Authors, Readers and the Ethics of Imagination

May 16, 2016 | Sarah Stewart.

Roland Barthes’ influential essay ‘The Death of the Author’ presents a compelling argument against prevailing attitudes about literature that Barthes sees as ‘tyrannically centred on the author’ (260). Instead of attributing definitive meaning to what the author intended, Barthes advocates for the unity of a text being what any given reader makes of it. This reader brings their own experience and identity (whatever that might be) to author their own interpretation of the words on the page. Barthes’ liberation of text and reader by locating the ‘true place of writing’ (262) solely in the latter opens up the possibilities of meaning in texts which, he argues, should not be fixedly possessed by the person of the author.

Image Credit: Ryan Hickox, Open Up to Imagination

This is fair enough: if modernity has taught us anything it has been the danger of imposing a single version of events on others. In recent decades, postcolonial and feminist critique have been particularly instrumental in destabilising the authority of the Western canon and our readings of it, acknowledging previously marginalised histories and identities, as well as reading canonical works against the grain (that is, against what the author intended and making conspicuous what is left out or only hinted at). As for Barthes’ theoretical attempt at liberation, however, I wonder: is it always the reader who needs liberating? Does this liberation also absolve authors of responsibility for the texts they send out into the world and the perceptions they give voice to in their imaginings? Does everyone really, ethically, have the authority to choose for themselves?

I would argue that imagination and its creations work both ways and, while Barthes can be helpful some of the time, his theory can also be counterproductive when applied unreflexively to real-world contexts where authors and readers do have particular identities within determined social spaces. This is where relationships and the texts in between become more overtly political, where creativity and imagination on the part of authors as well as readers can become problematic despite creativity and imagination being pretty universally well regarded. The positive connotations of these terms are arguably due largely to the very human ability to use our imagination to think ourselves into another person’s shoes, and to see the world as different characters we encounter in stories – both widely recognised enablers of empathy. In that case, what do we make of the protest against damaging cultural appropriation in J.K. Rowling’s new History of Magic in North America? Most objections to this work do not seem to rule out using Indigenous characters in fantasy and science fiction, but rather point out that Rowling crosses a line when she removes sacred Native traditions from their context and places them in magical worlds of her creation.

A popular retort in comment threads runs along the lines of ‘Calm down, it’s only fiction. Most people are intelligent enough to know the difference’. Is it, though? Are we? Rowling herself carefully distinguishes her fictional interpretations from actual belief systems, prefacing her responses to questions with ‘In my wizarding world’. But scholar, citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and die-hard Harry Potter fan Dr Andrienne Keene has shown time and again that this is not enough: Indigenous people are ‘fighting everyday for the protection of our sacred sites from being destroyed by mining, fracking, and other forms of “development.” […] If Indigenous spirituality becomes conflated with fantasy “magic”–how can we expect lawmakers and the public to be allies in the protection of these spaces? […] As I often say, when you’re invisible, every representation matters. And the weight and impact of the Harry Potter brand can’t be ignored.’ How do you feel about this response to a piece of ‘fiction’? How do your social position, identity and privilege inform the criticism you are willing to accept and what you dismiss or explain away?

In this struggle to make the real world effects of cultural representation understood, I cannot help thinking of the battle for relevance that students of literature continually face – ideas we internalise that compare us to others with ‘useful’ qualifications in medicine, engineering, policy or politics. It strikes me that the dismissal of Indigenous voices in this and other important debates about representation is somehow linked to this notion that the arts and their study are peripheral to human usefulness/progress, a luxury. This view seems strange when you understand that stories are what humans use to make sense of the world; they chart the limits of our imagination which fuels scientific breakthroughs as well as the very real ways we think about and live with one another. Where power is concentrated – with what particular authors or readers – and the ability to identify and conceptualise it certainly does seem to make a difference to the ‘liberating’ qualities of any text.


About Sarah

I’m working on a PhD looking at representations of refugee and asylum seeker experience in the UK. I hold a BA (HONS) in English and Spanish, an MA in Comparative Literature (both from the University of Auckland) and am ever the student of literatures of displacement and resistance.

Article edited by Bridget Moynihan and Adam Clay.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. ‘The Death of the Author.’  Literature in the Modern World: Critical Essays and Documents. Ed. Dennis Walder. 2nd revised ed. vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print.

Keene, Adrienne. ‘“Magic in North America”: The Harry Potter franchise veers too close to home’. Native Appropriations, 7 Mar 2016. Web. 1 May 2016.

Rowling, J.K. (jk_rowling). ‘.@Weasley_dad In my wizarding world, there were no skin-walkers. The legend was created by No-Majes to demonise wizards.’ 8 Mar 2016, 7:00 am. Tweet.

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