The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Tome On The Range

Read An Extract From The Digital Critic By Theodora Hawlin
The Quietus , November 17th, 2017 12:16

In 1967 Roland Barthes wrote an obituary for the author. He may have been getting a little bit ahead of himself, says digital criticTheodora Hawlin...

A collection of essaysThe Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online, edited by editor of Review 31 Houman Barekat, editor of 3AM Magazine David Winters and tQ's Art Editor, Robert Barry was published recently by OR Books.

The contributing writers - "early-adopters, Internet skeptics, bloggers, novelists, editors, and others" - include such names as Robert Barry, Russell Bennetts, Michael Bhaskar, Louis Bury, Lauren Elkin, Scott Esposito, Marc Farrant, Orit Gat, Thea Hawlin, Ellen Jones, Anna Kiernan, Luke Neima, Will Self, Jonathon Sturgeon, Sara Veale, Laura Waddell, and Joanna Walsh.

The essays look at the dramatic shift in the landscape of literary criticism over recent years, including the multiple threats and opportunities it faces. As the publishers themselves say: "Through the end of the 20th century, book review columns and literary magazines held onto an evolving but stable critical paradigm, premised on expertise, objectivity, and carefully measured response. And then the Internet happened."

TQ readers can buy the book with a 20% discount by using the link at the foot of this extract.

The Re-Birth Of The Author

By Theodora Hawlin

In 1967, Roland Barthes wrote his famous essay “The Death of the Author.” By 2016, it appears that the Author is as alive as the Author has ever been. In our contemporary digital society, the figure of the author has become an integral presence in the publishing process (evident in the rise of book tours, signing events, live interviews, etc). The internet, and social media in particular, provides a mouthpiece whereby authors are able to become a key character in the life-span of a text, with the power to continually revive and expand upon their works. Authors are more accessible to their readership than they have ever been before; even those who attempt anonymity are ultimately hunted down. Demand is high, and in this new age of digital self-fashioning the “Re-Birth of the Author” has replaced “Death.”

“It’s not the book that counts but the aura of its author,” noted the notoriously elusive Italian novelist Elena Ferrante in an interview in the Paris Review prior to her non-consensual “un-masking” by a New York Times journalist in October 2016. Did Ferrante fear the spot- light? On the contrary, she despised it. Ferrante is one of the few, perhaps only, bestselling authors to so openly reject the renewed power of the “Author” as a character. Importantly she also identified the central problem of our contemporary publishing industry in which “the author ends up selling not only his work but also himself, his image.” Her decision to remain anonymous was founded on a rebuttal of this media system, the digital “re-birth” of the author that plagues the literary world where the author’s persona off the page—and on the screen—is often given as much importance as their characters on the page.

Self-fashioning is enjoying a new heyday with curated internet profiles that mirror and bolster real-life identities. The rise of the internet has created a convenient mouthpiece whereby publishers have been able to promote publications, and their authors, as never before. For the literary world this remains a complex conundrum. Authors—if they choose—can now remain truly present in the lives of their readers. Their existence continues beyond the page in a way that Barthes could never have dreamed. The “business of books” can clearly be seen in the online presence of an author like J. K. Rowling. The endless information that she continues to leak on twitter about the Harry Potter books, like a steady drip feed to eager fans, provides a reliable stream of audience engagement.

The Internet’s capacity to facilitate this kind of engagement and interaction is important as it also allows increased audience diversity, expands readership, and opens new avenues for books, authors, and readers. In an algorithm-fueled world where “like” fuels “like” and related content leads to related content, the ability for publishers and authors to harness this power becomes manifold. Book “bubbles” can grow large, and online popularity can be measured with facts and figures.

Yet the continued engagement of Rowling and other authors in relation to their texts also openly exposes the mechanisms of the publishing industry. “Industry” is the correct term here, as such engagement manufactures steady income, as well as steady interest. The creation of new marketing ventures and profitable projects become fundamental tools that enable an author to increase the lifespan of a text, but also more notably to increase their place within the text’s narrative. Just look at Rowling’s “Pottermore,” a whole digital platform born out of reader demand for more information about her wizarding world. The author now has the ability to become a central character in the continual making and remaking of their own text, a figure with the power to define and redefine characters and information at their discretion.

The paper trails and private lives of authors have always fascinated readers. Yet the emails between Jonathan Safran Foer and Natalie Portman don’t quite hold the same gravitas as the letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir. The paper-trail of emails, texts, tweets, Instagrams, articles and blog-posts has never been so thick, and yet with this excess of authorial information is anything really gained? Despite all this additional press, noise, and “presence,” authors become throwaway fads, at once more palpable and more intangible than ever before. Few writers seem to survive in the public consciousness now, beyond those who remain bestsellers. An elite few attain such prominence that whatever they write sells. Review sections of newspapers are plastered with their names, if not the subjects on which they write. It’s their identity, their personality, their “aura” that attracts buyers. Writers in this sacred realm can write just about anything with a reliable audience.

Those authors outside this hallowed space of fame inhabit a different kind of sphere. These writers, like fashion trends, become commodities, goods to be bought, used, sold, and discarded. In a click-bait age, fast-fashion culture is rising, and so too is reader demand and want. Consumption is high. The public is constantly bombarded by a new book, a new author, “the next big thing.” These pitches often piggy-back on other authors, one name selling another with the simplicity of a dust-jacket endorsement. The noise of the publishing world, thanks to social media, is louder and more dense than it’s ever been. Sifting the wheat from the chaff is a whole lot harder with everyone shouting about their new rising star. Quantity is there, quality is harder to define. 

Although Barthes’s original notion of separating author and text still obtains, the process of separation is becoming ever more complicated in a digital world in which the presence of identity and ownership is evolving at incredible speed. Twitter followers, combined with book tours and grand book-signing events, mean authors are now more accessible to their readers, but they are also more crucially inextricable from their works than ever. What an author says in a public sphere shapes them and their works in the public eye, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant TED talk ‘We Should All Be Feminists” became an Internet sensation, so much so that it was published as a stand-alone physical essay by Penguin despite being available for free online. Adichie herself is now—rightly— portrayed as an advocate for women’s rights, yet the power of these words in forging her public identity was even more complicated than she could have anticipated. When she was revealed as the new face of Boots No7 cosmetics, the backlash online was immense, and made it clear that she needed to rapidly re-determine the rules of her identity for public consumption. It is possible to be a feminist and like make-up. As a woman and a writer Adichie should be able to inhabit both identities, yet convincing her online public of this proves to be a harder task.

When Barthes speaks of a collective place of perceptions in his essay, one could easily believe he is speaking about the web itself, a black hole in which content and opinions seem to continually spawn and then surge in popularity with alarming velocity. Yet often an author needs space from their readers, even at times from their own work. Although some clearly thrive on media attention, for others it becomes, like the Internet itself, a dangerous distraction. According to Barthes, “to write is to reach, through a preexisting impersonality”’ Part of the writer’s job, we must remember, is inhabiting a space of “impersonality,” of fantasy, illusion, and imagination. It is this liminal space that can frequently call for the relinquishing of personal identity as an essential component for a story to be told. Like famous actors attempting to shed their red-carpet smiles to inhabit a new Oscar-worthy performance, part of the writer’s job is to elide their “authorial” status, to forget who they are in order to become something new. The dilemma the digital world poses has the potential to deny an author this forgetting.

For instance, Ferrante’s open refusal to reveal her identity and give the literary world a solid character to cling to resulted in a violent, transgressive “investigation.” By withholding her identity Ferrante became akin to a criminal. Her offense? To revoke the cult of the author and identity that so openly pervades the rhetoric of criticism in the digital age. The investigation provided author profile shots of her, images that the literary community had craved for months. It is instructive to recall that, without the typical information that an author bio provides, reviews and features on Ferrante were forced to focus more dominantly on the text. In the absence of a standard author photo, shot against foliage, publications were forced to get creative: publications from The Guardian to The New Yorker produced and commissioned some of the most interesting illustrations to accompany their pieces on Ferrante, causing there to be an almost unprecedented attentiveness to the subject of her work, not the author.

Ferrante openly named her anonymity as a form of opposition, a way of “testifying against the self-promotion imposed by the media.” Curating one’s digital footprint can be an empowering experience, but in such a delicate and new space as a public collective consciousness we have to remain aware that this process can also be a draining and destructive one. To establish identity is hard enough in the real world, to reinvent oneself online takes work, and not everyone desires a public identity, digital or otherwise. Sometimes it’s nice not to be seen. Yet despite Barthes’s assertions that the author as a figure would dwindle in public discourse, the “Author” as a manufactured image has continued to grow stronger and stronger. The cult of identity thrives on digital fuel.

What Ferrante epitomizes is the view that for most authors being seen is not the point, it’s being heard. Although the two are often conflated, there’s a real sense that people aren’t only judging books by their covers any more, they’re also judging them on their authors. Ferrante is not alone when it comes to choosing to keep her identity under wraps. Pseudonyms are rife within the literary canon. For the Brontë sisters or George Eliot it was a matter of concealing femininity in order to be published. Yet even J. K. Rowling herself, the queen of a now large and unruly publicity machine, originally made the decision to hide her femininity behind her initials on the advice of her publisher in order to appeal to a larger target audience of teenage boys. The degree of concealment was obviously far greater at a time when women were not taken seriously as writers, but one wonders how the Brontës or Eliot would have fared if the Internet had been alive and well, and investigative journalists had been able to uncover their identities? Would the literary canon be the same? Luckily for us author interviews and head-shots had yet to take such keen precedence in the priorities of publishers.

The mystery of Ferrante’s identity infringed upon the delicate liminal space that Barthes identified between the personality and impersonality of the writer. Her books were charged with unknown potential. Parts potentially fact, parts potentially fiction. The dilemma is that this position was not seen as an absolute position: it was not an answer. Claudio Gatti said about his investigation that “Ferrante has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown.” Books, according to Gatti, are not allowed to “grow” without their master. Ferrante often used the image of a book as a dog and the author as a master, with a leash binding the two, emphasizing that both creatures are living things. Ferrante is clearly of Barthes’s inclination that she is no longer needed, that a dog can live without its master. Gatti represents the media of our digital age that is unable to accept the empty space left by her lack of participation. To let the dog wander freely without the baggage of its owner feels impossible.

Barthes insists that a “text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history.” It’s clear that, for Barthes, once a text is created, its identity transcends the author and enters the realm of the reader. But what happens when the reader wants to root a text in its origin? What happens when the reader is being constantly directed and redirected by the author? What happens when the author refuses to die? When the author won’t leave the text alone? What happens when the author, or rather the media of an author’s image, won’t let the reader take a text on in its own terms? The frequent barrage of author interviews and live Q&A’s often lead to disappointment, where readers seek acknowledgement and clarity that authors are often unable to deliver: they are done with the text, they have removed themselves from it and it has removed itself from them. Yet at the same time, our culture is so hungry for the author-figure. These continued reiterations and clarifications of identity in relation to a text also act as a comforting mechanism that creates a framework for the reader. Author-identities are powerful signifiers in the modern world. Do you read Zadie or Ali Smith? Do you read both? These figures, like their texts, resonate with powerful connotations. The “ideological figure” of the author that Barthes identified is still as strong as it ever was. In a sense the author has died and has been resurrected as a mythical deity, a god that the consumer worships.

In its current state we can wholeheartedly say that the writer in the digital realm has made a swift recovery. Criticism has access to more author information than ever, and with this wealth of knowledge the propensity for criticism to focus on the particulars of author influence and identity continues. Barthes’s famous conclusion that “The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author” becomes void; it is now only with both reader and author that a text can survive. If the digital age has proved anything, it’s that conversation between the two continues. The world of the web is large: there’s room enough for both.

The Digital Critic is available at 20% off to TQ readers. Simply type in the following discount code: "QuietusDigital"