Wednesday, May 9, 2007

"What Is An Author?"

This morning I reread Michel Foucault’s “What Is An Author?” (which I last read about twenty-five years ago) because I thought it might help me to think about the paper I’m writing for WisCon treating the difficultyor notthat gender has posed for some women constructing themselves as writers of sf. (A while back I posted a few associated thoughts on the subject on Now What, at

At the time I decided to write this paper, I had a very clear hypothesis that I’d formed while reading Julie Phillips’s biography of Alice Sheldon. But after I chatted in early March with Ursula Le Guin about the conclusions I’d drawn from some of the material presented in the biography, I decided I’d gotten it wrong. Further reflection on one particular thing Le Guin said to me set me off in another direction entirely. Since this new direction strikes me as excitingly (and therefore alarmingly) novel, I’m revisiting quite a lot of theory, at least partly to reassure myself that I haven’t lost my mind. (I feel this way often when I’m writing, so this fear is less in the nature of a personal mental crisis than a routine entertainment of my anxiety of discovering I’m a crackpot.)

Although rereading “What Is An Author?” didn’t offer much help for my paper, I did find a couple things in it of Aqueductian interest. In examining what the name of an author is and is not (the name of an author in our culture, for instance, isn’t the underwriter of a contract or the signatory of a private letter), Foucault notes that

The proper name and the name of an author oscillate between the poles of description and designation, and, granting that they are linked to what they name, they are not totally determined either by their descriptive or designative function. Yetand it is here that the specific difficulties attending an author’s name appearthe link between a proper name and the individual being named and the link between the author’s name and that which it names are not isomorphous and do not function in the same way.

Further, the presence of an author’s name “is functional in that it serves as a means of classification. A name can group together a number of texts and thus differentiate them from others.”

We in sf-land do that all the time. We talk about reading Tiptree, Le Guin, Delany, or Russ. Or Heinlein or Sturgeon. Or Cordwainer Smith or C.L. Moore. And so on. And everyone in sf-land knows what we’re talking about. Foucault doesn’t do so, but we could call the name of an author when it functions in this way a metonym. And yet as soon as we begin to think about this particular function, we know very well that it’s more than a metonym. The name of an author often determines how a text bearing that name is read. Gender doesn’t have to be an issue, but it sometimes is (as it was with the shift in how people read Tiptree after he was outed). Art historian Whitney Chadwick, discussing the case of painter Judith Leyster, many of whose works were attributed to Franz Hals until 1929 when Juliane Harms definitively established their attribution to Leyster, warns that although gender can be one aspect, it’s not the only one:

The finding during reattribution to lesser-known artists that works of art are "simply not up to the high technical standards" of the "Master" is common. The shifting language that often accompanies reattributions where gender is an issue is only one aspect of a larger problem. Art history has never separated the question of artistic style from the inscription of sexual difference in representation. Discussions of style are consistently cast in the terms of masculinity and femininity. Analyses of paintings are replete with references to "virile" handling of form or "feminine" touch.

I suppose we might say that in some ways the name of an author works the way branding does. Remove the brand, and the product becomes unworthy of the consumer’s attention.

The other point of interest in Foucault’s essay is his discussion of something every conscious writer must comes to terms with:

When discourse is linked to an author, however, the role of “shifters” [textual signs that refer to the authorpersonal pronouns, adverbs of times and place, and the conjugation of verbs] is more complex and variable. It is well know that in a novel narrated in the first person, neither the first person pronoun, the present indicative tense, nor, for that matter, its signs of localization refer directly to the writer, either to the time when he wrote, or to the specific act of writing; rather, they stand for a “second self” whose similarity to the author is never fixed and undergoes considerable alteration within the course of a single book. It would be as false to seek the author in relation to the actual writer as to the fictional narrator; the “author-function” arises out of their scissionsin the division and distance of the two. One might object that this phenomenon only applies to novels or poetry, to a context of “quasi-discourse,” but, in fact, all discourse that supports this “author-function” is characterized by this plurality of egos.

And of course this is true for fiction not only of first-person narration but also of third-person. It’s only more apparent in first-person narration.

But now I’ve got to get my nose back to the grindstone.


Jason Erik Lundberg said...

Thanks for posting those quotes, Timmi. Very similar to the distinction made in narratology between author, narrator, and character; a narrator is always present, no matter what pov the story is written in, and this narrator does not equal the author. The narrator can do or say things that the author never would, because they are not the same. It's very freeing as writer to know this.

Josh said...

Jason, it is similar; but I think there's a lot to be gleaned as well from the differences between Foucault's "author-function" and narratology's "implied author", narrative voice, etc. I say that because I'm particularly interested in the sociological side of the concept, the "name of the author" as a source of symbolic capital --what you, Timmi, brilliantly compare to "branding"-- and how the "brand" can be subject to loyalty, dilution, stigma, etc.

Of course, the branding analogy can become kinda literal, as in Harlan Ellison's complaining when people omit the registered trademark symbol after his name or Pynchon's agent threatening to sue the guy who was gonna market The Letters of Wanda Tinasky on the basis of speculation that TRP had written 'em.

Jason's thoughtful comment prompts me to ask, Timmi, is Peter Rabinowitz's Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation among the theory you're rereading? PR's categories of "authorial audience", "actual audience", and "narrative audience" strike me as relevant to one of your projects.

Timmi Duchamp said...


You will be shocked, no doubt, but the sad fact is that I haven't read Rabinowitz's book even once-- yet. The categories you mention are indeed relevant to the project you're thinking of, which makes me think the Rabinowitz could be very helpful. Thanks for the tip!