“The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”: Or, Ron + Hermione 4-Ever

One more reason I love my job: I spent my January sitting around a conference table talking with students about book covers, fan fiction, and the role of the “Author” and “Reader” in contemporary culture. My “Culture of the Book” class is always a favorite to teach – it’s based on my own research interests and dissertation work on the Early Modern London Book Trade, it involves lots of time cuddled up with old books from our library’s Special Collections and Archives, and it opens students up to a whole new world of literary study beyond things like character and plot and content.  Our intense January session schedule (a semester’s worth of work in 15 days) meant that we discussed dense theoretical articles for three hours at a time on snowy/Polar Vortex-y mornings; but, my students were very much up to the challenge.

Arguably the best discussion we had during the course was one about two oft-referenced articles about authorship: “What is an Author?” by Michel Foucault and “The Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes.  My students and I considered the current “hero-worship” of certain authors, for example, and explored the ways that certain living authors like John Green and George R. R. Martin are reacting to and embracing trends in social media.  Perhaps the most lengthy discussion came from the provocative ending of Barthes’s short piece: “The birth of the reader,” he concludes, “must be at the cost of the death of the author.” Is an author “dead” once his or her book reaches the public, we wondered?  What about living authors who continue to comment on their writing process and creative inspirations?

harry_potter__ron_and_hermione_by_cactusrain-d3lhh7oJust a week after the conclusion of my class, J. K. Rowling reminded us that these questions are still extremely relevant.  Some seven years after the publication of the last Harry Potter book, she’s still rethinking her “authorial” decisions.  As the Sunday Times reported on Febrary 2, 2014: “It was romance every Harry Potter fan wanted to see. Now JK Rowling has admitted she got it wrong by pairing off Hermione Granger with Ron Weasley rather than her franchise’s hero.”  Clearly, it was the comment heard ‘round the (social media) world, and the passionate comments by readers – including me – validate everything that Barthes was getting at in his article.  In our fiery tweets and Facebook posts and random in-person Sunday conversations about how Ron and Hermoine were indeed destined for a future of happiness (see my own Facebook comment:  “they offer each other what they need — Ron makes Hermoine more flexible and Hermoine makes Ron more serious” !!!), we confirmed our important roles as readers.  A text, once it leaves Rowling’s hands, becomes ours – and though she may not be “dead” in the literal sense, she is now just one more reader: rethinking her first reading of the characters and the plot and engaging with the text as if it were a living, breathing, document.

And, after all, isn’t this exactly what all authors and readers want?