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02 Oct

Author and Authorship

Author and Authorship

The term author has been subjected to much historical examination and analysis within academic circles, especially in the last few decades of the twentieth century. An etymological research to understand the relation between the words author and authority would be much insightful in this context. It appears that the Latin-to-French auctor is the fork in the road of the two, the distinction forming around the 12th century.

Author in the literal sense is of Roman origin (auctor), and has no Greek equivalent. However, Plato had already devised for poetic productivity the concept of a speech guided by “enthusiasm” to which the later model of the poet pleading for divine inspiration can be assigned. Alongside the dominant idea of the production of poetic works by means of inspiration, a further model was formulated in the poietes (“maker”) favoured in Aristotle’s Poetics; poetic works are created out of techne, i.e. craftsmanship and technical skill

The Roman poet Horace refers variously to a competent literary author – as scriptor(writer), poeta(maker)and carminis auctor(originator of the poem); he must possess a natural talent well as an acquired art, and purposefully design his poema in such a way as to evoke the emotions of his audience.

New ways of conceiving of the production of poetic works arose as a result of the multifarious meanings surrounding the term auctor in the ancient Roman legal system: an auctor is the bearer of auctoritas, who enjoys particular rights and who can transfer, and thus authorize, these rights. This “authority” was founded on, and confirmed by the special knowledge available to the auctor.

Author as a neutral term alongside “scriptor” first began to dominate after the end of the 18th century in the context of an economic and legal situation specific to the period and as a neutralizing claim set up to counter the emphatic understanding of “poet.” The word “author” has developed into an umbrella term and now denotes all forms of creatorship for a work in the context of public communication.

The invention of printing greatly expedited the manufacture and dissemination of printed texts, and so multiplied the number of producers of literary works and made financially important the establishment of the identity and creative genius of an individual writer. Printing engaged writers in a manner that was different from previous scribal activity. It also undermined previous social beliefs in authorship as part of an established, collective authority. Printing shifted communication structures by being able to duplicate exact copies of texts very quickly, so allowing knowledge to be transferred more efficiently and reliably across time and space. Again, this “fixing” of print would become a key factor in establishing authority and trust in the figures who produced these works.

Thus in the eighteenth century there was a shift from the reliance by writers on literary patrons to that of support by payments from publishers and booksellers. The conditions of the literary market place fostered the claims by writers to possess originality, creativity and genius resulting in literary productions that are entirely new; they made such claims in order to establish their legal rights as authors to ownership of such productions as “intellectual property”, in addition to their rights to the printed texts of their work as “material property”. Historians of authorship point out that the most emphatic claim about the genius, creativity and originality of authors which occurred in the Romantic period coincided with and was interactive with the success of authors in achieving some form of proprietary rights to the literary works; the literary work was regarded as the unique product of his or her native powers.

Additional criteria for artistic production regarding creativity and originality became important for the understanding of the author from the 18th century onwards. Thus, the author could be defined legally, materially and intellectually. The author together with the story of his life and work became a reference point for expert textual analysis, biographical criticism, scholarly editions, literary-historical reconstructions and evaluations for establishing the canon with practical cultural consequences, particularly for education and pedagogy after several decades. Toward the end of the 19th century, methodological debates emerged which, in different ways fell back on the author as an interpretative norm for ascribing meaning.

Much of literary criticism focuses on the dynamic relationship between the author, text and the reader. In the 19th century before the major formalist- structuralist theories emerged, biographical criticism evolved and became a dominant movement. This author oriented approach established a direct link between the literary text and the biography of the author. Biographical criticism suggests that the life and time of the author, once understood help in clarifying the work at hand and imbue it with a deeper significance However author centred criticism is complicated not only by the fact that an author's ways of meaning and of using literary conventions are cultural, but by the facts that the author's work may very well have taken him in directions he did not originally foresee and developed meanings which he did not intend and indeed may not recognize. The work may embody cultural or symbolic meanings which are not fully clear to the author himself and may emerge only through historical or other cultural perspective, and authors themselves may not be conscious of all of the motives that attend their work.

Contemporary criticism has been concerned for some time now with aspects of a text not fully dependent upon the notion of an individual creator; rather there are studies of genre or the analysis of recurring textual motifs and their variations from a norm other than author.

In the days of author centred criticism, author was thought to be the speaker whose presence behind text signalled his capacity as originator. Textual interpretations often alluded to his historical personage as a genius of subjectivity, which once understood, provided a set of principles for discovering the underlying unity of a great work of literature .In the modern period, as T.S Eliot would regard, the author is effacement, an absence of the personal, who writes himself out of the text through strategies of composition

According to M.H. Abrams, authors are “individuals who by their intellectual and imaginative powers, purposefully create from the materials of their experience and reading, a literary work which is distinctly their own.” Such a definition of the term author goes with the Romantic conception of the author as delineated by poet-critics including Coleridge and Shelley. The Romantic idea of the supreme nature of imagination, vision and creative genius is intimately connected to the genius of the poet or artist. The author is the central being whose imaginative powers lend the “form” of the work, the shaping principle that integrates disparate ideas, images and phrases into organic unity and meaning. The subjective nature of the work, in Romantic criticism, is established and celebrated. The romantic vision of the world had the artist, the self, in the centre. The self was, as in many cases, a larger than life figure, an extraordinary person, a visionary, a prophet.

 In Romantic poetry, one finds the poet as a towering presence, apparently unwilling to move into the background. The poetry of Wordsworth clearly illustrates the romantic writer as the self-valorized authentic figure possessing “visionary power”. (“ Ode on the Intimations of Immortality”, 1807) Accordingly one’s own experience and feelings modified by the “colouring of imagination” transforms into poetry. The author figure gains greater dimensions, as when Shelley proclaims poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” (A Defense of Poetry, 1821) Clearly the romantic conception of the author is that of a superhuman figure, endowed with creative and intuitive powers that distinguish him from the common man or the reader.

The Indian concept of Pratibha is related to the imaginative and creative powers of the author. The word Pratibha is derived from the root “bha” which means to shine upon, to flash upon the thought etc. According to the ancient Sanskrit writer Bhartrhari (5th century CE) Pratibha in literary theory is considered to designate fundamental element of creative poetic experience, closely resembling the Western concept of poetic imagination.

In his essay “Tradition and Individual Talent” (1919) T.S. Eliot conceives the writer not as an isolated entity, rather as part of the tradition of all the writers of every generation preceding him. Eliot finds it imperative that any author should possess the historical sense, which is the “sense of the temporal as well as the timeless and of the timeless and the temporal together”. Such a perception of the “presence of the past” would make an author “traditional”. In a sharp contrast to Romantic criticism, Eliot rejects the subjective dimension of art and espouses an objective approach. Unlike the romantic glorification of the individual genius, Eliot advocates the celebration of tradition. In place of an author figure’s autonomy, Eliot sees instead “the dead poets, his ancestors” asserting their immortality most vigorously in the works of the contemporary writer, even in the seemingly individual and creative parts. Thus Eliot sees the author figure devoid of an existence on his own, but as part of a chain of authors of all ages. The author is in a dynamic relationship with every other writer of the past, sharing a “simultaneous existence and composing a simultaneous order”, being influenced as well as influencing them. While Coleridge would consider a single poem as an organic whole, Eliot has a holistic view and suggests “the conception of poetry as a living whole of all the poetry that has ever been written.” According to Eliot, the poet has not a personality to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which “impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways.” Eliot sees depersonalisation as essential for a poet to imbibe the sense of tradition. Eliot sees the progress of artist in a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of one’s personality. For him, Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.

Approaches to ascribing meaning to texts in scholarly circles were developed ,based on the assumption that all information relevant to meaning could be drawn from the text in question alone, as espoused by close reading, New Criticism, Formalist and Structuralist approaches. In support of such approaches, criticism remained distrustful of “intentional fallacy”, thus emphasizing the irrelevance of the real author’s intention for scholarly interpretation.

As differentiated from the real author the “implied author” was brought into the discussion by Wayne Booth in 1961 even though, in the following decades, it was often called into question as not absolutely necessary. Both author-centric and author-critical approaches to textual interpretation have been further clarified in scholarly debates on literary theory, and the resulting competition between them intensified. For ascribing meaning to a text , distancing it from the author’s creative process, decisive emphasis is placed on the activity of the “implied reader” .

The concept of écriture automatique, developed by the French Surrealists during the 1920s, - which focussed on gaining access to the subconscious thought and exploring the nature of lyricism and inspiration- was then added to the critique of the assumption that a work is authentic and autonomous, the author being understood merely as the executing agent. In the second half of the 20th century, there arose greater interest in the contribution of the material conditions of production and communication to the ascription of meaning; authorship began to be conceived of as an arrangement, a montage, and a remix.

Since the 1960s many structural and poststructural theorists have challenged the conventional conception of the author figure. They see the human “subject” not as an originator or shaper of the work, but as a “space” where codes, conventions and locutions give rise to the text. Alternatively, the author can be considered as a site where the cultural constructs, power relations and discursive formations of a given era converge and collide. In this perspective, the author may be considered the product rather than the producer of a text and is often described as an effect or function created by the internal play of textual language.

 Roland Barthes’ 1968 essay “The Death of the Author” was much influential within academic circles. He described author as a figure invented by critical discourse in order to limit the inherent free play of meanings in reading a literary text. Michel Foucault, in his essay “What is an author?”(1969) raised the question of the historical “coming into being of the notion of ‘author’ ” – that is, of the emergence and evolution of the “author function” and how the author became individualized, what status the author has been given and what system of valorization involves the author.

Foucault’s essay gave impetus to a number of historical studies which reject the notion that the prevailing concept of authorship – the set of attributes possessed by an authority – is either natural or necessitated by the way things are. Instead, historicists conceive authorship to be a cultural construct that emerged and changed in accordance with the changing economic conditions, social circumstances and institutional arrangements over many centuries in the western world.

Both Foucault and Barthes emphasized that the modern figure and function of an author as an individual who is vested with the intellectual ownership of the literary work that he or she has brought into being was the product of the ideology engendered by the emerging capitalist economy in this era.

Michel Foucault reminds us that although we regard the concept of authorship as "solid and fundamental," that concept hasn't always existed. It came into being, Foucault explains, at a particular moment in history, and it may pass out of being at some future moment. The "author function" is more like a set of beliefs or assumptions governing the production, circulation, and consumption of texts. According to Foucault, the "author function" is linked to the legal system and arises as a result of the need to punish those responsible for transgressive statements. The "author function" does not affect all texts in the same way. For example, it doesn't affect scientific texts as much as it affects literary texts. The term "author" doesn't refer purely and simply to a real individual. The "author" is much like the "narrator," Foucault suggests, in that he or she can be an "alter ego" for the actual flesh-and-blood "writer."

Foucault argues that the author is not a source of infinite meaning, as is often considered; rather the author is part of a larger system of beliefs that serve to limit and restrict meaning. In dealing with the "author" as a function of discourse, one has to consider the characteristics of a discourse that supports this use and determine its differences from other discourses. If we limit our remarks only to those books or texts with authors, we can isolate four different features.

First, they are objects of appropriation; the form of property they have become is of a particular type whose legal codification was accomplished some years ago. It is important to notice, as well, that its status as property is historically secondary to the penal code controlling its appropriation. Speeches and books were assigned real authors, other than mythical or important religious figures, only when the author became subject to punishment and to the extent that his discourse was considered transgressive.

Secondly, the "author-function" is not universal or constant in all discourse. Even within our civilization, the same types of texts have not always required authors; there was a time when those texts which we are now regarded literary (stories, folk tales, epics and tragedies) were accepted, circulated and valorised without any questions about the identity of their author. Their anonymity was ignored because their real or supposed age was a sufficient guarantee of their authenticity. Text, however, that we now call "scientific" (dealing with cosmology and the heavens, medicine or illness, the natural sciences or geography) were only considered truthful during the Middle Ages if the name of the author was indicated. Authentication no longer required reference to the individual who had produced them; the role of the author disappeared as an index of truthfulness and, where it remained as an inventor's name, it was merely to denote a specific theorem or proposition, a strange natural phenomenon, a property, a group of elements, or a pathological disease.

At the same time, however, "literary" discourse was acceptable only if it carried an author's name; every text of poetry or fiction was obliged to state its author and the date, place, and circumstance of its writing. The meaning and value attributed to the text depended upon this information. If by accident or design a text was presented anonymously, every effort was made to locate its author. Literary anonymity was of interest only as a puzzle to be solved as, in the present age, literary works are totally dominated by the sovereignty of the author.

The third point concerning this "author-function" is that it is not formed spontaneously through the simple attribution of a discourse to an individual. It results from a complex operation the purpose of which is to construct the rational entity we call an author. Undoubtedly, this construction is assigned a realistic dimension as we speak of an individual's profundity or creative power, his intentions or the original inspiration manifested in writing. Nevertheless, these aspect of an individual, which we designate as an author are projections, in terms always more or less psychological, of our way of handling texts: in the comparisons that are made and the traits that are extracted as pertinent. In addition, these operations vary according to the period and the form of discourse concerned.

In contrast to these theoretical positions, a multi-faceted debate, extending beyond the methodological problems of textual interpretation, got underway in the last decade of twentieth century in which restitution of various aspects of the author was advocated. Interest in the circumstances of authorial creativity and its scholarly investigation has intensified to investigation of the social role of the author and of the social institutions and processes that affect his work.

Questions to be pursued from a narratological perspective concern primarily the interpretation of literary texts: Can the ascription of meaning with reference to aspects of the real author be theoretically legitimate and fruitful? Are references to the real author conceivable other than in the orientation of ascribed meanings toward the author’s intention? Should reference to the real and/or implied author in any way constrain the randomness of meaning ascribed through reader activity? In the ascription of meaning to texts, which characteristic relations can be identified for the reader’s construction of the real author and the implied author? These and other questions remain pertinent to the evolving definitions and redefinitions of the author as a socio-cultural entity.


Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. New Delhi: Thomson Heinle Learning, 1999.

Alackapally, Sebastian.Being and Meaning: Reality and Language in Bhartrhari and Heidegger. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2002.

Barthes, Roland . “The Death of the Author.” Image Music Text. London: Fontana, 1977.

Bennett, Andrew. The Author. New Delhi: Routledge, 2005.

Bowra, C. Maurice. The Romantic Imagination. Oxford: Oxford UP 1984.

Eliot, T.S. “Tradition and Individual Talent”, English Critical Texts. Chickera, Ernst de, Enright D.J. (ed). New Delhi: Oxford UP, 2002.

Foucault, Michel “What Is an Author?” J. V. Harari (ed). Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1969.

Lodge, David(ed). Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. New York: Longman, 1988.

Miller, Karl. Authors. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Wimsatt, William K. & Monroe C. Beardsley . “The Intentional Fallacy.” The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry. Louisville: University of Kentucky Press, 1954.


Neethu Tessa Baby


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