Just what is an author? It might seem like a silly question, and an academic dissection of the term may seem like a needlessly pedantic exercise. But the very variability of the concept means it isn’t a stable, fixed idea at all, but a shifting set of associations we have with notions about creativity, the social role of art, and that elusive quality known as “genius.” Questions raised in the Open University video above—part of a series of very short animated entrées into literary criticism called “Outside the Book”—make it hard to ignore the problems we encounter when we try to define authorship in simple, straightforward ways. Most of the questions relate to the work of French poststructuralist Michel Foucault, whose critical essay “What is an Author?”—along with structuralist thinker Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author”—disturbed many a literary critic’s comfortable assumptions about the creative locus behind any given work.
In the 18th century, at least in Europe, the author was a highly celebrated cultural figure, a status epitomized by Samuel Johnson’s reverential biography of John Dryden and edition of Shakespeare—and in turn Johnson’s own biography by his amanuensis Boswell. The 19th century began to see the author as a celebrity, with the hype and sometimes tawdry speculation that accompanies that designation. In the mid-twentieth century, even as the idea of the film director as auteur—a singular creative genius—gained ascendance, the inflated role of the literary author came in for a bruising. With Foucault, Barthes, and others like W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley—whose essay “The Intentional Fallacy” more or less ruled out biography as a tool of the critic—the author receded and the “text” gained primacy as, in Foucault’s words, a “discursive unit.”
This means that questions of authorship became inseparable from questions of readership, interpretation, and influence; from questions of historical classification and social construction (i.e. how do we know anything about “Byron” except through biographies, documentaries, etc., themselves cultural productions?); from questions of translation, pseudepigraphy, and pen names. Put in much plainer terms, we once came to think of the author not simply as the writer—a role previously delegated to lowly, usually anonymous “scribes” who simply copied the words of gods, heroes, and prophets. Instead, the author became a god, a hero, and a prophet, a godlike creator with a “literary stamp of approval” that grants his or her every utterance on the page a special status; “that makes even the note on Shakespeare’s fridge a work of profound genius.” But that idea is anything but simple, and the critical discussion around it anything but trivial.
Ditto much of the above when it comes to that other seemingly indivisible unit of literature, the book. In the even shorter video guide above, Open University rapidly challenges our commonplace ideas about book-hood and raises the now-commonplace question about the future of this “reading gizmo.” For more “Outside the Book,” see the remaining videos in the series: “Comedy,” “Tragedy,” and “Two Styles of Love.” And for a much more sustained and serious study of the art of literary criticism, delve into Professor Paul Fry’s Yale course below. It’s part of Open Culture’s collection, 1,500 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.