THE AUTHOR and “I”
Most of us are conditioned to think of an author as the individual who holds final say over what a text means. With this mindset, we tend to conclude that we must first know what the author really meant, or at least know something about the author’s personal life, in order to understand the real meaning of a text. To understand The Scarlet Letter, for example, we feel that we must first know biographical details about Nathaniel Hawthorne. Was he raised in New England? Was he a Puritan? Was there a history of adultery in his family? Without knowing such facts about the author’s life, we might suppose that we can never know “the truth” of a text but only our own poor, second-hand interpretations based on mere guesswork. Here, we believe that the author functions like a key, and a text will not open to us without it.
However, while biographical details (or “extra-textual details”) can be useful, they aren’t necessary. Contemporary literary theorists take the position that meaning resides with the reader interacting with a text. Reference to authorial intention is not always necessary. (In fact, authors and texts often contradict themselves. See Barthes and Foucault for more on this.) That’s because reading is not merely an act of decoding a series of written symbols containing fixed, unchangeable meanings. If reading were decoding, it would be like using a can opener to open cans containing the preserved definitions of words, the author’s biographical facts, and “the truth” of a text. Reading is not so passive an activity as this. Instead, in the act of reading, the reader brings to a text many personal experiences, assumptions, ideologies (and, just like the author, may not even be aware of bringing all this to the act) and so on. The reader activates the text, calls it into being. This is why some communities of readers can read the same book but disagree as to whether they should ban or celebrate that same book.
But wait! People still have names! Texts have authors! And what about that “I”?
Good question. First, you must think of a text as having two authors: the actual flesh-and-blood author and the “rhetorically constructed” (or “textually constructed”) author. As you read, the rhetorically constructed author takes form and arises from the pages of a text. For example, science fiction writers often write in the first person – the “I” in a novel – but we know to separate the “I” (who might be narrating an effort to colonize Mars) from the writer (who might be living and writing in Hollywood, California).
Even so, if the writer is any good, we can become emotionally involved with that “I” and its Martian colonization effort. That “I” has a personality, a set of beliefs, and problems to overcome just like us. That “I” seems so real! So true! So the second thing you must think about when analyzing a text is how it constructs its “truth-effect.” For example, if our science fiction novel becomes a hit movie, you can be sure that DVD extras will include behind-the-scenes footage of how the special effects team created the oh-so-real illusion of space travel to Mars.
When we readers focus on the rhetorically constructed author and the truth-effect of a text, we no longer find that our interpretations are the poor products of mere guesswork. We become grounded in a world of textual evidence that we can point to and examine to understand how the text works upon us to create its truth-effect. Do you see? The actual flesh-and-blood author now becomes extra-textual and can be set aside: we readers become the key that unlocks meaning to a text.