The death of the author, or at the very least the relationship between author and work, is a concept that anyone intimately involved with literature in any form cannot help but consider. It’s something that I discussed at various points in my university career, but now I’m intersted in looking at it, not as a critic, but as a reader and a writer.
I don’t think it’s possible to entirely divorce a work from the mind that spawned it. You can examine it in isolation, of course, but it will always be influenced by the mind and the experiences of the author. ‘The Waste Land’, for instance, was, to T. S. Eliot, a bit of ‘rhythmic grumbling’ that expressed his dissatisfaction with his life. At the time, his marriage was failing, it had been five years since he’d written what he considered to be a truly worthwhile poem (‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’), and he had been unable to enlist during the First World War due to health problems. In short, he felt lost and without purpose, and ‘The Waste Land’ reflects this.
That the poem also reflects the state of dissatisfaction throughout Western Europe in the post-First World War period is distinct from the circumstances of its composition. The poem is the way it is because of Eliot’s experiences and emotions, but what it means to different readers is a result of their own interpretations. That is, it is at once a poem about Eliot’s dissatisfaction with his personal life as it is about Europe’s dissatisfaction in the wake of a war, and it is as much about either of those as it is about today’s dissatisfaction with the recession.
Eliot once wrote in an essay (‘Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca’, I think) that ‘What every poet starts from are his own emotions […] The great poet, in writing himself, writes time’. The poem starts as a reflection of the writer, but somewhere between the beginning of the writing and the poem being read, it becomes something in which the reader sees something of his or herself.
Indeed, regardless of the driving force behind the composition of a work of literature, the interpretation is always up to the reader. I think it is for this reason that Tolkien rejected the idea of allegory, arguing instead that:
I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other resides in the purposed domination of the author.
As readers, this means that we are free to interpret works of literature individually, and what we take out of it is more important, ultimately, than what the writer intended. That is, if Tolkien’s portrayal of the Orcs makes me question what makes one human, then whether or not Tolkien intended to raise these questions is irrelevant, because the book did raise them, and I thought about them, and came to conclusions about them.
As a writer, this can be somewhat distressing, to feel that I have no power over what people think of what I write. To put so much effort into choosing certain words, trying to convey a certain mood, only to find that that is not what people read into it can make it feel like I have no control over my work. I’ve shared poems with people who have read things into them that I didn’t mean at all, which always brings up conflicting emotions. On the one hand, it makes me worry that I didn’t do a good enough job of saying what I meant, for them to get something so completely different out of it. On the other hand, I can’t help feeling a little jubilant, to know that the reader has connected so deeply with my poem so as to read something personal into it.
In this way I think that the death of the author can be somewhat freeing for writers, because we no longer need to feel responsible for what other people get out of it. By accepting that people will interpret my work in different ways, no matter how hard I try to express something specific, I acknowledge and embrace the lack of control over readers’ interpretations. The poem is no longer about me, but about the reader. By this I don’t mean that as a writer I should not bear responsibility for what I write; I wrote it, it is my responsibility, even if I later decide I no longer agree with the sentiments expressed or the way it was written. Anything I write is a reflection of myself at the time of writing, and if that displays prejudices or failings then that is my fault. No matter how hard I try, however, I cannot wholly control a reader’s interpretation of my work, and it is futile and, I think, against the nature of literature to try. To accept this is to accept that people might read something they (or worse, I) find objectionable into something I’ve written, and while it’s worth re-examining the work in question this does not necessarily mean that there is something inherently wrong with it; it might genuinely be a difference of interpretation.
Ultimately, I think the interpretation of a work’s relationship with its author falls somewhere between completely obliterating the author and reading the entire work only as a reflection of the author’s life. A work of literature is what it is because of the author, but at the same time it’s interpreted the way it is because of the reader, and both the author and the reader are necessary individuals in the interpretation of the work.
Of course, most of my writing thus far has had rather limited circulation, so in five or ten years’ time if I’ve had a novel or two published I might have entirely changed my mind about writing and responsibility 😉