Those Gosh-Darned Authors!
When you publish a book, it’s the worlds book. The world edits it.
Michel Foucault’s essay “What is an Author?” brings to the fore many questions about our current cultural relationship with authors that merit examination. I had long accepted that when discussing a text, the question of what the author was “trying to say” was a mistake on the part of the critic. Not only was it a fruitless endeavor (how would you really verify such claims?), but such claims really had no bearing on the relationship between the readers and the texts. I embraced, instead, the prospects of symptomatic reading forwarded by Frederic Jameson: that it was the duty of well-practiced readers to unearth the mystery of texts as it relates to human nature and cultural critique. However, a bridge needs to be constructed because the figure of the author is an ever-present eye over the text’s relationship with the reader. The problem is that a story cannot stand alone, in the same way a published scientific discovery might, a fact that was not always true but actually true in reverse. The stories we share are always mediated by the authors who write them, and we are therefore limited in scope and diversity. My personal library is littered with a series of books that I selected based on my perceived relationship with a specific author (12 Faulkners, 11 Steinbecks, 10 Roths, 9 Cormac McCarthys, 8 Dostoevskys, 7 J.K. Rowlings, 6 Franzens, 5 David Foster Wallaces, 4 Salingers, 3 Safran Foers, 2 Tolstoys, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree). While I might squash the urge to say, “X is saying Y based on factors B, D, and F,” the stories with which I build my worldview are inherently limited by choosing process that is dependent on authors (even more embarrassing for me is that all of these authors are white men with the exception of J.K. Rowling who is perhaps far more culturally affirmative than the homogeneous group I have cited).
After Foucault explicitly makes clear our ineffaceable and destructive relationship with the figure of the author, he offers the following pipedream: “I seem to call for a form of culture in which fiction would not be limited by the figure of the authors. It would be pure romanticism, however, to imagine a culture in which the fictive would operate in an absolutely free state, in which fiction would be put at the disposal of everyone and would develop without passing through something like a necessary or constraining figure.” I wonder whether the growing world of self-publishing, made particularly easy through e-books, can move us towards this dream-world. I am inclined to say no. With the increasingly limited leisure time that average joes (or more accurately average janes) are willing to dedicate to reading, readers would appear to cling ever more tightly to authors they trust to give them a good thrill. A slew of positive reviews and press, or critic awards, are almost necessary to launch an unknown author into the consciousness of the reading market. While some self-published writers are building a name for themselves and garnering headlines, the wave is not large enough to lead me to believe at this point culture will engage with stories without an author’s name on the cover.