Are Authors Real?

Outside the world of literary criticism this would be a very odd question indeed. Are authors real? Do they exist as flesh and blood persons? Did they channel their works through that flesh, that blood, and that brain which, with all the quirks and mannerisms accumulated over a lifetime of experience, gives each product of their imagination its unique properties? Of course they are! One can even meet them at book signings, lectures, and commencement speeches. But as odd as the question may seem, the methodological skepticism that it represents has its uses when one thinks systematically about writing and storytelling, as students of literature are wont to do.

This past semester I had the pleasure of exploring this question with a small but dedicated group of students in our Advanced Concepts in Writing and Criticism class (ENG 315). Of all the concepts we encountered (and they were many), ranging from relatively straightforward to exceedingly complex, this one, the idea that there is a distinction to be made between real author and implied author, this is the one that, so to speak, stuck in our craw. I would be lying if I said that the unease, even outright resistance, that accompanied this strange notion came from the students alone. First, though, the concept needs defining.

The idea that there must be, between the real author and the narrator, an additional figure called the “implied author” was popularized in literary criticism by Wayne Booth in the 1980s, in a piece titled “Distance and Point of View: An Essay in Classification.” Booth writes: “Even the novel in which no narrator is dramatized [i.e. third person] creates an implicit picture of an author who stands behind the scenes, whether as stage manager, as puppeteer, or as an indifferent God, silently paring his fingernails. This implied author is always distinct from the ‘real man’ – whatever we may take him to be – who creates a superior version of himself as he creates his work; any successful novel makes us believe in an ‘author’ who amounts to a kind of ‘second self.’ This second self is usually a highly refined and selected version, wiser, more sensitive, more perceptive than any real man could be.” Whenever we read, we are guided to imagine characters, settings, situations; we also imagine, however, this implied author, this omniscient and omnipotent creator responsible for the work we are reading. Booth’s point that this second self is superior to the actual self of the real author may seem implausible at first, but anyone who has met one of our literary heroes only to have one’s expectations disappointed will soon realize that it is not so implausible after all. The disappointment is not (or not always) due to the real author’s flaws but, perhaps, to the inevitable distance between his or her real self and the second self that text and reader conspired to create.

While the concepts developed by Booth are grounded in a holistic (narratological) concern with narrative and its functioning, more extreme versions actually precede his formulation. Most notably, Roland Barthes, in the 1960s, comes to it from a structuralist approach and pretty much reduces the author to a compiler of codes who, at best, rearranges what is already available in language and culture into new forms and combinations. Complete novelty is therefore impossible since the reader’s understanding (decoding) of a text depends on recognizing the somewhat familiar rather than in deciphering the radically new. Barthes makes the seductive argument that nobody writes the text, or, more generously, that writer and reader perhaps write it together in a joint, asynchronous activity of encoding (by the writer) and decoding (by the reader)… and down the rabbit hole we go!

The popularity of such concepts after the 1960s has much to do with correcting the elevation of the author to almost sacred status which characterizes the development of national literatures and their subsequent use in legitimizing the nation-states that developed in Europe roughly between the 18th and 19th century. Having a literature of one’s own, a list of masterpieces produced by national geniuses, was not only an expression, archive, and source of national values, but also proof that the population expressing these sublime works had a natural right to govern themselves in a separate, sovereign state. Since great authors are now national geniuses and cultural treasures (think of Shakespeare or Dante or Cervantes in their respective countries), they and their works are treated with nigh-sacred reverence. The stakes being so high, it is no accident that literary criticism emerges in part from biblical exegesis (interpretation) as critics begin reading poetry and fiction with the same attention and seriousness that theologians devote to the Bible. By the 1960s, and under the influence of Marxist ideas, Barthes (and others) must have thought that “Authors” needed to be taken down a peg or two.

My own misgivings about the more radical versions of this theory have to do with what I see as an implicit devaluing of people’s labor, namely of the labor of that category of individuals we call “authors.” When presented with a text, especially one we deem highly successful, we are also confronted with a literary invention that required great sacrifice, dedication, effort, and resilience, as well as the expenditure of significant material and psychological resources; not to mention a sufficient quantity of that ineffable quality we call talent. Analyzing the complex networks of meaning and relations that contribute to the work before us should not require diminishing the dignity of authorship. Milder and more sensible approaches are possible, as illustrated in the work of sociologist Howard Becker who suggests, instead, that while collaboration occurs in different degrees in the production of any work of art (more so in film, for instance, and less so in poetry), not every participant deserves equal credit. For Becker, authors and artists are defined by the quality of their contribution, by the fact that they are responsible for the largest portion of the core activity necessary to make art. As an example, the painter does much more of the core activity necessary to make the painting than those who made the canvas and colors, or those who pay for the work to be made, or even the teachers and mentors who taught the techniques being used.

It follows from all this, for me at least, that a measure of resistance to the idea of the implied author is a rather healthy attitude, and one that I don’t think would scandalize Booth. The caveat, however, is the rather common risk of throwing away the baby with the bath water. Imagining an implied author between the real author and the narrator is a sound methodology that protects both the real author from too quickly being held to account for the actions and thoughts of his narrators and characters, while also protecting the student of literature from making untenable claims of insight into the psyche of a stranger on the flimsy basis of some fiction they wrote. Only a vast biographical account of an author’s life and work can afford to make direct yet advisably cautious claims about intentions, motives, and feelings. In most textual analysis and criticism, much better to attribute what we discover to characters, narrators, the text, and, in some cases, the implied author. After all, we, as real readers, would not want to be burdened with the assumptions that writers make about implied readers (a category Seymour Chatman thinks ought to be added to Booth’s system to complete it).

The need for critical training that alerts students to the dangers of seeing bridges where there are, in fact, chasms was brought into sharp relief, for me, in the survey class I taught right after the course in advanced concepts. In the space of a mere half hour (ie. my lunch break), I would transition from esoteric discussions of the finer points of literary theory to a historical overview of literary periods and their characteristics as embodied and illustrated in mostly short fiction. In the transition I quickly discovered how short the short circuit between narrator and author can be, carried on the current of hasty assumptions about attitudes, feelings, and intentions. It seems to me that too quick a passing from analysis to judgment occurs at the expense of a proper appreciation of depth in literary works; a depth created by the social, historical, and cultural context in which the works were made, filtered through the unique consciousness of a real author. A hasty reconstruction of the real author is likely to result in the production of an implied author that reflects more our own situated sensibilities. This implied author is, so to speak, made of straw. So, to avoid the sin of presentism (the historian’s name for this all too human tendency to judge the past from one’s experience and values) it is wise, I think, to introduce inexperienced literary scholars to the implied author as a methodological figure that stands between the text and its creator, just as it is wise to discourage experienced scholars from completely replacing real authors with an abstraction that has no heart and no brain. As for courage, it is for all of us to find in our travels down the yellow brick road.

Prof. Andrea Pacor