A Quick Introduction to Literary Theory: Watch Animated Videos from the Open University

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, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Intro­duc­tion to The­o­ry of Lit­er­a­ture – Free Online Video – Free iTunes Audio – Free iTunes Video – Course Mate­ri­als – Paul H. Fry, Yale

h/t Cather­ine

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load 55 Free Online Lit­er­a­ture Cours­es: From Dante and Mil­ton to Ker­ouac and Tolkien

Crash Course on Lit­er­a­ture: Watch John Green’s Fun Intro­duc­tions to Gats­by, Catch­er in the Rye & Oth­er Clas­sics

An Intro­duc­tion to World Lit­er­a­ture by a Cast Of Lit­er­ary & Aca­d­e­m­ic Stars (Free Course)

Michel Fou­cault: Free Lec­tures on Truth, Dis­course & The Self

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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