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Approaches to Reading: Author Centred Approach

Author-centred approaches

Historical

Dominant medieval notions of authorship entailed a belief in the authority of the auctores or custodians of ancient knowledge. An author’s originality was not especially esteemed; rather it was the skill involved in rewriting older sources that mattered. In this homage lay the author’s claim to be heard. However, more modern understandings of authorship emerged in the eighteenth century, when the notion that the author’s words were completely original and his (or her) copyrighted “property” gained acceptance (Pease 1995, pp. 105–117). This view of authorship was strengthened by eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century notions of individualism and creativity celebrated by the Romantic movement, and was more common in Anglo-American circles.

During the nineteenth century, some English social critics identified a number of causes of what they viewed as destabilising social change. Among these was the rise of science in the era of the Industrial Revolution, and the apparent decline of religion as the central moral force in English society. Matthew Arnold, for instance, was concerned about the post-Industrial fragmentation of English society and the consequent potential for unrest. In Culture and Anarchy (1869) he advocated a guided study of selected works of literature by great authors, believing that these had the power to unify the general population.

This ethically based approach was subsequently vigorously pursued in England, in various forms, over a number of decades. This is evident in the work of AC Bradley (1988, Shakespearean Tragedy), FR Leavis (1964, The Great Tradition) and with Denys Thompson (1964, Culture and the Environment), QD Leavis (1989, Collected Essays), and in the journal Scrutiny (1932–1953).

In their view, the author was a specially gifted individual who expressed himself (or more rarely herself) in unique works of literary art. Hence the text was revered as the message of the authorGod (Barthes 1978), whose intention determined its meaning. As an individual specially gifted with rare insights into the human condition, the author was seen as transcending his or her own culture. The high moral seriousness of these authors informed their work and guaranteed its quality: their poems, plays or novels offered insights into the universal moral dilemmas of humanity. Essential to communicating this vision was the aesthetic quality of the work, realised by skilled, artistic use of language.

According to Arnold and others, authors not only transcended their times; paradoxically they also performed a cultural function by advocating a common set of the best moral values, which would promote social stability and national pride. Literature was seen as an instrument of social stability, not of social change.  

Contemporary

Contemporary author-centred approaches no longer regard the author as the ultimate arbiter of the text’s meaning. The older view was first challenged in 1946 by Wimsatt and Beardsley (cited in Richter 1998), who called this the intentional fallacy. The text was not owned by the author, they argued; rather, it is “detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his [sic] power to intend about it or control it”. That is, an author’s stated purpose cannot determine all the legitimate readings that may be made of his/her text. According to Wimsatt and Beardsley, the author’s intentions are, strictly speaking, irrelevant to acts of interpretation of the text: even if the author explains his/her own work, this is merely one reading among others. Moreover, as in the case of Shakespeare, external evidence of an author’s meanings and intentions is not always available.

In older author-centred approaches it seemed possible to gain access to the author’s mind, either as an individual or as the spirit of the age, through the words of the text. However, if there is no single “message” but rather a series of different, even competing meanings, none can be identified simply with the author. A further challenge to the notion of authorial presence has been the introduction of the concept of the implied author (Booth 1983). This term refers to the imagined figure of the author created by the reader out of hints in the work. The implied author may be quite different from the historical writer.

Another issue has to do with the explanation and justification of the text’s meaning in the light of biographical or autobiographical information. This older view was founded on the notion that the author has a personal set of experiences which find expression in the work. The writer’s self was understood to be a unified and unique individual who was the source of the meanings they made, meanings which existed before and beyond language. However, biographies and autobiographies, like other kinds of information about the author, are merely texts too, which are also open to interpretation. For all these reasons Barthes (1978, pp. 142–48) argued for the “death of the author”, which he said was necessary to allow for the “birth of the reader” — and the multiplicity of interpretations that readers can generate.

In his essay “What is an author?” written in 1969 (cited in Bouchard 1977) Foucault identified a number of author functions which still persist in the ways readers approach a text. First is classification: the name of the author can be used to classify texts according to genre, period, style and so on, e.g. a “Dickensian text” or a “Danielle Steele text”. Second is attribution: the name of the author can be attached to certain concepts, ideologies or themes, e.g. Darwinism, an Orwellian world. Third is valuation: the name of certain (canonical) authors is still taken to be a guarantee of the aesthetic and ethical quality of the work attributed to those authors. (The traditional canon consisting largely of white, middle-class, educated authors has in recent years been challenged and expanded.)

Multimodal texts also bring challenges to the notion of authorship, when teams contribute in various modes to the production of a text (e.g. films, hypermedia poems, computer games).

Author and text

According to historical approaches to the author, texts were words on a page that had been selected by an individual author writing under inspiration. The value of a text was determined according to how well it conveyed the author’s thoughts and feelings as they explored and offered insights into the universal truths and the moral dilemmas of the human condition. Thus the words on the page were taken to be a mirror of real life, filtered through the author’s consciousness (Moon 1990). This relationship between the author and the text is now considered problematic, for the reasons outlined above.

Author and reader

Formerly the reader’s role was to interpret the author’s intended message about the world, and the value of reading was in how the reader was brought into an intimate relationship with the author’s mind. The greatness of literature was judged by the reader according to the worth of its message; how well, aesthetically, that message was conveyed; and how closely the author’s perceived intentions aligned with prevailing beliefs and value systems. The relationship between reader and author has now shifted, and the concept that authorial authority limits and delegitimises readers’ interpretations has now been challenged.

Author and world-context

According to a more historical approach, the world of the text reflected universal truths about the human condition and nature in general. Thus, while authors wrote about specific times, certain values, beliefs and traits transcended the particular subject matter of the literary text. However, although these values and beliefs were held to be natural and universal, they have more recently been recognised as representing the views of groups in society which had the greatest influence. It is now widely understood that it is not possible to read off the author’s life and times directly from the text. Instead, it may be possible to trace how competing discourses of the times in which the author wrote are played out in the text.

(from Approaches to Reading Practices https://www.qcaa.qld.edu.au/downloads/senior/snr_eng_extn_11_res_read_prac.pdf)

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