theories of authorship from Homer to the present
This volume in the Critical Idiom series investigates the changing definitions of the author, what it has meant historically to be an ‘author’, and the impact that this has had on literary culture. Andrew Bennett discusses the various theoretical debates surrounding authorship, exploring such concepts as authority, ownership, originality, and the ‘death’ of the author. Scholarly, yet stimulating, this study offers the ideal introduction to a core notion in critical theory.
He deals with the fundamental question of ‘what is an author?’ and its correlative ‘what does the text mean?’ Asking these question leads to others which take into account copyright law, printing technology, censorship, plagiarism, and forgery. The study begins (rather curiously) by looking at two influential essays – Roland Bathes’s ‘The Death of the Author’, and Michel Foucault’s riposte ‘What is an Author?’ Their theories appear to remove the author, but in fact they are just saying that taking the author into account is only one way of interpreting a text.
You need a strong intellectual stomach to take this as a starting point. Andrew Bennett might have been kinder to his readers if he had led up to this abstract theorising after an explanation of more traditional notions of authorship, such as that offered by Martha Woodmansee which he quotes:
an individual who is solely responsible – and thus exclusively deserving of credit – for the production of a unique, original work
Beginners could easily skip to chapter two and come back later, because he then goes on to trace the history of authorship through European cultural history.
First there is the question of Homer. Was he a real person, of just a ‘figure of speech’ or a ‘back-formation’ in the tradition of oral poetry which produced The Iliad and The Odyssey?
In the medieval period the author was only one of a number of people who might contribute to the composition of a work. Their fundamental concept of authorship was different than ours, and the author might even be anonymous:
Since manually copied books were … distributed amongst the limited circle of the writer’s community, adding the writer’s name to a manuscript was largely redundant. [Then] as the copied manuscript was disseminated more widely, the writer’s name became irrelevant in a different, opposite sense: precisely because the writer was not known to readers outside his community, his name had little importance.
There’s a fascinating discussion of Chaucer as a major transitional figure who straddles three traditions: the oral poet performing to a group; the writer working in a textual tradition; and the precursor of a modern author who inserts himself between the text and the reader. It is at this point that the modern concept of authorship enters European culture – at the end of the fourteenth century.
Then comes the important development of the age of printing. This changes everything, and introduces notions of control, censorship, and copyright. This in turn leads to some mind-turning concepts – for instance that print leads to something fundamentally new and contributes to the process of individualisation. Much of his argument at this point is heavily indebted to the work of Elizabeth Eisenstein and Walter Ong.
It should be remembered that in the early Renaissance there was “an aristocratic disdain for the profession of writing and a prejudice against publication in print on account of its perceived propensity to undermine the fragile class boundary between the aristocracy and the lower gentry”.
This is a tough read, but it’s exciting because it raises so many issues that are important to our understanding of what constitutes ‘literary studies’, and it also seems that these relationships between author, text, and reader are being given a re-shaping with the advent of the Internet and digital writing (though he doesn’t deal with that).
He covers Romantic notions of authorship, which persisted well into the twentieth century, then looks at Formalism, Feminism, and New Historicism. This involves the famous Wimsatt and Beardsley essay ‘The Intentional Fallacy’; the attempts made by feminists to reconcile ‘death of the author’ with their desire to rescue women authors; and what he sees as the New Historicists failure to get rid of the individual creator.
There’s a chapter on collaborative authorship which also includes consideration of film, and he ends by testing out contemporary notions of authorship on recent examples of literary ‘events’ – in particular the publication of Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters.
This will be of interest to all students of literature at undergraduate level and above – and in particular those taking courses which include consideration of authorship and the history of the book. One thing is for sure. Anyone who has not considered these theoretical issues before will find some thought-provoking ideas here.
© Roy Johnson 2005
Andrew Bennett, The Author, Abingdon: Routledge, 2005, pp.151, ISBN: 0415281644
Literary studies links
If you found this article interesting you might want to Tell-A-Friend.