Since way, way back, before there was a Rome, an Egypt, or a Babylon, the word “author” has been synonymous with the word “writer.” This is a fact that is reflected to this day by entry No. 2 under “author” in reference books the likes Webster’s New World Dictionary.
Before that – like back when the ancient Sumerians were, in fact, the contemporary Sumerians — the meaning of the word “author” was used in a context more along the lines of Dictionary Entry No. 1 which identifies the author as “one who originates or creates something.”
I say this because I’d to talk about a specific originator or “author” and how his work relates to the topic at hand, though his authorship pertains to lyrics and music more-so than it does to books.
Beloved singer-song writer, Marvin Gaye began his career as a fairly typical Motown entertainer. He dressed nice, he shaved on the regular, and sang songs that were pretty good; not awe-inspiring, or life-changing by any means, but solid, catchy, songs that reliably made money for Mr. Gaye as well as legendary Detroit-born star-maker, Barry Gordy.
Then came the 1960s and with them, an era of civil unrest, police brutally, a war in Vietnam, and a couple of presidents so absurdly corrupt, the political cartoons practically wrote themselves.
(Whew! Glad that’s all over)
Suddenly, the world was a bloodier, sweatier, less trustworthy place than Americans had hitherto believed it was.
In response this era of tears and turmoil, Mr. Gaye recorded his landmark album, “What’s Going On,” a collection of protest songs that producer Barry Gordy was certain would ruin Gaye’s career.
It did not.
Instead, the album resonated with listeners like few albums before or since and inspired generations of music makers thereafter.
Rather than take personal pride in a job well done, Mr. Gaye felt that this album belonged to the world, that it had always belonged to the world, and that he was merely the person through whom it chose to enter.
The attitude Gaye showed toward what many consider to be his greatest work bears an uncanny resemblance to a concept known in literary circles as “death of the author,” a school of thought which suggests that art should be judged separately from the artist, as if the artist is, well, dead and can offer no rebuttal for any fault we find with either the art or the artist who made it.
For the sake of example, let’s say you’re a little kid, and like other little kids before you, you drew a tree.
Also, like other little kids before you, you make the tactical error of seeking validation from the critics.
If a critic loves you and is therefore predisposed to like anything you do (AKA “Grandma”), the worst she is likely to say in regards to your work is, “Tell me more about your picture, Sweetie. What were you feeling when you drew it?”
If on the other hand, your critics are indifferent to you and your feelings (AKA: any number of random kids from school), they will be more inclined to judge the work with a less bias viewpoint heedless to the fact that your ego may or may not be made of eggshells.
This is both an advantage and a disadvantage of dead authorhood.
On the one hand, sadistic critics may feel empowered to say extra harsh things when acting as though the author is dead and can’t fight back.
On the other hand, if you manage to impress the critics who don’t necessarily like you personally, you can get a less falsely-inflated notion of how good your work truly is.
Yet, with the shift in marketing trends due to the prevalence of social media, the whole concept of the so-called “dead author” is an increasingly unrealistic one. As recently as the 1990s, Anne Rice and Stephen King were, for all intents and purposes, dead authors.
The average reader did not necessarily care what these authors ate for breakfast, what their writing process was, whether or not they were nice to their fans, or if suffered from terrible drug problems. “Rice and King” were merely names in bold print across a host of paperback that gave us a pretty good idea about what to expect from these books should we choose to, um, peek beneath their covers.
Now-a-days, thanks to platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, we see lots of “living authors” who cannot help but impose their intent on the reader. This makes it nearly impossible to shield ourselves from authorial intent, and in many cases, this ready access to the author’s thoughts and personal life has not done any favors for these author or their books.
Would you believe there was a time when J.K. Rowling was “a dead author,” and readers could enjoy her books without thinking about Professor Dumbledore’s sex life?
Would you have believed back in 1992 that at this point in history, Adolf Hitler would be a more marketable author than Bill Cosby?
Then again, Stephen King has become a live author in recent years, and his candidness regarding his drug addiction and recovery have served to humanize him and make him more loved in some ways, so “life of the author” certainly doesn’t kill all public images equally across the board.
Anyway, if an author becomes notorious for good or evil, is it even possible to judge his or her work on its own merit, not the author’s reputation?
Well, that depends on the author and how irreplaceable we as readers believe the artist is, and the truth is there are very few irreplaceable authors out there.
Let’s take a closer look at Adolf Hitler and Bill Cosby – who are technically writers.
To be absolutely clear, I never, ever want to see Hitler’s name on the New York Times best seller list, but having worked in a bookstore the year the “originator” of Fat Albert guest starred on a very special Law and Order SVU, I totally could have expected to sell out of Mein Kemf quicker than any 12 books from the Little Bill series.
The principle difference is that Adolph Hitler was a loud-mouthed, bigoted tyrant who never strayed from his brand.
Unlike Cosby, Hitler did not speak with authority of this love for Jello Pudding, and he did not spend decades of his life carefully crafting the image of childhood friend and mentor, Dr. Huxtable.
Have you ever heard people in sales talk about how people buy you, not your product?
Well, Cosby’s “product” was an idyllic picture of what domestic life could look like for the average American family, specifically, average American families of color.
That is the legacy Bill Cosby meant “author.”
But at this point in the game, does what he meant to do matter in light of what he did?
I’m not sure we can know the answer to that question in Cosby’s lifetime. One of the benefits of not being a dead author is the potential to change your image.
It’s unlikely that the world will see Bill Cosby as kindly Dr. Huxstable again, but who knows? Maybe he’ll write a best-selling tell-all about appalling prison conditions or become an animal rights activist for the dwindling wild chicken population of the Florida Keys .
My incredibly bias take-away from this weird and convoluted talk on “death of the author” is this:
- An author is a guy or gal makes something that is often but not always a book.
- An author is entitled to his own take on what said thing is or is not, but…
- Said author cannot control their audience’s reaction to the thing they have made.
- Marvin Gaye is a proper noun related to musical excellence, unlike other nouns such as Robin Thicke.
I have opinions.
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