Monday, 17 October 2011

The Death of the Author. Live.

The Death of the Author is a 1967 essay by Roland Barthes which posits that the author's intentions and context shouldn't be taken into account when reading a text: meaning is repeatedly created in the space between the words on the page (expressed in a language which predates and survives the author) and the reader's interpretation(s) rather than fixed. An author might try to constrain interpretation, but it's hard to do: the reader might be 200 years later, in a completely different context. Not that authors don't try: read Susan Suleiman's excellent Authoritarian Fictions for some examples.

However, the Death of the Author means something slightly different today. I've just ordered Terry Pratchett's new novel, Snuff. The title alone is redolent of death - snuffed out, snuff movies - and the work is a fantasy take on the murder-in-the-library country house crime genre. As a fan and admirer of Pratchett's increasingly leftwing satire, I'm sure it will be a winner.

But - I'm increasingly aware of a personal and public interest in Pratchett that impinges directly on the Death of the Author. Pratchett announced some time ago that he's contracted Alzheimer's disease. He's made documentaries about its progress, spoken movingly about the need for euthanasia, and donated large amounts of money to research. What concerns me is that there's a morbid interest in the books that isn't literary. I'm starting to feel that we aren't reading the books, we're reading the author, searching the text for indication of Pratchett's mental decline - perhaps a narrowed vocabulary, maybe a looser plot. It's like rubber-necking a car crash.

The problem is that I can't ignore it. If I didn't know about Pratchett's condition, I'd read the book and judge it by comparison with his previous work, with other authors, with my own mental conception of a successful novel. Now, I'm forced to read the novel in the prism of Alzheimer's, and I resent that. I'm not a purist Death of the Author critic: I'm interested in the context of a work's generation, but I'm finding it hard not to read Pratchett through the novel, as though it's an index of its author rather than a discrete work of art, which I'm sure he'd hate too.

We can hardly blame the media for milking all the pathos it can out of the situation - one could hardly expect vampires to swear off a drop of the red stuff - but I don't like it one little bit. When's the decline coming? How much editing is needed before publication? Will the publishers wring him dry or do the decent thing when the time comes? The clock's ticking. It's Celebrity Literary Deathwatch - and we're all hooked. Ugh.

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