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Q&A: Jane Gallop puts death back in Authorship

This Tuesday, Jane Gallop, distinguished professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin, spoke to students about the death of the author. While a common catch phrase in both philosophy and literary theory, the death of the author is a contentions topic in both fields-does the author’s death indicate a lack of importance or an elevation?

Professor of English and feminist scholar Jane Gallop reads a chapter entitled "The Author is Dead But I Desire the Author" from her upcoming book "The Deaths of the Author: Reading and Writing in Time" in JRC 101 on Wednesday afternoon. Photograph taken by Aaron Barker.

Can you tell me about your book (“The Deaths of the Author: Reading and Writing in Time”) and your concerns with the notion of “the death of the author?”
So there is this phrase that became very popular 40 years ago, and it’s still widely used. People don’t like it and they do like it, but everybody assumes that what it means is that the author didn’t matter. I then started—because of a series of things I was working on, including at one point, a book that was published right after the author had died—I started thinking about that fact, that death doesn’t mean you don’t care about somebody, sometimes it means that person is really important. Then I began to think about what if we took this phase “death of the author” and started thinking about it in terms of death, instead of this abstract thing … the death of the author for all kinds of literary theorists didn’t mean the author didn’t matter, it meant all kinds of things. It meant being haunted by the author, that the author was gone and you missed her, it meant as a writer you were really afraid of being stuck in the past and being obsolete. It’s such a stupid phrase. Everybody uses it without thinking about what death really means. I wanted to go back and connect it to a lot of things that death means.

What do you think is at stake for readers when they think about the death of the author?
I think it has been taken in a kind of limited sense, so the author doesn’t matter. [People think that] it’s just me and that text and [the text] can mean whatever it wants—that’s the kind of stupid sense—but I don’t think it ever means that. I think at its most interesting, it means there is someone speaking in the book if a book is powerful to you. I’m into the person speaking and I can’t quite reach them, they are absent, but they are absent in a more haunted way, rather than a “it doesn’t matter,” and I feel like that’s more the relation that readers have to authors. It’s true they aren’t a living person sitting right there in front of you, but it’s also true that you don’t feel like there was never a person there. Its about this very complicated relation and I think the reader’s relation to the author is more like the relation we have to someone we know about who is dead, which is that we can’t quite get to them but you’re still thinking about what did they mean, what did they feel. I think that death is a really good metaphor for understanding the author, but not in the sense that it doesn’t matter, because that’s not what we feel when people die, we don’t feel like they don’t matter anymore because they are dead. I’m actually trying to put death back into death of the author, if that makes sense.

How does this relate to you, in terms of being an author, when you’re thinking about your readers?
My book is half about the reader’s point of view and half about the writer’s point of view. From the writer’s point of view there is a way in which the difference between a writer and an author is that the writer is trying to figure out what they are trying to say and how they want to say it, but when a writer becomes an author, which is to say that when the book is done and comes out you are kind of in the past because you realize that you’re in this weird relation to the reader in which you can’t say it better anymore, you can’t control it, it’s out of your hands and so a lot of people—at least academic writers and I am one—they want to make it as up to date as possible and yet by the time its written, out, and read, it’s not going to be up to date. It’s going to be stuck in the past, so you are like a dead author, you can only speak in the past, you can’t speak in the present, and that’s kind of the general idea.
One of the things I looked at was writer’s anxiety about being stuck in the past when the book comes out. I mean here you are writing this thing and trying to make it as right as possible, but you become the author, when you are no longer revising, once the book is out, your going to be in the past compared to any reader who is going to read it.

I’m going to a class in which I’m going to talk about a book I wrote 14 years ago (“Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment”) and I’m not really the same person I was then. I’m not a different person, but I’m also not the same person. I’m not where I was then, thinking about those things; I’ve been thinking about other things, so it’s always a little odd. I mean it’s pleasurable, it’s nice to show up as the author, but it’s really different to be the author of a book that just came out and the author of a book that, I mean I’ve written three books since that book. But now I’m not even sure I’d even write the book now, not that I think it wrong or dumb, but I’m just somewhere else, it is just very odd to be that author. I almost feel like I’m trying to jump back in time or it’s hard to know what to do. Those words were written at a moment in time, they don’t change, but I’m alive, so I keep changing. So the writer is still alive, but in some ways the author is always dead, and in that I mean in the sense of not moving forward in time.

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