Rebecca Lerner: Let’s Kill The Author Again

Sunday, October 2, 2016 - 2:53pm

My Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism gets a lot of attention, much more than any of my other accessories. If you’re looking for people to gasp and ask what you’re doing with such an obnoxiously large book, I would recommend it. As usual, the five-pound anthology garnered the friendly concern of the person I was talking to — in this case, one of my English professors. I mentioned that in my literary theory class, we were starting with New Criticism. I rolled my eyes and he responded with an audible groan at the Formalist movement that dominated 20th-century analysis.

New Criticism is unpopular. It’s not as French as deconstruction, not as relevant as gender and queer theory and nowhere near as sexy as Marxism. One of its key components, close reading, can be an arduous and overused pedagogical tool. Because the things that we have learned from it are so easy to take for granted, we often discount it. But as I delve further into a world in which the insanity of the outside bleeds into the text, I can understand a case for a text as a self-contained object. Could the scientific nature of New Criticism have a place in today’s literary world?

Quite possibly. The trials of our current age hold concrete parallels to those of the era of New Criticism. The movement arose as a dismissal of a superficial version of romanticism and subjectivism. In “The Intentional Fallacy” and “The Affective Fallacy,” William K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley argue that both the author and the readers should be excluded from the scene. They operate on the premise that the creator is not in their right mind — that they are fundamentally unreliable because writing is akin to a sort of possession. The theorists assert that the author’s “intention” should not be considered and as readers, we shouldn’t conflate our emotional responses with the meaning of the text.

I love a good authorial interview, where they reveal some hidden meaning in a book and entirely enlighten the experience of reading. But a biography can weigh down a text with the pressure of expectations. When I extensively read Emily Dickinson this summer, I could vividly picture her — I’d been to her house in Amherst and listened to a tour describing her life. I had stood in the room where she died, secretly touched the chairs in her brother’s house next door. So now it feels annoyingly hard to read a Dickinson poem and not see the homoerotic undertones, not pretentiously nod and say, “Clearly, this is about her secret longing for her mean-but-hot sister-in-law, Susan.”

But when I read Louise Gluck for the first time this summer, it was completely different. At the New England Literature Program, without the ability to stalk her online or learn about her life, I could fully immerse myself. I dove into lines like “We have come too far together toward the end now/to fear the end. These nights, I am no longer even certain I know what the end means. And you, who've been with a man— /after the first cries /doesn't joy, like fear, make no sound?” Without worrying about Gluck herself and who she was talking to or thinking about, I could actually appreciate the melody and meaning of her words.

There’s a beautiful argument in New Criticism against gut reactions to a piece of work. Emotionality seems to dominate the English class discussions of today. The words “I think” and “I just feel like” are more prevalent than references to the actual text. I’m not prepared to say that the feelings that a piece evokes aren’t important, but I disagree with the valuation of a reaction over analysis. If anyone is looking for bold statements, I am prepared to say people who overuse the word “interesting” in analytical classes should be expelled with only a copy of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism to remind them of their time here.

In “The Death of the Author,” Barthes states that writing becomes a neutral space where the subject slips away, meaning that no “person” is saying this. But to give a text an author is to impose a limit on it. There’s so much pressure to “have a voice,” to be “authentic” in your writing. New Critics felt that authors could have different voices over different texts, meaning that the volatility of the self could be reflected in an author’s work. In some ways, the author is created by the text instead of the other way around. An author is not consistent across texts and should not be expected to be. If we give it a chance, a text can speak for itself without any author pushing their own neuroses between the lines.