THE DEATH OF THE "AUTHOR"
By Alex Good
It is one of the ironies of postmodernism that Roland Barthesís claim to
literary immortality comes from having pronounced the "death of the
author." What he meant was that an authorís intentions in creating a text
are irrelevant in interpreting that text. The death of the author was life for
Academics immediately fell in love with the notion because it seemed to place
them on an equal footing with genius. Meanwhile, authors who knew what Barthesís
theory amounted to were powerless to do anything about it. The announcement of
the death of the author came after the fact, recognizing a dramatic shift in
cultural power that had already occurred.
Today it all seems obvious. If you look at it from an economic viewpoint,
academics and critics are more important than creative writers.
Professional critics enjoy far greater job security, social status and
employment benefits than authors. And the money! Every year the salaries of
Canadian English professors making over $100,000 a year are published in the newspapers.
Dare we compare how many writers in Canada are making six-figures? The average
annual income of a professional writer in Canada is only around $12,000, a
salary that even the lowest of contract or sessional workers in one of our
English departments would despise.
If anything, Barthesís pronouncement was a little late, even in 1968. But
after a revolution it usually takes a while for the winners to let us know what
I mention all of this because the recent controversy over the authorship of Notes
From the Hyenaís Belly is a clear indication that another revolution is
nearing its completion. And as was the case in 1968, an obituary may be overdue.
Who wrote Notes From the Hyenaís Belly is not an important issue
except for those directly involved: the "author" Nega Mezlekia and his
"editor" Anne Stone. What is important is what people in the media,
people who should know, have had to say about authors.
Anne Stoneís own comments are a good place to start. "Authorship is an
industry concept," she tells us. "It doesnít identify or see the
communities from which a work comes." Elsewhere she is even more to the
point: "Iím still completely unclear of what it means to be an Ďauthorí."
Confusion about what being an author means may seem a little strange,
especially for someone who has written a couple of novels. Stoneís attitude,
however, has found a good deal of support in the media.
One of the judges for the Governor-Generalís prize, and no defender of Ms.
Stone, testifies "Many editors have placed profoundly transformative hands
on my work." A column in the Globe and Mail quotes one editorís opinion
that 50% of Canadian non-fiction is significantly re-written. Later, the
columnist describes her own initiation into the "dark art of hands-on
editing", which is "code for saying the book will be restructured and
rewritten, and very few paragraphs will resemble the original." Hoodwinking
the "author" into thinking the book is their own is, apparently, just
part of the game.
Alas, the quotation marks around the word "author" are all in the
Now even Philip Marchand has come out of the closet, admitting to completely
rewriting a childrenís book that was, strangely, accepted for publication
despite being unpublishable. He goes on to opine, "The notion of the author
as the solitary genius, owing nothing to the collaboration or input of others,
is an invention of print culture."
An "invention." An "industry concept." The
"author." Could it be that the postmodernists, who declare the process
of a work of artís production is more important than the art itself, were
right all along? Are these "communities" that supposedly write books
the disguised social forces of the New Historicism?
In any event, the message to take from all of this couldnít be clearer.
"Everybody does it," and the idea of any author, or
"author," creating a masterpiece all on their own, shivering in a
garret or hiding out in a log cabin somewhere, is just naÔve. Such romantic
notions of solitary genius belong to a myth of creative individuality that doesnít
apply any longer. Indeed, listening to some of the comments that have been made,
youíre left to wonder if it ever did.
Such is the effect of the rear-view mirror. Poor William Blake. Maybe all he
really needed was a good agent.
Now if youíre thinking that authors are going to speak out against this
loss of face (to put it mildly) you had better think again. After all, the
people Iíve been quoting are authors, and, quite obviously, they know
their place. Even in the acknowledgments made by todayís "authors"
you can see how the landscape is changing. Twenty years ago how many novels had
acknowledgments? I can think of very few. Now they are the norm, and growing at
an alarming rate (for more on this, see here).
Meanwhile, even more surprising than the comprehensiveness of todayís
acknowledgments is the nature of what they are actually saying. In many cases
they not only make it clear that the book wouldnít have been successful
without the support of a certain publisher and/or agent, but that the book could
not have been written "but for" that support.
Do they mean it? And has it always been so? Itís enough to make one wonder
how the historical novel was invented at a time when there were no research
assistants. Or how Emily Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights without an agent
to hold her hand. Compared to the authors of previous eras, todayís
"authors" seem a pretty frail bunch indeed.
The cause of this sad decline in the idea of creative independence isnít
hard to locate. BookWorld is converging with an entertainment industry where the
costs of production, promotion and advertising have skyrocketed. (Leading, not
coincidentally, to ridiculously expensive books. Make no mistake: Somebody has
to pay all those suits.)
What this means is that the entertainment product has to be managed every
step of the way. These books do not "come out of" a community, they
come out of a corporation, and what corporations produce are largely anonymous
products. This is BookWorldís business model, and it has lead to predictable
(and uninspiring) results. Why anyone thinks the publishing world should be any
different than, say, the recording industry, where the biggest stars and most
celebrated "artists" often donít write or in some cases even perform
their own music, is a mystery to me.
A column I wrote a few weeks ago concluded with the observation that in the
future the book industry wouldnít need writers at all. I certainly hope no one
thought I was being facetious. What I was suggesting was only a common sense
solution to problems like the Mezlekia/Stone dispute.
Seeing as the book industry is now modeling itself so completely after the
movie biz, it only makes sense that they borrow movie industry practices for
attribution. Disputes over authorship (or who gets a "credit") should
be handled by an independent review board that will look at the drafts and find
out what percentage of the text can be attributed to whom. And seeing as the
"author" may only be a celebrity image or brand name, the corporation
behind the image or brand should receive full credit too.
I imagine the title page of the future looking something like this:
Giant Publishing Press
In Association with XYZ Talent International
Produced by Corporate Publishing, Canada
Edited by Collins, Jones, and Becker
Written by Jane Doe & John Smith
With additional dialogue by Billy Canuck
(Based on an Original Idea by Joseph K.)
If it sounds a little strange now, just give it time. In a while you may get
used to it.
After all, given the reality of the situation confessed to in the past month,
how long can it be before more "editors" follow Ms. Stoneís lead and
demand the public recognition that, from all accounts, they richly deserve? From
the number of interviews with prominent editors and agents that I have seen on
TV and read about in the news in recent months, I think it fair to say that Mr.
Marchandís notion of editors shunning public recognition is old-fashioned at
So, only thirty years after Barthesís pronouncement, we find ourselves in
mourning again. There is
no reason for putting the business off. Let this column be the obituary. But donít
feel that you have to personally attend the service. Rather send an empty
carriage, like those tokens of affliction that attend the funeral of Sir Pitt in
Vanity Fair. Mourning by proxy will be a wholly fitting tribute to the
death of the "author."
Essay first published online December 20, 2000.