There’s a Tumblr post from 2019 doing currently numbers that purports itself as applying Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” to fandom.
Friends, it really does not.
What the tweet thread from February and original Tumblr post do is use Barthes’ work as an excuse not to uproot the status quo. The condescending Tumblr post uses Barthes to excuse not doing any work to make fandom better and more welcoming, twisting his words and the very concept of Death of an Author in order to basically provide a very academically blurred version of “don’t like, don’t read”.
You can actually read “The Death of the Author” for yourself and put those thoughts together about how you can use it in your every day life, but overwhelmingly, it is a piece about literary criticism.
Using it to argue against criticism and against critical thought and careful creation isn’t just wrong, but an absolutely purposeful “bad faith” interpretation of his theoretical frame.
“The Death of the Author” is a rejection of author-focused criticism in that… it doesn’t matter what the author is, only what the author creates.
Authorial intent, if we can get it, can explain choices that the author makes – like Anne Rice grieving the death of her daughter leading to her writing the child vampire Claudia. It does not stop the reader from questioning what the author wrote or how the story plays out. To continue the Anne Rice link… authorial intent doesn’t stop readers from then wondering why Rice never gave Claudia a happy ending and uses her spirit or ghost to ill-effect in Merrick… or like… having questions about the way Claudia was written in an almost eroticized nymphette way (something that I’ve found come up in very old criticism of the book!)
However, “The Death of the Author” also is something that kicks in differently for everyone because it’s a theory that essentially positions the reader as the new author dethroning the old.
Take Lovecraft for instance. Everyone who reads Lovecraft’s work gets something different from it. Even the people who get “wow, this man was incredibly racist” don’t all get the same forms of racism from his work. They’re all reading and contextualizing the text differently, creating “their” Lovecraftian Mythos as they read along whether or not they have a background in media criticism.
“The Death of the Author” is not a theoretical concept that allows you “not to care”.
If you want an excuse to not to care about other people in fandom, just… pick something from the past four years of incredibly bad faith media criticism fueled by conservatives worldwide. I’m sure you can find something there.
Going “Tee hee, I guess I’ve killed off Barthes” at the start of your post to excuse completely misrepresenting what he actually wrote and meant in order to basically go “and so we do not need to care” isn’t cute. It also doesn’t work because the literal final part of the piece from Barthes continues the urge for critical thinking/reading where he writes that:
Classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature. We are now beginning to let ourselves be fooled no longer by the arrogant antiphrastical recriminations of good society in favour of the very thing it sets aside, ignores, smothers, or destroys; we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.
Barthes was a fan of criticism. Of critical thinking.
Transformative fandom – including the tens of thousands of people using the post up top to go “oh good, I don’t have to care”?
When Barthes talks of the reader, he’s not talking about filthy casuals going head empty into an unknown text – there’s no judgement there, by the way: we read how we want and how is best for us – he is talking about critical engagement with a text.
Critical as in “important” but also as in “analytical”.
These are not concepts that fandom deals with well.
Or at all.
The idea of critical thinking in fandom and leveling up to make fandom safer for everyone – like fans of color who get to see people say incredibly privileged things like “I am glad that AO3 protects racist fanworks as hard as they do the problematic stuff I actually like” – is seen as directly opposed to fandom itself.
“The Death of an Author” is not an excuse to stop caring, to stop creating carefully, or to stop others from criticizing a text or space. It has never once been that kind of text. If you kill Barthes off only to use his corpse to prop up your half-assed argument in favor of anti-criticism and “fandom as a safe space” (but like… almost entirely for queer white people/white women in general), you’re using it and him wrong.
And let’s’ just point out that of all the many ways that this application of “The Death of the Author” is incorrect… one big way is that in fandom the author is not dead.
Fandom picks and chooses which authors to immortalize, which authors to stuff in a wine cellar. It depends on the fandom, how useful an author’s “text” (as in their life, not their literal work) is to fandom, and how willing a living author is to play ball.
JK Rowling is “dead” in fandom. Not just because she’s sipping that stank bigot juice, but because she never played ball with the fandom back then. The ongoing Harry Potter fandom has always existed despite her best efforts to make it impossible. (ETA: Katie super helpfully pointed out that I got my fandom trajectory twisted with Rowling and Potter fandom here!)
The author – whether of canon or a creator in a given fandom – isn’t just Not Dead, they’re usually lifted onto a pedestal and kept there even when they are racist, when they are transphobic, when they hurt other people in some other way… because fandom is creator driven. It’s not consumer driven. Not in truth.
The author is only dead when they are completely irredeemable – and even then… Jo has her stans.
This piece, still doing numbers two years after the fact, is an extremely bad faith interpretation of Barthes work and the use/value of “The Death of the Author” in fandom. It also ignores how we use the theoretical framework in fandom to build good things on our own.
The reclamation of Lovecraftian horror and rebranding it as cosmic horror, the fucky gender fuckery of Omegaverse turned into a fun kink-site for masc folks in fandom, racebending casually racist canons, queering homophobic texts and historically hetero/cis-centric canons… These are all things we do because we’re “killing” a metaphorical author.
Someone going “hey, if you’re not [MARGINALIZED IDENTITY], don’t write [MARGINALIZED IDENTITY]… that way” is not doing that because they failed Lit Theory 101.
They’re doing it because they’re probably that identity and they’re being harmed by the fandom or publishing norm.
If you lack the compassion and the critical thinking skills to clock that “the Death of the Author” is a tool, not a weapon or an excuse to be a tool… you need to pull back and reconsider.
Ultimately, it’s fascinating watching people who actively reject critical race theory and anti racism being applied to fandom, people who actively gnash their teeth and bitch about “snotty fandom academics”, then turn around and purposefully appropriate complex literary theory terms and concepts for their gains. For their own agenda in fandom.
Like I said the other day: fandom is incredibly anti intellectual.
People run around saying that Black/brown people in fandom with degrees and academic backgrounds don’t belong in fandom (see the assumption that all of fan studies cares about racism/anti racism like me and Dr. Pande… and that’s why fan studies shouldn’t be trusted).
They say that, but will cling to pseudoacademic “hey, this dead theorist says it’s not okay to care” content from people who I doubt actually have put the work in to understand why a framework is fine for starters… but what you try to grow on it is so much more important.
I actually have an advanced literature degree. I have actually applied “the Death of the Author” to popular culture and to fandom in my academic work and for things I’ve done for my website. I am the expert people don’t listen to because any ninny with Wikipedia access and a willingness to dismiss complexities in and criticisms of fandom is seen as more valuable.
However, “The Death of the Author” was my jam specifically because of how you can grow vines on the framework that account for an author that exists in an undead form.
This undead author, built off of what Barthes created, goes farther to give room for critical readers to acknowledge the good and bad of the thing but develop a criticism of the text that doesn’t need to acknowledge things like the author saying they’re not a bigot… even as they create bigoted screeds against a marginalized group.
The fact is that a creator using “the Death of the Author” to argue against their personal responsibility when creating – as in the very existence of that responsibility – is someone who probably isn’t creating anything worth consuming.
They also probably haven’t actually read Lit Theory to a point where they can then knock down the obstacles in the field to apply it widely to different experiences and social communities… like fandom.