The changing fortunes of the ‘author’, ‘reader’, and ‘text’ in English literary criticism

barthes_graphThe interpretation of the relationship between conceptualizations of either author/reader vis a vis their engagement with a literary text and the relative significance of all three have grown increasingly complex and attenuated. It is my view that although such distinctions are of intellectual interest, their only practical benefit being to highlight new and novel parameters through which authors and readers may frame and express their engagement.

During the English reformation Sidney (Defence of Poesy) and Spenser (The Fairie Queen) announced that the purpose of poetry was both to ‘delight’ and ‘teach’. This was to be achieved through mimesis, the process of imitating (with a view to perfecting) nature. Arguably both the author and reader are equal partners in this process – the responsibility for delighting and teaching rests with the (real live) author and responsibility to being delighted and taught rests with a (real live) reader.

In the 18th century, when critics began scrutinising and commenting on various texts, the author arguably began to loose significance in favour of the reader/critic. By the end of the 19th century with poet-turned-critic Matthew Arnold, who espoused an objective criticism of poetry (proper subject matter = proper execution of authorial duties) the focus had shifted almost exclusively to the text leaving the significance of both author and reader in serious question. In the beginning of the 20th century, New Criticism (based on the ideas expressed by TS Eliot in his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent) picked up this theme of text as good or bad and declared that a text was a self-referential aesthetic object – with authorial intent irrelevant and the role of the reader reduced to determining how the text slotted in (or not) with a historical line of ‘great’ texts.

In the mid 20th century with the advent of the Structuralists, the focus was on identifying similarities and differences amongst texts with a view to finding patterns (theme, design, symbology) common to all texts; in this regard the text remained of primary importance with the author and reader carrying little or no significance.

When the Post- Structuralists pronounced that as Nietzsche has declared there were ‘no facts only interpretations’, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault announced the ‘death of the author’ along with the corresponding ‘birth of the reader’. With this neither ‘author’ nor the ‘reader’ are real, live persons as had previously been understood but a ‘function’ for wielding the (dangerous) political power inherent in words.

With all meaning resting firmly now in the hands of the ‘reader’, other critical theories come into their own – looking for ‘meaning’ outside the text in many different places – for example, in gender politics (feminist and/or gay-lesbian criticism), in culturally determined divisions of society such as class (Marxist criticsm), or in cultural norms, beliefs, and practices (Cultural Materialsm and New Historicism). But by the time the Postmodernists come on board at the end of the 20th century, meaning has become so relational and provisional that it – as well as the authors and readers who would try to pin it down – all but (happily) disappears.

In summary, whether any of these many distinctions from the time Spenser and Sidney to the Postmodernists change the way readers and authors actually engage with their texts is questionable and unless rigorous scientific study is undertaken (to my knowledge this has not been done by any of the critical theorists) we will never know for certain. Hence I suggest that in in the 21st century when an author sits down to write a text he is pretty much still focused on delighting and teaching (or at least delighting should he wish his text to be picked up by mainstream publishing) and when choosing texts to read, readers will quickly put down anything that fails to either delight and/or teach and hence the question of his/her role vis a vis the author and/or text quickly becomes irrelevant. However at least should a reader choose to engage with a text, these critical theories will provide him/her with new and novel ways to frame and express his engagement.

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