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.

If a rose is a rose then why isn’t an Author an author?

imagesRose is a rose is a rose is a rose’.

This sentence was written by Gertrude Stein as part of her 1913 poem, Sacred Emily and, when queried as to what it meant, Stein replied that although once a poet could use the name of a thing and the thing really was there, now poets call on these same words only to find they are nothing but worn-out literary phrases. Stein was keen to point out that although she was quite aware that in daily life no one goes about saying ‘…is a…is a….is a’, nonetheless it was her opinion that with this sentence, the rose was red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.

What is an author?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary an author is both (1) a ‘writer of a book or other work’ (OED I 1 a) and (2) a ‘creator’ in the sense of giving rise to something (OED II 4 d). Neither definition suggests that an ‘author’ is one who gives meaning however much some might cherish that thought. Stein appears to be suggesting that the meaning of her most famous sentence speaks for itself – not because of anything that she as its author has done – but rather because at the end of the day, a rose really is a rose. As Jennifer Ashton (582) notes, for Stein poetry is ‘a vocabulary entirely based on the noun’; because it is the job of a noun to name something, it should not be a leap of faith to presume that when a noun is invoked it is intended to mean that for which it is its job to name.

Naturally it is not that simple and Stein went on to question the relationship between author, text, and meaning. At least two other thinkers, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, have also weighed in on the subject. Whilst many commentators focus on Barthes and Foucault, I suggest that it is Stein who offers the more comprehensive and enduring elucidation with her ideas concerning the operation of Zeitgeist (or a reasonable facsimile thereof). Not only that but, according to Curnett (4), the poetry and fiction written by Stein is perfect for examining issues of authorial intent because her work is so complex that it defies decoding in ordinary ways. By relinquishing any attempt to exercise ‘authority’ over her words, Stein did what no other author has had the courage to do (Curnutt, 5-6).

After TS Eliot dismissed ‘the importance of authorial intent’ in the 1950’s, the question of ‘what is an author’ has come under increasing scrutiny in the sense of ‘authorial intent’ as an interpretive heuristic (Curnett, 5). The question heats up when, with his 1967 essay, Death of the Author, Roland Barthes eliminates not only (1) ‘authorial intent’ but also (2) the ‘Author’.[1]

Barthes argued that inherent within any text is a multitude of ‘indiscernible’ voices and that the ‘Author’ is nothing more than a shaman or bard who, as in days of old, channels these voices whilst taking no authority or ownership over them. Hence Barthes suggested that rather than allowing authority and ownership to reside with the Author, we instead must transfer them to the reader. The apparent reason that someone must be assigned authority and ownership over words and their meaning is that in the capitalistic ideology underlying much of Western society, ownership equals power (Butler, 25-26).

This idea of words as power is taken up by Michel Foucault when he suggests that knowledge and power are joined by discourse – a set of interlocking and mutually supporting statements, ideas, and concepts (Butler, 45). According to Foucault, we are created through discourse, or the sum of the knowledge we accumulate. Worse, discourse is used to exclude and control – to obtain and retain power (Butler, 45). Society’s power holders – scientists, politicians, the media, and even our parents – decide what we’re told and thus ‘communicate’ us into being. Is it thus any wonder that in his 1969 essay, What is an Author?, Foucault’s opening parry is ‘what difference does it make who is speaking’? Likewise, is it any wonder that Foucault suggests that authors have no God-given message for which readers should be waiting and that it is imperative to realise that an ‘author’ is simply a function (albeit with a culturally accepted pedigree) by which someone – or something – wields enormous (and dangerous) political power?

According to Bennett & Royle (23), these essays by Barthes and Foucault must be considered in their cultural and historical context – as ‘providing a simplified but forceful articulation of a variety of intellectual positions that merged in the 1960’s, in France and elsewhere’. Is it any wonder that these two essays are held to have spelt the ‘death’ of the ‘author’ (with or without the corresponding ‘birth’ of the ‘reader’) given that the most pressing postmodern ethical argument concerns the relationship between discourse and power (Butler, 44)? If knowledge and power are, indeed, joined by discourse then in the spirit of the postmodern is it not better to locate that knowledge and power where it is most effectively controlled – i.e. in readers? Is it not better to take back our Cartesian ‘selves’ as the giver of ‘meaning’ – the pride of the Enlightenment – rather than allowing our ‘selves’ to be controlled by ‘meaning’ (Butler, 50)?

For Barthes and Foucault, texts constructed by a reader have the political advantage of doing away with a dangerous author viewed as, he or she necessarily must be, the bourgeois, capitalist, owner and marketer of his or her ‘meaning’ (Butler, 23). Indeed some have suggested that in keeping with the postmodern thought emerging at this time, the pursuit of textual uncertainties (including the work of Barthes and Foucault) was reactionary against a ‘manufactured consensus of the established political order’ (Butler, 24).

Whilst I am not suggesting that the work of Barthes and Foucault has not been valuable in expanding our understanding of the relationship between author, text, and meaning, I am suggesting that their work was at least as much politically motivated as it was academically motivated and should be viewed as such. Bennet and Royle (23) have suggested that Barthes’ essay was not as ‘systematic’ and ‘rigorous’ as it might have been and despite having admitted it would be unrealistic to assume that ‘the fictive would operate in an absolutely free state’, Foucault was unwilling to entertain parameters by which it might operate other than in regards to power relations (Walker, 552). I believe it telling that however much Barthes and Foucault railed about the connection between ownership and the ‘meaning’ of a given text, they were both unwilling to abandon the notion that – somehow – somewhere – meaning and ownership exists.

Like Foucault and Barthes, in her 1929 essay, Composition as Explanation, Gertrude Stein suggests it is wrong to focus on a finished work and extrapolate about its author (or vice versa). But unlike Foucault and Barthes, Stein does not feel the need to do away with the author (or convert him or her into a theoretical function). Instead she simply states that which I suggest is not only logical but fairly obvious – an author is not the same thing that he or she has ‘made’ (24). Stein goes further by positing that (1) nothing is ever really ‘made’ but instead only ‘seen and that (2) this ‘seeing’ (i.e. the making of meaning) is never accomplished by individuals but by successive generations based on ‘how everybody is doing everything’.

Bassoff (77) links Stein’s argument to the findings of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in that there does appear to exist a formal relationship between societal structures and their art and that such relationship lies at the base of their ‘social reality’. As Stein (24) notes in her essay, every period differs from any other period ‘not in the way life is but in the way life is conducted’ (emphasis added). Bassoff (77) suggests that by this, Stein means that each society will see various things (including texts) as a ‘rework’ of their own conditions. Bassoff (78) likens Stein’s argument to that made by Jacques Derrida suggesting that the meaning of a text is constantly being produced or developed in the sense that there is always ‘something to be added afterwards.”

Whether this ‘reworking’ constitutes ‘Zeitgeist’ – the ‘spirit or genius that marks the thought or feeling of a period or age’ (OED, n), I am in no position to suggest. What I will suggest, however, is in her essay, Stein posits that it is neither the ‘author’, in the OED sense as writer or creator, nor the reader (or any group of readers) that gives meaning to text. Instead, meaning is and will continue to be given by whatever it is that lies at the base of that generational ‘reworking’. I further suggest that this view is more (1) comprehensive (in the – OED adj, 1a – sense of larger in scope) and (2) enduring (in the OED adj – sense of lasting) than that of either Foucault or Barthes.

As Bennet and Royle (23) point out, rather than solving the problem of interpretative authority, Barthes has simply transferred it to the reader whilst for all intents and purposes, Foucault has transferred it to a theoretically constructed function (Walker, 551). Stein has done neither. Her argument allows for ‘real life’ readers and authors to continue as they always have been presumed to been operating in regards to text and meaning whilst also acknowledging that (1) such meaning is made and (2) will change over time. As Bennet and Royle (23) point out, the essays of Barthes and Foucault must be ‘seen’ in ‘cultural context’. By contrast, Stein’s essay ‘is’ cultural context. As Stein (27) herself writes, ‘As I have said in the beginning, there is the long history of how everyone ever acted or has felt and that nothing inside in them in them in all of them makes it connectedly different. By this I mean all this.’

‘Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose’.

In replying to the query of what this sentence meant, Stein referred to ‘all those songs that sopranos sing as encores’ about ‘I have a garden! Oh, what a garden!’ Although she did not put too much emphasis on that line, she did point out that ‘you all know it; you make fun of it, but you know it.’ Equally although successive generations of readers have been familiar with both Stein and her work, it is precisely because they have failed to understand it and thus laughed at it (and her), that she has been made famous (Curnutt, 4).

What is an author?

images-1In summary, although the ideas of Barthes and Foucault are useful in understanding the relationship between author, text, and meaning, Stein’s ideas about Zeitgeist as ultimate determinant of meaning are more (1) comprehensive in the sense that she was not compelled to spell the ‘death’ and/or ‘birth’ of anything or anybody but instead has looked beyond such theoretical particularities to realistic generalities and (2) enduring because unlike the work of Barthes and Foucault, Stein’s ideas are not wedded to the political ideology of any particular period but are consistent with the fundamental anthropological understanding about human society, amen. Finally, let us not also not forget that whilst Barthes and Foucault were both unwilling to abandon the notion that – somehow – somewhere – meaning and ownership exists, Stein practiced what she preached by relinquishing any attempt to exercise ‘authority’ over her words.

[1] Barthes’ use of a capital ‘A’ is often taken to mean that with his death sentence he was referring not to an individual author but to the concept of author and the functions associated with authorship.



Barthes, Roland. The Death of the Author (pp. 142-148). Image-Music-Text. ed. and trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978.

Foucault, Michel. What is an Author? (pp. 205-222). Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology. ed. by James D Faubion, trans. Robert Hurley and Others. New York: The New Press, 1998.

Stein, Gertrude. Composition As Explanation (pp. 21-30). Gertrude Stein: Look at Me Now and Here I Am – Writings and Lectures 1909-45. ed. by Patricia Meyerowitz. Hammonsworth: Penquin Books, 1967.

Ashton, Jennifer. ‘Rose is a Rose’: Gertrude Stein and the Critique of Indeterminacy. Modernism/Modernity, Vol 9, No. 4, pp. 581-604.

Bassoff, Bruce. Gertrude Stein’s “Composition as Explanation”. Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 24, No. 1, Spring 1978, pp. 76-80.

Bennet, Andrew and Nicholas Royle. The Author (pp. 19-34). Literature. Criticism and Theory. Harlow: Pearson Longman, 4th Edition (2009).

Butler, Christopher. Postmodernism – A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Curnutt, Kirk. Parody and Pedagogy: Teaching Style, Voice, and Authorial Intent in the Works of Gertrude Stein. College Literature, Vol 23, No. 2, June 1996, pp. 1-24.

Walker, Cheryl. Feminist Literary Criticism and the Author. Critical Inquiry, Vol 16, No. 3, Spring 1990, pp. 551-571.