What does death of the author mean? Can you still enjoy a controversial author? (originally published in the focus)

The death of the author is a curious thing. JK Rowling is back in the firing line. With the hashtag #RIPJKRowling trending on Twitter and the flames of condemnation burning bright, many are asking whether or not they can enjoy their favourite works if the authors are controversial.

JK Rowling and transphobia claims

This latest billow of controversy surrounds JK Rowling’s latest book, “labyrinthine epic” Troubled Blood, the fifth instalment of the Cormoran Strike series. Rowling’s detractors have sought to boycott her works, citing repeated evidence of transphobia as justification.

Rowling has been here before. In June, she clashed with online commentators regarding a Devex opinion piece entitled ‘Creating a more equal post-covid-19 world for people who menstruate’. In December 2019, a slew of tweets attracted similarly negative responses online.

Played out online for all to see, such tête-à-têtes garner a lot of attention. Twitter roared; Ricky Gervais weighed in; Superdrug launched a range of sanitary products for “people who menstruate”. What does it all mean?

#RIPJKRowling and the death of the author

Without getting into the specific nature of the argument, it resulted in many Twitter users declaring Rowling dead – as in, cancelled. To be clear, JK Rowling is not dead; the idea behind the storm is to kill her career, her status, and her authority. 

Interestingly, book authorship is the only artistic profession whose name is rooted in the very notion of authority. Both words stem from the Latin auctor, meaning ‘originator’. The authorial voice is the authority on the text. The author, in other words, is God.

Image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay 

What does ‘death of the author’ mean? Origins of the term

The phrase, “death of the author”, goes back to 1967. In a short essay entitled La Mort De L’Auteur – literally The Death Of The Author – French literary critic Roland Barthes argued that, once written, or birthed, a text – whether it be a book, film, song or play – should exist in its own right, separate from its author. 

The thrust of the argument is that to detach a text from its author is to liberate it. Readers must separate a literary work from its creator to liberate the text from interpretive “tyranny”. Its creator relinquishes authority at the point of publication; the text’s so-called “intended meaning” is irrelevant.

Once freed from the meaning its author prescribes, a text creates more meanings. Every time someone reads a book or listens to a song, they interpret it uniquely. The multiple meanings of a text proliferate with each reading.

Barthes’ The Death Of The Author is an attack on traditional literary criticism that focused too much on trying  to retrace the author’s intentions and original meaning in mind. Instead, Barthes asks us to adopt a more text-oriented approach that focuses on the interaction of the reader, not the writer, with it’ 

Cultural Reader

Can you enjoy an author’s books if the author is controversial?

Barthes’ essay ends with the line: “The birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the author.” So by distancing yourself from JK Rowling (in this case), you enable the text to live on its own merit. 

Whether or not it still holds up is down to each individual. Would you read it differently if you didn’t know who its author was? If you read it in a cultural vacuum, without foreknowledge of controversy, would you find it abrasive?

Image by Markus Winkler from Pixabay 

Controversy and ‘cancellation’

Similar arguments have arisen around such controversial figures as Rolf Harris, Gary Glitter and Jimmy Savile. These entertainers all saw their careers plummet and reputations crash in the wake of public disapproval. Can you still listen to Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport without wincing? What about Michael Jackson’s Bad?

The most horrific of all such cases happened in 2013, when it emerged Lostprophets co-founder and lead singer Ian Watkins was guilty of crimes it doesn’t even bear repeating. It is unlikely the band will ever be played on the radio again. Such was the extent of their “cancellation”.

Basically, it’s up to you

All these incidents exist on a spectrum – or, in fact, on two spectrums. On the one hand, one must judge the severity of the crime. The more severe the crime, the less likely you are to go on consuming their work. On the other hand, an enduring classic is more likely to survive when pitted against pop fiction or a mediocre song. 

Some cases are downright nauseating; in other cases it is easier to “kill the author” and experience the work without attaching it to its creator. What do you think?

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