In the essay The Death of the Author first published in 1968, Roland Barthes attacks the common and traditional view of the author as the ultimate ‘explanation’ of a work. Barthes (and post-structuralist theory) contends that the author can no longer be regarded as the omniscient and all-pervading presence and influence in a work of literature; indeed, he implies that the reader takes over as the prime source of power in a text. At the end of the essay, Barthes suggests that ‘the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author’. The author becomes little more than a hypothesis, a ‘person’ projected by the critic from the text, and a convenient catch-all for the critic, whereas the reader is at liberty to the plurality of the text.
The death of the Author is the inability to create, produce, or discover any text or idea. The author is a “scriptor” who simply collects preexisting quotations. He is not able to create or decide the meaning of his work. The task of meaning falls “in the destination”—the reader.
Barthes explains the idea of ‘the death of the author’ via a specific French literary tradition – that of Mallarmé and Valéry. Mallarme’s poetics consists in suppressing the author in the interests of writing. In a memorable phrase, he wrote of the poet’s role being to ‘cede the initiative to words’. Barthes also refers to the ‘modern scriptor’, implying a comparison between ‘classic realist’ and ‘modern/post-modern’ fiction. It should be remembered that his essay (1968) is close to S/Z(1970) and the essay From Work to Text (1971), which are, inter alia, critiques of bourgeois ideology.
Readers have become conditioned by the idea and ‘construct’ of an Author – be the author dead or alive. Barthes is at pains to dismantle this idea; and deconstructive practice, for example, has shown anyway that authors are extremely unreliable; they often do not know what they are doing; and there is a big discrepancy between intention and result. Authorial authority is highly questionable.
A key passage in Barthes’s essay is:
the image of literature one can find in contemporary culture is tyrannically centered around the author, his person, his history, his tastes, his passions; criticism still consists for the most part in saying that Baudelaire’s euvre is the failure of Baudelaire the man, that Van Gogh’s æuvre is his madness, and Tchaikovsky’s his vice: the explanation of the euvre is always sought on the side of the man who has produced it as if, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, it was always in the end the voice of one person alone, the author, who was giving us his confidences.
Foucault’s essay What is an Author? (1969) should also be noted. Foucault historicizes the notion of authorship in a skeptical way and envisages anonymous texts at the end. But this is distinct from Barthes’s point of view.
Finally, it should be said that, arguably, the ‘death of the author’ was initiated in Anglo-American literary criticism by the New Critics who, like deconstructionists, advocated the primacy of the text (though with totally different results). Barthes has
argued that the New Critics have consolidated the position of the author.