Barthes’ The Death of the Author: a meditation


Tina Dubinsky

While Roland Barthes died over three decades ago, his influence on literary theory continues to surpass his existence. Writers and especially students of writing continue to ponder over his meditations, notably The Death of the Author (1968).

My first reaction to Barthes’ text was to reject it. I disagreed with the thought that writing contained no originality. I clutched at straws citing Einstein’s and Newton’s theoretical writing as examples of original expression.

“…the writer can only imitate a gesture forever anterior, never original;”

– 1968, Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author

Yet, the more I considered The Death of an Author in light of my inquiry into the reader, the more I began to appreciate Barthes’ ideas.

Barthes’ ruminations

  • The writer as a scriptor who produces a text.
  • The writer’s meaning forming just one interpretation.
  • Once an author is gone the author’s meaning loses its relevance.
  • Readers give meaning to a text.

“…a text consists of multiple writings…”

– 1968, Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author

Crafting and other sources

As a scriptor, I craft texts from a myriad of other sources. These sources include other texts, as well as personal and borrowed experiences and observations.

Each word that I select and place on a page has an origin beyond my existence. My conscious mind collects and feeds words and their meanings to my subconscious for storage.

As I write, I recall words and their meaning. My memory and unconscious mind impacts the word’s delivery. Often a secondary meaning applies to the text. I assign this meaning not as the writer doing the writing, but as the writer reading.

Fictional authors and poets whose texts influence my creativity include:

  • JRR Tolkien,
  • Jacqueline Carey,
  • Holly Lisle,
  • Ray Bradbury,
  • Charlaine Harris,
  • HG Wells,
  • Garth Nix,
  • Victor Hugo,
  • R.A. Salvatore,
  • Robert Jordan
  • Anne Bishop,
  • Judith Wright,
  • Terry Pratchett,
  • Daphne du Maurier, and
  • John Keats.

But my list of influences goes beyond fictional authors and poets. It also includes theorists, scientists, commentators, tutors, artists, performers and musicians. People like:

  • Carl Sagan,
  • Max Planck,
  • Rimsky Korsakov,
  • Lindsey Stirling,
  • Borodin, and
  • Edward Munch.

“…the true locus of writing is reading.”

– 1968, Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author
A reader uses his own experiences to interpret a text. (Adobe Stock: aeroking)

The reader’s role

When the reader interprets a text they place an emphasis upon words, meanings and hidden meanings based on their experiences and knowledge.

While the writer may create a space in which to invite the reader’s imagination, the reader ultimately wields the power of interpretation within the creative space.

Even if the reader’s interests in the text lead them to investigate the author’s intentions, the reader retains authority and gives meaning to the text.

Historians and critics often attempt to interpret what they perceive as the author’s intent. While the reader may use this information for their interpretation, they still control the context.

Ultimately it is the reader’s interpretation of a text that prevails, regardless of the author’s intent.

Roland Barthes as a source

My interest in the reader began before I became familiar with Barthes’ The Death of the Author (1968).

By acknowledging the reader’s important role to interpret the text, Barthes denies the author-god’s claim to the only true interpretation of their text.

But I feel the essay does more to encourage the author to contemplate how their writerly word choices, narrative techniques and use of semiotics within the text can guide the reader’s interpretation towards a collective meaning.

Understanding the reader

Advice to writers about understanding their audience can be conflicting, but knowledge of the reader provides the author with language and narrative choices. When considering the audience, an author selects words, tone, pace, voice and themes that resonate with their reader.

“Lauren DeStefano, author of The Chemical Garden Trilogy, cautions against researching the market, as there is the potential to lose a unique writing style (Klems, 2015). Professor Dominique Hecq (2015) recommends genre concerns might be best left to an editor. Yet, I am also encouraged to place myself in my “target readers’ experience”, to produce “a book that resonates with them on a deeper, thematic level” (Scheller, 2015). Young Adult Editor, Regina Brooks (2015) recommends writers to research what Young Adult (YA) editors desire in manuscripts. This leads me to the understanding that editors work in specialised markets. Before approaching an editor, I should know my genre and where my writing is placed.”

– Extract from Genre vs Creativity, a proposal for a practice-led research inquiry into the application of the New Adult genre during the reshaping of a creative writing practice. Dubinsky, May 2015, Swinburne University of Technology.

Readers own the meaning of the text

Author Ian Irving advises, ‘The lesson is obvious: your story has to start in the first paragraph, with an interesting character facing some kind of problem that captures the reader’s interest or concern’.

A text’s journey ends with the reader’s interpretation. While curiosity engages reader interest, playing with reader expectations, indulging in tropes and breaking them with the use of narrative devices, provides the reader with surprises.

While, I am encouraged to write for myself as the writerly-reader at some point as the writer, understanding my chosen genre and the reader of that genre forms part of the knowing.

“…the unity of a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination,…”

– 1968, Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author

As the interpretation, appreciation and acceptance of a text ultimately rests with the audience, consciously shaping a text towards readers’ desires also adds value to creativity.

Knowledge of readers’ thematic likes and dislikes merge with other sources in my unconscious mind, a place where my creativity incubates.

And eventually, I must be willing to let go my work, so it may forge new experiences for others.

A meditation on The Death of the Author

Dies the Author read by Tina Dubinsky

Dies the Author

Deepest dark
A hollow space
Not masked or covered
A blank face
Devoid of form
No clarity
My inquiries
Lie empty
They stare at me
Beyond the screen
A question raised
Of the unseen
There, but not there
The unknown
The reader
Reads alone
Stuck on pages
Deemed not right
Into the night
Between the sheets
The story lives
Faceless am I
Stripped bare of word
Dies the Author
Neither seen, nor heard.

Comments, thoughts?