A few years ago I went to a speech by Salman Rushdie in Winnipeg. As I recall, the first thing out of his mouth was “the author is not dead.” The reference, of course, is to the fact that he had survived the fatwa that was declared against him by the Ayatollah of Iran in 1989 for writing the novel The Satanic Verses. (The fatwa is actually still in place, though it seems Rushdie’s days of hiding in fear are, thankfully, long over.)
But more than simply a reference to his own very literal survival, he was also alluding to the famous 1967 Roland Barthes essay “The Death of the Author,” in which Barthes argued that interpretation of a text should be focused on individual readers, rather than on the intended meaning set forth by the author herself.
Since I began writing The Daily Bonnet, a Mennonite satirical news site, I’ve seen this concept in action. Never before has my writing been as public or as widely read as it is now. The sheer volume of readers means the range of reactions is diverse. I didn’t know how people would respond when I first started it. I’m a Mennonite, and I definitely have a self-depricating sense of humour, but would other Mennonites enjoy being satirized? I would say the answer is overwhelmingly yes.
It’s true that not everyone likes it. I have received some criticism, but, to be honest, I’m actually surprised how limited that criticism has been. Perhaps the harshest response was when I was told to “drink bleach,” but beyond that one Facebook message that, I assume, was sent during some degree of intoxication, the overwhelming majority of the responses have been positive and I’m very grateful for that. It seems us Mennonites are not nearly as uptight as some people like to believe.
Still, satire is complex. There are layers of meaning, and just because a reader gets a joke, doesn’t mean they necessarily get the joke. On a recent post, one reader said,”this is not funny,” while the very next commenter praised it as “hilarious!” and another said “this is the funniest one yet.” So, which is it? Completely unfunny or totally hilarious? I can only write based on my own instinct, and people can only respond based on their own. I can’t possibly please everyone with every post, nor am I even intending to.
Whether it’s funny or not is not as interesting, though, as the meaning people assume that a text has. What I find most fascinating is how some people will project their own meaning onto the text and make assumptions about what my intended meaning is. I am not surprised by this; I’ve written a lot before. However, with The Daily Bonnet I am reminded of this strange phenomenon on a routine basis. Some will say, “Oh, I get your point. You’re saying….” etc. Or “I disagree with what you’re saying because…” Both of these response are not actually responding directly to anything I have written, but rather, what they interpret me to have written. You could almost say they arguing (or agreeing) with themselves.
Some will account for this using social notions of privilege, and indeed, anedoctally, the vast majority of the people who have demonstrively presumed to know exactly what I mean by what I’m saying have been white men. (I have very rarely seen this reaction from women.) But, of course, I myself am a white male, though perhaps the readers don’t all know this. I suspect that psychological factors such as narcissism and personality traits also come into play.
In the end, I respect Barthes’ notion of subjective interpretation, but what I’ve described here goes well beyond the scope of reader-response criticism. When we say “the author is dead” we mean that my (as a reader) response, and my reaction, and my engagement is more important than what the author intended with the text. Fine. However, we cannot say that my reaction equates to the author’s intention. I’m telling myself this because I’m sure I’m as guilty of it as anyone. We each bring our own perspective to a text, which is fantastic, but we cannot presume that this perspective is an accurate evaluation of the author’s intended meaning. It is our interpretation alone, not the author’s.
If the author is dead, then let him remain so. If the author is dead, then this peculiar penchant to force an interpretation onto the author, if I can be excused for using this metaphor, appears to be more than a little necrophilic.
(photo credit: Fronteiras do Pensamento/CC)