Saturday, 23 January 2010

Death of the Author [Pt 1]

Age of the Connotativist

It is a common understanding among publishers nowadays that the author is irrelevant.

Before the postmodern revolution and the invention of the ‘writerly’ text (books with a multiplicity of meanings), authors were philosophers, moralists, scholars, visionaries and prophets.

Since authors no longer produce ‘readerly’ texts – tomes with a clear moral line, a clear beginning-middle-end structure, and a general obedience to that era’s Grand Narrative, the word ‘author’ has been ludicrously downgraded. Fiction writers are no longer philosophers, teachers or prophets, unless such a tag is ascribed to them, in which case they themselves become the commodity over their work. They become that wretched USP.

The USP (unique selling proposition) drives all commerce, and art – whether we like it or not – is another form of commerce. When a writer completes a novel, they must ask themselves: ‘What do I want to sell in the long-term? Do I want to sell myself as a brand-name writer, or do I want to sell my prose based upon my name?’

First-time authors have no choice: their names are meaningless, and they will be rated upon the standard of their work and how this work slots into the appropriate genre fiction markets. However, those writers who choose to sell themselves as brand-names stand to make more cash from their fiction in the long-term. They still, however, have their identities snatched by the mitts of commerce.

For example: Carving a name for himself as Joe Whicker, that geezer who writes the Detective Asshead crime novels, Joe will build a fanbase among those who like straightforward genre novels with no ambitions whatsoever. People will come to associate the name Joe Whicker with the words ‘crime’ and ‘Detective Asshead’ over time. Soon the character will usurp Joe’s fame, his own creations will take over his reputation as author, and his name will be little more than a series of cultural associations. The word ‘author’ is irrelevant: what is associated with him is what matters.

This has been going for centuries. Say any author’s name, and a genre title, characters and themes will pop into our heads, and we will make a judgement upon their authorship based on our reactions to these associations. This is why I recommend replacing the word ‘author’ with the word ‘connotativist,’ highlighting how their names are largely irrelevant – what we want to know is his genre, his themes, his characters.

With writers who want to sell their prose based upon their name, similar hoops need be jumped. Literary writers such as Will Self, Nicola Barker et al sell books based upon their names and reputations, but the connotations to these names are a certain type of writing – a style, an edge, or a perspective readers come to know. The name solidifies into its own commodity, and this name can only be sustained with a healthy frequency of positive reviews, loyal cult readers, and an ability to stick within boundaries and not alienate the reader to the point of abandonment.

So, the bottom line is, the writer can commodify him- or herself in two ways: they can sell themselves as connotativists based upon their genre, characters, formula, whatever, or they can sell themselves based upon pre-established assumptions as to what their name suggests: the prose style, the edginess, their unique brand.

So, the author is most certainly dead. This is the age of the connotativist. We can still call ourselves writers, of course, but we are no longer the masters, commanders, leaders of our texts and our eras. Our work is determined by what people will associate us with when we croak. Once we are read, our souls are in the hands of the readers, and our work becomes little more than a series of connotations: M.J. Nicholls was moany, crap, boring, endless, preachy, phallocentric etc etc etc.

The author is dead. Long like the connotativist.

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