I was at a lost for what to write about this week. Rather than spend a few paragraphs gushing over the essays in Supposedly Fun Thing (of which I have many favorites – Michael Joyce, David Lynch, E Unibus Pluram, the title essay, and Getting Away are all fantastic), however, I wanted to take a moment to return to our old debate on the Death of the Author, as mentioned in Greatly Exaggerated. The title isn’t coincidence, of course – it’s pretty obviously a reference to Twain’s famous quote – but certainly underscores where DFW stands. But the question remains: is the author dead? Why do we need authors? Obviously the postmodernists and the poststructuralists are of the opinion that the work is the work, and the nature of the Intentional Fallacy plays to that point, but what’s the point behind the author in the first place?
As a writer myself, I would disagree with the poststructuralists on the lack of need for an author. For one, writing is a frequently personal art. As depicted in these essays, DFW is writing from a personal position – his tragicomic experiences in “Supposedly Fun Thing” and “Getting Away” underscore this, even though he himself noted that the character he created in his essays was different slightly from his own personality. In this example, it’s fairly clear that the author has something to do with the work. But there’s another way to approach the question of the author:
We’re all familiar with the “monkeys banging on typewriters writing Shakespeare” story. But what would the meaning be behind, say, Hamlet had the work been written by a room of monkeys? While it would be the same text, it’s fairly obvious that monkeys have no sense of, say, irony or drama – so why would we expect the same from monkeys’ copies of Shakespeare? Of course, the poststructuralists would at this point start hollering about how the Hamlet of monkeys would still have meaning to the readers in question, but would it have the same meaning? Of course, they’d lob this metaphor back: imagine we were handed a copy of Shakespeare – how do we know this is actually Shakespeare rather than, say, monkey-Shakespeare? Well, for one, it’s pretty clear that we couldn’t know whether it was Shakespeare at all unless we had read it before. So, let’s chop this example down to a very literate five-year-old living in a bubble. Would the author then matter?
Maybe. The poststructuralists would probably argue at this point that the dialogue between author and reader must be the same between monkey and reader, and because the monkey can’t carry on a dialogue, there’s no dialogue actually happening – it’s all the reader’s monologue. But there are a few problems with this theory. For one, the metaphor presented above (very literate five-year-old living in a bubble being given a fake-Shakespeare by monkeys). For another, how would the people creating this fake-Shakespeare know that they had a monkey-Shakepseare on their hands? Only if they were comparing that monkey-Shakespeare to the real thing, at which point it isn’t a new work but rather a copy, and if there was something different about this monkey-Shakespeare it wouldn’t be a Shakespeare, would it?
I know this isn’t really a fair way to go about things. Let me explain. The nature of a book is that there was intelligent design that went into it. Were books written by computers, they would lack the personal touch that goes into the art. As an abstract art fan, I can say that a random person throwing paint at a wall isn’t necessarily stupendous (and, indeed, that 10-year-old who produces marginally horrifying works of art and selling them for thousands of dollars isn’t a savant, either, thank you very much) – our works are not randomly generated, because they have meaning independent of that. Inthe same way, if the author was dead, the dialogue would still be happening – otherwise, the works loses all meaning. Any work that can create dialogue is art, and works without authors are frequently without dialogue. There must be an author, lest there not be a work any more. This is why people still make (a little) money writing, rather than being supplanted by monkeys.