The author's bookshelf (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The author’s bookshelf (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

In “What Is an @uthor,” an essay that appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books last week, Matthew Kirschenbaum reconsiders the role of the author in the interpretation of his or her own texts. Though literary theorist Roland Barthes famously proclaimed the author “dead” in 1967, arguing that authorial intent has no bearing on the meaning of literary works, Kirschenbaum suggests that the author has since been resurrected: “the mere profusion of images of the celebrity author visually cohabitating the same embodied space as us, the abundance of first-person audio/visual documentation, the pressure on authors to self-mediate and self-promote their work through their individual online identities, and the impact of the kind of online interactions described above … have all changed the nature of authorial presence,” he writes.

The title of Kirschenbaum’s essay recalls Michel Foucault’s 1969 “answer” to Barthes, “What Is an Author?.” Foucault maintains that the author herself doesn’t exert as much critical influence as the “author function,” or the way in which her canon of works is socially received. The author function is closely bound up with the status and genre assigned to a particular writer — for instance, while Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume My Struggle, an exhaustive account of the author’s life, is considered literary fiction, Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl is a memoir, a lesser categorization. Such an assessment is ideologically laden. Men write autobiographical fiction worthy of serious consideration; women write memoirs or, worse, “personal essays,” which are frivolous, emotional, and often without literary merit.

Kirschenbaum suggests that the author’s newfound ability to participate so publicly in critical evaluations of his or her own works has modified the author function: now that the author is charged with cultivating an active public image, readers can incorporate the author’s own take on his or her writings into interpretations. William Gibson’s comments about his latest work, for instance, feature into the ongoing discussion of its meaning and relevance. As it turns out, the new book, The Peripheral, is a sequel to Gibson’s earlier Blue Ant trilogy.

Kirschenbaum’s piece focuses on the ways in which an author’s input can enrich our understanding of his or her writing. But the phenomenon that he isolates — the increased visibility of the author — also has another dimension. As authors take to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites, the boundary keeping their personal and professional lives apart begins to blur. The figure of the reclusive author, embodied by such fanatically private figures as J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee, is a thing of the past as fact and fiction bleed into one another: authors like Tao Lin routinely excerpt real Gchat and email exchanges in their literary works (Lin came under fire for copying emails from an ex into a novel), and Philip Roth, J.M. Coetzee, and, most obviously, Knausgaard routinely integrate autobiography and invention.

It isn’t just that fiction tends toward the autobiographical but that life itself is fictionalized as literary personas compose Tweets and blog posts. In a world where much of our experience is narrativized even as it occurs, literature and reality draw closer and closer to one another. Some have prophesied the death of fiction — and, as Kirschenbaum notes, the author. But I think “real life” will be the one to go.

Becca Rothfeld is assistant literary editor of The New Republic and a contributor to The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Daily News’ literary blog, The Baffler, and Slate, among other publications....

One reply on “How Authors Are Killing Their Own Writing”

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful summary and response to my essay. I would note that Mr. Gibson has subsequently tweeted that the Peripheral is NOT in fact an explicit sequel to the earlier trilogy (these tweets are in the comment section over on LARB). Of course, those tweets also go to the main point of the essay itself, which is precisely about the ways in which social media affords authors new opportunities to help shape the conversation around their own work.

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