex, filthy, transgressive, morally complicated art. I mean disabled and dying writers writing about their relationships with their bodies in a way people don’t want to hear. I mean survivors of violence rubbing the world’s nose in its complicity. I mean trans people audaciously, offensively existing. I mean people who don’t exist as object lessons and who don’t feel like appending an object lesson onto their fiction to make themselves more palatable. There is a lot of vicious and unhelpful “criticism” lobbed their way that mainstream pap doesn’t get, and that sucks.

I don’t particularly love the idea of people going to living authors with their (sometimes very tenuous) interpretation of that author’s work, claiming the author is responsible for that interpretation, and then yelling at the author to shut up because the author’s meant to be dead. Shit, why bring the author into it at all? If it’s not a conversation, if the work is dead and the author’s dead and there’s nothing to add, if all we want is penance from the author’s corpse because someone could interpret a work a certain way, then the author isn’t particularly important to that. Okay, you don’t like the thing. You interpreted it a certain way, one of thousands of valid ways. So what?

Seriously. So fucking what? It barely has anything to do with the text, so what’s it got to do with the writer?

I blame death of the author for tenuous positive interpretations too. I’ve had people swear up and down to me some movies and books are all kinds of progressive. For example, Thor: Ragnarok is apparently all kinds of queer coded and anti-racist, and it’s great people can read it into the movie, but some coding and ambiguity in the text (Hey ladies: Valkyrie isn’t explicitly straight so she could be queer! Ditto Hela!) is doing a hell of a lot of work that nobody bothered to put in the actual movie. I’m annoyed with that. I’m annoyed that by saying that in fandom spaces, I get treated like I’m taking away someone’s favorite thing. Now cultural criticism has a lot of overlap with fandom and has to account for the fandom of a work’s pet theories, apparently. Death of the author as it’s popularly used places a strange premium on how a work is interpreted somewhere.

Just today, Martin Scorsese pissed off a hell of a lot of fanboys when said he doesn’t think Marvel movies are cinema. Actual quote:

“Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

He’s right. They’re fun, but are they well made? No. Hell no. Scorsese has put more thought into one shot than Whedon has put into his entire filmography. Whedon fucks up shot-reverse-shot. Whedon gets so little coverage he makes experienced editors he works with look bad. And moreover, Marvel movies are not communicative. They’re meant to be mirrors. They’re meant to have as little substance as possible so we can see ourselves in the gaps where content would normally go. And that’s also why people are fiercely defending them– they don’t so much love these movies for what they are and what they say, because there’s not much there. They love themselves as reflected in the featureless reflective sheen.

And it’s valid and fine for a movie not to be deep! It’s fine to love poorly made things! I love a lot of crap! But our love doesn’t make a thing deep. There’s a cost to confusing a reflection of ourselves with depth. When Thor: Ragnarok is getting kudos for hinting that someone maybe might be queer (but avoids saying so), but actual lesbians get picked apart for portraying just one (but not all) lesbians, that’s a failing on the part of the audience. It’s a demand for art that’s made only to be inhabited by the audience, which the author has left vacant. It’s a demand for art that demands nothing back.

Engagement with fiction as solipsism, fiction as my interpretation of what this thing means to me is like masturbation. It’s fine, it’s fun, there’s nothing wrong with it, but wouldn’t it be nice to have room for other people once in a while? Instead of “I don’t care if this scene was poorly shot, I loved it,” or “I can read something bad into this and so the author must pay!!” all the goddamn time, isn’t it so much more interesting if there were also an outside world?

One thought on “Life of the Author

  1. Amen! Sometimes that shallow, poorly made thing can hit me in such a way that I’m moved to make deeper connections. That’s not saying the thing itself is deep, or that I’m shallow (which is okay sometimes!), but it also doesn’t make the thing deep. I don’t have to defend it to anyone, just embrace whatever it means to me.

    Liked by 1 person

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