Author and Reader in Harmony

In “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes argues that we should remove ideas about the author from our interpretation of a work.  He claims that by acknowledging a text’s author, we limit the text; and I think he’s right.  If I were to read a text knowing it was written by a politician I abhor, I would naturally come at it with a negative predisposition.  Alternatively, if I thought it had been written by a politician I admire, I would be likely to try to find ways to agree with the text. 

I’ve often found an author I enjoy and read all of her books.  Perhaps the third and fourth books weren’t as engaging as the first and second, but I’d persist because I believe in the author’s ability to write engaging work.  I might even go so far as to convince myself that something I wouldn’t otherwise enjoy is brilliant simply because it was written by a favorite author.  For example, I love most of J.D. Salinger’s work.  His short story, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which appeared in The New Yorker on 19 June 1965, is, I admit reluctantly, an exception.  It rambles, defies logic, and is generally smug and pretentious.  I don’t want to believe that, but I do.  And the reason I don’t want to believe it?  I love J.D. Salinger in all his reclusive, brooding, perpetual adolescence.  He feels like an old friend, and I don’t want to dislike my friend’s story.

With that in mind, yes, I agree with Barthes.  By associating good old J.D. with his work, I make it difficult for myself to even know that I dislike it.  But unlike Barthes, I’m not sure that my presence in or ownership of a work is precludes the author’s.  I think there is room for a reader and an author, and there must be!  Because so often it is impossible to separate the text from its author; and in those cases the reader must simply be self-aware and keep her biases in mind as she reads.