Kill the Author to Create Your Best Story
A few weeks ago, I tweeted about “Author Death,” more traditionally known as “Death of the Author,” a critical device popularized in the mid to late-twentieth century. For brevity’s sake, I’m going to use the shorter term, “Author Death.”
Today, I’m going to tell you why you should absolutely embrace Author Death. I’ve already experienced its necessity in my release of Legion of Mono, where I’ve had a few readers . . . get testy when they discover the main character, Mono, is a man after assuming he was a woman because he has a husband. More on that story later.
So what is Author Death?
The idea is a simple one. When you write words and send them out into the world, your intent in creating those words DO NOT MATTER. The words communicate alone; in the words of Roland Barthes, relying on the author’s interpretation imposes “a limit on the text.” The power and meaning of a text are derived from the reader’s reaction, not the purposes of the author.
Author Death isn’t something you prove or disprove; it’s merely a heuristic through which authors and readers can view works. Today, I’m going to argue that every author should work under the paradigm of Author Death. Why? Because it will only make your writing better.
As an author, what is your purpose? Why do you write?
Everyone has a different answer to this question, so I’ll only answer definitively for myself. I write because I have a million stories stuck in my head, and each of them longs to make its mark on the world and inspire thoughts in the minds of others. If my stories can encourage other people to do good works in the world, improving it for future generations, I’ll have considered my writing worth all the effort.
So for me, the way my writing affects other people is of fundamental importance to my craft. My intent doesn’t matter. If I don’t succeed in actually causing people to view the world through a new lens, then I’ve failed. And I can’t go argue with a reader, telling them they should have read my work another way. That’s hubris and arrogance on a level best left for . . . well, fill in the blank.
Let’s Return to Legion of Mono
In Legion of Mono, the gender of Mono, the main character, isn’t directly mentioned until the third scene, about five or six pages into the story. I intentionally left Mono’s gender ambiguous, because I wanted to challenge people’s assumptions. Mono is a man, and Mono has a husband. LGBT+ relationships are rare in traditional fantasy stories. If readers assume Mono is a woman because he has a husband in those first few pages, then when they learn otherwise, they experience a moment of confusion.
I’ve discussed this moment with a number of my readers. The results have been . . . interesting. Some readers love it! They appreciate that I’ve “checked” their assumptions. Other readers feel like I’ve deceived them, and that it affected their experience of the story. That’s important knowledge for me to know, but it illustrates the importance of Author Death. I have my reasons for writing the story in a particular way, but I must live with the consequences. I’ve received negative reviews because of that choice.
Yet is the experience of those readers “wrong” or “incorrect?” No. It’s their experience. They don’t know me. They don’t know the intents of the author. They can only read what is on the page before them. So in their moment of experiencing my story, only the words matter. My intents matter not.
So why must authors embrace Author Death?
Because it will make us better writers. If we could talk with every reader and tell them why we meant every word, why would we write our stories in the first place?
If you consider the impact of every word you put on the page, then you’ll ensure that the story you want communicated to your reader actually reaches them. I’m totally okay with causing a visceral reaction in my readers in Legion of Mono. I think that moment of “checked” assumptions is important, because it causes readers to reassess their gendered mindset. If it costs me a few bad reviews, so be it.
Similarly, perhaps you want intentional ambiguity in your story. You don’t want readers to know the exact way the story ends. You want it to end in mid-sentence like the Sopranos. Embrace what effect that will have on your readers!
Ignore your own intent. Kill your pride, and let the words tell the story on their own. Only then will your story become what it was meant to be.
Do you disagree, or have other thoughts on the idea of Author Death? Comment below, or tweet about it @tavenorcd!