God, wrote Nietzsche, is dead.
The empty cathedrals of the world are his tombstones.
The Author, announced post-modernism, is dead.
The empty novels of the world are his graveyards.
Killing the creator has become quite a joyful occupation.
As Barthes put it: “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing”.
(Image-Music-Text, Collins, p,143).
Writing under this shadow becomes a corpse, a corpse to be animated, with jouissance. Criticism is necromancy. The hermetic text becomes the elixir whilst the “author” retreats to the prima materia, to earth, and is laid to rest.
Removing the author does have its advantages. It gets rid of the authorial tendency to spout about the creation: how good it is; what it is about: why it should be compared with other great writers. But murdering the author just to avoid these ego trips is rather severe. Common readers are not so easily fooled and taken in by vanity.
So what is the place of the author?
Enshrined within the idea of authorship is the idea of genius. Amazingly, the author is an individual who is supremely gifted and able to write at a level beyond the common human being. Our belief in this, however, has taken something of a battering. Some of the great paintings of the world were not painted by the Great Masters: the job of painting was delegated. Some of the finest realists did not draw their figures free-hand, they copied using light devices. Damian Hirst is an “artistic genius” though the donkey work of making becomes the employment of artisans. The maker does not have to make. But this is the art world. What about literature? Surely, old beliefs still exist here and the novel reflects its roots in “newness” and springs from the mind of a fresh and unique individual.
I remember once coming across an enthusiastic proof-reader who felt the need to refine my punctuation and argue for fewer “passive voice sentences”. That was possible to consider. (Microsoft Word has a similar problem with my writing!) I also recall that this was followed by a zealous proof-editor who wished to substitute her words so as the article reflected “ideology”. Here, the brakes went on. And it was certainly “No” when a second proof-editor requested that whole passages be changed in line with what he saw as “a masculine house-style”. As I pointed out at the time: my meaning was in my words and in the ordering of those words. I was not a brick-layer building a bungalow.
There is a point, surely, when editorial help becomes intrusive. And more worryingly still, a point when editors can become invited participants into the game of writing and publishing concerns replace authorship and authenticity. The most extreme example of this has to be “ghost writing”. It isn’t the writing of someone else’s story that worries me. Helping to tell a story is therapy. (Therapy "draws out" through words). It is the ventriloquism performed by publishing houses under this term. So, the hidden writer writes what they think the “author” wants to say. (How does anyone know that?) Then the “author” claims the book as their life’s story. (In what sense is it their story? Or are they alive?) This is the dummy claiming to be real and making the ventriloquist into the puppet.
Personally, writing is about honesty and effort. I think of Frederick Douglass. He was an illiterate slave. He used every devious strategy possible to learn to read and write. He painstakingly read and modelled writing on his reading until he could tell his story. Language was his liberator, the spirit that pushed him towards escape and liberation from slavery. His Narrative of the Life is a work of genius (Though the White press claimed that it was “ghost-written” because Black people did not have minds capable of authorship!). A work of genius because every page testifies to an original and challenging mind that has worked therapeutically with language. In cultures where the quick-fix has become the norm, killing off the author isn’t the only problem: it’s raising the unborn into a false life. The philosopher's stone is inside and close at hand, though it might take a long journey to realise that, and it cannot be bought from the hands of editors, a lesson beautifully crafted by Paul Coelho in The Alchemist.