Who Killed the Author?
Roland Barthes, that wag who proclaimed the death of the Author, once said,
“Culture is tyrannically centred on the Author.”
In case you were wondering, old Rolly didn’t see this as a good thing. Well, the word ‘tyrannical’ is a bit of a give-away, isn’t it?
This was during the rebellious 1960s when everyone wanted to beat the system and live in a Yellow Submarine. Barthes saw the Author as part of that system. To put it into the vernacular of the time, the Author was ‘The Man.’ If you’re not familiar with the lingo, daddy-o, I’ll refer you to the prime culture of the day: Hair, M*A*S*H*, Alice’s Restaurant, and basically anything that pits youth — AKA The Kid — against authority, or ‘The Man’.
Hawaii Five-O‘s Steve McGarrett was The Man, but he was sympathetic to the hippie so he was a cool man. Richard Nixon was not sympathetic and he was not cool. Dig?
To Barthes’ mind, the interpretation of the text had been restricted to one voice, that of the creator, and that was not good. It was for the reader to own the text, to decide what it meant.
Be careful what you wish for, son.
Anyway, I do’t want to get into Structuralism or Marxism or all that guff. What I want to talk about is who has the final word on the meaning of the text. Is the reader (or film-goer) a better authority than the creative talent that made the work?
As an author not quite dead, I’d like to think the words I write will be interpreted the way I meant them. However, I am willing to concede the work sometimes takes on a life I never expected once it has slithered out of my hands and crept into the scary world of sometimes lazy readers and sloppy teachers.
I can live with a reader seeing new layers of meaning and subtlety in my text, especially if it makes me look good, ‘cos, yeah, but there are times when I want to cry, like Prufrock:
That it’s not it at all. That is not what I meant at all.
(The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock — TS Eliot.)
If the reader interprets my story in a way that is hugely at odds with how I wrote it, then I will wonder if I failed to be clear. I will beat myself up for my failure to communicate succinctly. After a couple of days, I remember that I’m writing fiction and not a political or religious tract and get up off the floor. Art is in the eye of the beholder.
A couple of years ago I wrote a short story about my youngest brother. I submitted it to a journal who accepted it… for their anthology about mothers.
Say what, now?
Don’t get me wrong. I was delighted to see the story in print. But… mothers?
I reread the story, and I saw their point. The mother certainly was a main character. How had I missed that? Barthes would probably tell me to get out of my own way. That, yeah, I wrote the piece, but it wasn’t mine any more. It belonged to the reader. Fair enough.
Then an acquaintance read one of my books and chastised me for talking about a character being dead several chapters before he actually died. I was horrified. How could I have made such a big mistake? How had all my other readers missed it? So I went back to the text and, guess what, I made no such mistake. My acquaintance had either skipped a chapter, or her reading comprehension was flawed. So much for the authority of the reader.
This got me thinking: What happens when the reader or viewer perceives something vastly different from that the creators intended? Does it matter? Well, yeah…
According to that self-proclaimed messiah, Charlie Manson, The Beatles’ White Album heralded a race revolt. He liked to analyse the lyrics and explain what the Fab Four really meant. For instance:
Blackbird singing in the dead of night / Take these broken wings and learn to fly/
All your life / You were only waiting for this moment to Arise.
Charlie said: The Beatles were urging black people to revolt against the white establishment. Charlie was very big on a war between the races.
Revolution Number 1:
You say you want a revolution / Well you know
We all want to change the world
Charlie said: The Beatles favour a revolution. Guess Chuckie missed the line, “But when you talk about destruction / Don’t you know that you can count me out?”
Will you, won’t you want me to make you/ I’m coming down fast but don’t let me break you/ Tell me tell me tell me the answer/ You may be a lover but you ain’t no dancer./ Look out helter skelter helter skelter/ Helter skelter.
Charlie said: Helter Skelter means the coming apocalypse. These words were written in blood on the refrigerator of the LaBianca home after the murder of its occupants. Though the Manson brain-trust actually wrote it as ‘Healter Skelter’.
The White Album isn’t a collection of average pop songs, any more than The Beatles were an average group. They brought something unique and challenging to music. For a psychopath the album was nothing more than a battle cry for race hatred and murder.
It’s not just the Manson family who were inspired, if that’s the word, by someone’s creative work. For instance:
Catcher in the Rye
JD Salinger’s 1951 novel has famously been linked to a number of violent acts.
- John Hinkley Jr had a copy when he attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.
- Mark David Chapman had a copy with him when he murdered John Lennon.
- Robert John Bardo also had a copy with him when he shot and killed actress Rebecca Schaeffer.
It must be obvious to any sane person that the author never intended the book to become a bible for murderers. Salinger’s intentions don’t matter to the mentally unbalanced. They know what they’ve read and it’s their interpretation. They’re entitled to it, right? At least until the moment when they load hollow-point bullets into a .38 Special revolver.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other examples of art influencing the world in a positive way. Most of the modern Christian world’s vision of heaven and hell come not from the bible, but from Milton’s Paradise Lost.
And the reader’s interpretation is not always corrupt. Sometimes, though, the consequences may exceed what the author intended.
When Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin she intentionally drew attention to the injustice of slavery. It is said that when Abraham Lincoln met her in 1862, he greeted her with the words, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” While Stowe intended to create a dialogue about such enormous injustice, it seems unlikely she could have anticipated the bloody Civil War that ensued.
The Fan Reigns Supreme
Barthes wanted to take the authority from the Author and hand it to the reader. Be careful what you wish for.
It’s one thing for passionate students to debate the morality of Heathcliff in a classroom, but it’s something very different when fans of various TV shows send death threats to an actor or his family, because the plot of their favourite series isn’t going the way they wanted. Or, worse, because the star dared to behave in his real life in a manner that was at variance from his on-screen character. It no longer matters what the author or film-maker have to say. The fan has made the determination and has usurped the Author’s authority. This leaves us with a mob mentality, where the voice of dissent must be shouted down, or even silenced by any means necessary.
There are dozens of examples of extreme fandoms, but let’s just take two shows. Breaking Bad and Sherlock are both very successful series. Both shows attract voracious viewers who have woven the story lines into the fabric of their lives, sometimes in sad and or dangerous ways.
Breaking Bad is the story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston). A struggling high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. With the aid of a former student, Walt turns to a life of crime, making and selling crystal meth in order to ensure his family’s financial security after his death. The character of Walt becomes increasingly corrupt, and yet fans insisted on seeing him as a folk hero.
A friend of mine, a big BB fan, said recently, “No matter how many times Vince Gilligan, the creator, says he intended Walt to go all Scarface by the end and obviously doesn’t want to present running a drug empire as a legitimately cool way of life, many fans refuse to see this.”
In a BB episode called ‘Ozymandias’, fans focused their attention on an explosive telephone conversation between Walt and Skyler. The continued warmth and affection held by fans for the morally degenerate Walt character inspired Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker to say these viewers were ‘bad fans’ who were ‘watching wrong.’ NPR’s Linda Holmes had a similar reaction saying these fans were, ‘freaking me out.’
If you read that carefully, you’ll see another voice has begun to shout down both author and reader (or fan): The critic.
Is Breaking Bad an example of the writer being misinterpreted, or doing his job so spectacularly well that he inveigled fans to identify with a violent and selfish character?
This show is an example of fans crossing the line in very dangerous ways. Actress Anna Gunn who played Skyler White on the show saw fans’ hatred for her character spill over into hate for her as a person:
At some point on the message boards, the character of Skyler seemed to drop out of the conversation, and people transferred their negative feelings directly to me. The already harsh online comments became outright personal attacks. One such post read: “Could somebody tell me where I can find Anna Gunn so I can kill her?” Besides being frightened (and taking steps to ensure my safety), I was also astonished: how had disliking a character spiraled into homicidal rage at the actress playing her?
But I finally realized that most people’s hatred of Skyler had little to do with me and a lot to do with their own perception of women and wives. Because Skyler didn’t conform to a comfortable ideal of the archetypical female, she had become a kind of Rorschach test for society, a measure of our attitudes toward gender.
Anna Gunn, NY Times, Aug 23 2013 Anna Gunn, New York Times 24 Aug 2013
Fans of BBC’s Sherlock tend to be creative, imaginative, and passionate. Many of them also have developed an obsession with something they call ‘Johnlock’. According to the Johnlock ethos, the characters Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson are not just best friends, but have romantic feelings for one another.For some fans, this is simple first love kind of stuff. Holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes. Others have taken it in a highly sexualised direction, involving bondage, S&M, and a variety of activities that would make Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s corpse blush.
Of course, with Sherlock you’re dealing with more than one voice of authority. The series is based on the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as interpreted by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, whose scripts are then interpreted by the cast.
Despite repeated denials by the cast, crew, producers and writers, Johnlock fans will brook no argument. John and Sherlock are gay. GAY! Who are you to tell me I’m wrong? Just because you wrote the thing, doesn’t mean you understand it… See what I mean?
When asked when John and Sherlock are finally going to get into bed together, the crowd boo when writer / creator Mark Gatiss says, “It’s Never. Going. To. Happen.
The crowd boos and Gatiss adds:
No, I’m not joking, it’s not. The point of the series is not to make them an openly gay couple, and as I said the danger is – people say but why, they should be, because we need more openly gay couples in television. Yes we do, but this is our show, and we’re just making a decision about our characters, I’d be very happy to write another show in which there is an openly gay couple and that’s what it’s about, but it’s not this one.”
Look up that quote on any blog or, if you’re brave enough, Tumbl’r post, and you see all the rationalisations made by the fans about how Gatiss is lying / trolling / doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Because, you know, it’s not the creatives who make a successful TV series, it’s the fans. And You Must Do As We Say!
The danger isn’t that fans cling to their own interpretation, despite all these denials; it’s that some fans want to carry the fantasy into real life. John and Sherlock are lovers, they insist, therefore Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch must be lovers, too. Which gets messy when you realise both men are married (to women) and are fathers. Extreme Johnlockers see this as a betrayal and they will not stand for it. They will spend hours examining photos of the men with their respective partners, and look for clues that ‘prove’ their heterosexual relationships are a sham. They will say Cumberbatch’s son is just a doll (I swear, you couldn’t make this stuff up!), and fantasize about their spouses (often bloody) deaths. Some of their behaviour is so extreme it’s pretty terrifying.
But this is the situation we’re in now. Roland Barthes killed the author and now the fans are dancing on the author’s grave. As an author (with a lower-case A. I know my place), I find it troubling. Culture is now tyrannically centred on the Fan. It is a state of mob rule, and mobs never did much for creativity. Of course, that’s just my opinion.
Your mileage may vary.