I imagine that many people reading this are familiar with Roland Barthes’ influential short piece The Death of the Author. I read this piece at the very beginning of graduate school, and at a time when I assumed that most work I undertook would be on quite literally dead authors. It seems somehow easier to debate the possible influence of authorial intention on textual analysis when the input available about said intention is finite–and finite of necessity because that author will never write anything ever again. (I do understand the glee that scholars of dead authors feel when some hitherto unknown packet of letters, or lost volume of journals is discovered because that dead author now seems to live once again, for a moment. But even so, the oeuvre of that author has only expanded, not revivified.) Applying the analytical framework suggested by The Death of the Author seems simpler, even when reading a piece in which an author is clearly stating their intentions about a particular work, when even the author’s meta-discourse on their works is bounded by their literal death.
When I began my dissertation, it focused on four books by (then) four living authors. Piri Thomas, Giannina Braschi, Edgardo Vega YunquÃ©, and Black Artemis (aka SofÃa Quintero). I had never met any of these people and perhaps never expected to. I doubt, quite honestly, that I ever gave the matter of whether I would meet them much thought. My surprise, then, was unbounded when I found a message in, of all places, my Facebook inbox, signed “Edgar” which turned out to be from Edgardo Vega YunquÃ©. He had discovered our names linked together in a conference program: mine as a presenter, and his name in the title of my presentation. We began a correspondence which lasted a scant three months. Vega first wrote to me in June 2008, and on August 26, 2008 he died suddenly.
It was awkward, and perhaps bizarrely terrifying to have this correspondence with him. As well trained as I have been in Barthes, it is hard to let go of the knee-jerk emotional reaction that the author, should the author speak on the subject, is the only one who can say with true and absolute authority: “Literary critic, you are wrong.” Even with this terror, I sent him an early draft of my chapter on The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle. (Now I thank my stars that I did send him an “early draft.” Had I followed my fear and waited until the draft was “ready,” he would already have been gone.) The first paragraph of his response to me will always stand as one of the most moving pieces of praise I’ve ever received.
I’m an extremist: hypercritical, argumentative, cantankerous, intimidating when threatened, often loud and overbearing and I don’t suffer fools well. Â I am, as described by an ex-lover a veritable enfant terrible, all of it by design to protect a fragile heart. Â However, at the other extreme stands a very fair, admiring person who will gush at beauty, elegance and a job well done. Â Sin duda alguna, tu labor es sensasional y mucho mÃ¡s. Â And not because you’re writing about my work, but because your keen analysis of literature is so accurate and more so when it has to do with our situation as Puerto Ricans. Bravo, bambina!
It is, I recognize, as irrational to be afraid of an author’s censure as it is to be elated by an author’s praise. And yet I suspect that I am not the only one who works with the texts of living authors who has felt this way. I further suggest that feeling this way is not in itself a problem, I think perhaps it shows a healthy respect for the importance of the creative process that the author goes through. Rather than struggling to “let go” of the emotional reaction, I have found that I need to balance that emotional response with an attention to the rigor of my own work. I cannot allow myself to believe that my work is important because Vega said it is, any more than I should have allowed myself to believe my work dreck if he had so averred. The process of literary creation and of literary criticism must be fundamentally intellectually independent, but I think we who work with live author’s work would be fooling ourselves if we refused to believe in an emotional connection, however tenuous.
My next short project is shaping up to be an article length work–coauthored with a colleague of mine–on one of Black Artemis’ books, her debut novel in fact, Explicit Content. SofÃa Quintero and I have not met, but we follow each other’s work, primarily on Twitter, where I recently mentioned undertaking this project. She is, naturally, curious about the project. Once again, I find myself balancing the pulls of scholarship–which even when co-authoring is an amazingly solitary pursuit–and of collegiality with the community of authorship that my work places me in touch with.
I have recently sent Ms Quintero a copy of the chapter I wrote on her Picture Me Rollin’, and I anticipate more fruitful conversations with her, Barthes’ assertions about her death notwithstanding.