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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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This post forms part of my ‘aspects of the novel’ collection. Please do note that these entries, which may appear basic, are simply my own notes on the subject. They implicitly or explicitly describe a canon not of my own making or choosing and replicate this from various sources. The original encyclopaedia articles are far more comprehensive, nuanced and worth consulting.

What could be easier to describe than “authorship” of a novel? You sit down, you write the thing, and you’re the author, right? In one sense, yes, but it’s also (been made) much more complicated than that.

The traditional humanist conception of the author is stereotyped as positing a romanticised individual as the “lone genius” creator figure of the work. However, literary criticism since the 1920s (e.g. the New Criticism) began to challenge the idea of the author as the determining point of meaning. Indeed, several schools of literary criticism explicitly deny that the author’s intention can be reliably used as a guide to the meaning of a work, which changes the power dynamics between author and reader (the so-called “Intentional Fallacy”). Various structuralist viewpoints, such as those posited by Althusser, further de-prioritise the role of the author, instead seeing the interpretation of texts as the complex intersections of various socio-ideological positions.

In post-structuralist terms, two essays by Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault respectively form touchstones for later critiques of authorship (although Foucault would reject the label “(post-)structuralist”). Barthes’s essay, “The Death of the Author”, from 1968, re-situates the author (or “scriptor” as he terms this person) as an assembler of cultures, but states that the work is re-written every time it is re-read. Writing, for Barthes, resists a singular approach, both in writing and interpretation. Foucault, by contrast, in “What is an Author?”, from 1969, argues that authors are the products of texts and discourse. An author is a function that is retrospectively constructed by the discourse (environment) in which s/he existed.

These ideas of (non-)authorship are far from uncontentious. E.D. Hirsch is perhaps the most virulent critic of such ideas, in his Validity in Interpretation. Others write of the “implied” or “inferred” author to refer to the figure that readers imagine behind a text. It can also be problematic in postcolonial, feminist, gender studies, and disability studies to believe that the erasure of the author’s identity is a positive move.

It is worth noting that contemporary systems of copyright very much explicitly recognize the role of the “author”. By writing something, in many countries an automatic copyright is bestowed upon the work that will last until well after the author’s death. That said, the publication of books is an enterprise that requires many diverse forms of labour – say, for instance, copyeditors who change the words on the page. The idea that authors should have copyright protection rests on the idea that writing is labour. However, it is not the only labour that goes into producing and disseminating written work.

Further reading:

  • Althusser, Louis, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)’, in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. by Ben Brewster (London: NLB, 1971), pp. 121–73
  • Barthes, Roland, ‘The Death of the Author’, in Image, Music, Text, trans. by Stephen Heath (London: Fontana Press, 1987), pp. 142–48
  • Burke, Sean, The Death and Return of the Author: Criticism and Subjectivity in Barthes, Foucault and Derrida (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008)
  • Eve, Martin Paul, ‘Scarcity and Abundance’, in The Bloomsbury Handbook of Electronic Literature, ed. by Joseph Tabbi (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), pp. 385–98
  • Foucault, Michel, ‘What Is an Author?’, in The Essential Works of Michel Foucault, 1954-1984, 3 vols (London: Penguin, 2000), ii, 205–22
  • Hirsch, E. D., Validity in Interpretation, Revised Edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977)
  • Kernan, Ryan James, ‘Author’, in The Encyclopedia of the Novel, ed. by Peter Melville Logan, Olakunle George, Susan Hegeman, and Efraín Kristal (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), pp. 69–73
  • Turnovsky, Geoffrey, ‘Authorship’, in The Encyclopedia of the Novel, ed. by Peter Melville Logan, Olakunle George, Susan Hegeman, and Efraín Kristal (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), pp. 73–82
  • Willinsky, John, The Intellectual Properties of Learning: A Prehistory from Saint Jerome to John Locke (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2017)