To Author or Not To Author
by Cathy Cupitt

For where is any author in the world
Teaches such beauty as a woman’s eye1

The question ‘what is an author?’ is frequently asked by literary theorists and philosophers, but has not yet been definitively answered2. Yet “from most points of view the concept of authorship requires no explanation: publishers, lawyers, accountants, reviewers, readers and authors themselves know exactly what is meant by the ‘author’ of a book”3.A dictionary of literary terms quickly reveals the problem: a simple definition will be offered, along the lines of “an originator”, and “a person who writes any kind of literary or non-literary work”; the simple definition will be followed by a long discussion of why this is only one aspect, and perhaps the least important, of the meaning implied by the term ‘author’4.

The reason for the lack of definition is that ‘author’, like the terms ‘art’, ‘literature’, and ‘beauty’, is often defined by circular logic. For example, an author can be defined as the producer of art, but when pushed for a definition of art, it is often ‘what artists produce’. This circular logic means that the definitions lack substance – we know nothing more than we did when we began.5

Is it possible then to define what constitutes an author? Perhaps not definitively, but I believe that the main elements which define an author can be summarised, as: product, function, and audience.


At the simplest level, an author is “a person who writes a novel, poem, essay, etc.”6. They produce a text, which must be in some way unique. An editor, translator or copier do not cut it as authors. Production of an unique text does not in itself, however, constitute an author. Texts are produced that are not claimed by an author, and are not expected to be – examples are advertising copy and public notices.

Why then is it necessary for some texts to be authored? There must be reasons for associating an author with a text. What are these reasons? What is the function of an author?


Ian Saunders suggests that as well as explaining the presence of certain texts, a function of the author is to do with our cultural ideology.

… there are very different ways in which a society can conceive of the literary, and may indeed suggest that our habitual focus on clearly authored Literature is less a way of seeking out quality, than a process of exclusion. A single author is one who ‘owns’ the text (a relation copyright formalises), … [a] triumph of an economic system based on the principle of private property and personal wealth.7

The author also represents a principle of unity – there is a controlling and creative mind responsible for the form of the text. This idea is elaborated by Bakhtin in his discussion of the novel. “The novel” he writes “orchestrates all its themes … by means of the social diversity of speech types” or heteroglossia8. Authors make use of this diversity to produce an intentional mosaic, which by its nature cannot be original, but can be unique.

Therefore the stratification of language … upon entering the novel establishes its own special order within it, and becomes a unique artistic system, which orchestrates the intentional theme of the author.9

If the “primary stylistic project of the novel as a genre is to create images of languages,” as Bakhtin suggests, then the author is, as a consequence of this idea, also a social commentator; he or she gives us snapshots of character and culture through language 10. And it could be argued that the more authentic their “images of languages” the more authority they have as a social commentator.

Finally, another possible function of the author is to resolve contradictions readers find in texts. The author’s intentions can be used as a kind of authority in interpreting the text. But this idea has problems. Ian Saunders suggests that:

… the focus on intentions is very often unhelpful because in a great many cases the author’s intentions are simply not known. … That [texts] are interpretable, then, suggests that our knowledge of intentions need not play a major part in the reading process.11

But of course, Saunder’s idea implies that interpretations of texts by those other than the author are valid. If this is the case then it is not enough to look at the product and function of the author – we must also look at how the audience defines the author and text.

To summarise, I think that an author functions: to explain presence of certain texts; to make concrete a concept of cultural ideology; as a principle of unity; as a social commentator; and to potentially resolve textual contradictions. All of these functions, however, presume that someone finds the concept of author useful. Someone, or some group of people, are constructing the meaning of the word author.

‘Author’ is, before all else, a word, and that means it is not simply a label of a naturally occurring phenomenon, but a concept, a way of constructing its object.12


It can be argued, and in fact has been argued, that a work of art “does not have a purpose outside itself”, it is autonomous, and its value is intrinsic. If this were so, “the effects of a work of art on an audience” would be “irrelevant to its value”13. And so, by extrapolation, the ‘artist’ could perhaps be partially defined by the art, but not by the audience. However, as Woodmansee suggests, this argument is not a disinterested one. “The chief goal of this philosophy was to sever the value of a work from its capacity to appeal to a public that wanted above all to be diverted,” as it arms “all difficult writing against the eventuality of a hostile or indifferent reception”14.

For me, Woodmansee’s suggestion raises suspicions about the claims of intrinsic value for art. If no-one looks at it and calls it art – if it has no audience – how is it to be judged art?

I do not believe a text has intrinsic value. I believe its value comes from its cultural reference and relevance. “Moreover, some novels clearly refer or affirm more than others: they are not only aesthetic or imaginative or self-expressive.”15 This is an idea which would seem to be confirmed by the awarding of prizes and prestige to real authors who inhabit the real world.

In my opinion, a text’s function is to be read. And once it is read, the author is no longer the sole authority of its meaning – the audience can choose to assign its own meaning to both text and author.

We know that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the message of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture. 16

In this context, author as social commentator becomes particularly important. Texts can be considered “cultural products, and say at least as much about the cultures that produce them as about the writers that record them”17. The authority of the text as a cultural sample, and the authority of the author as its creator, both become interpreted by the reader.

Where, then, does this leave authorial intention? The author cannot ‘purge’ the text of all but their intended meaning, due to the heteroglossic nature of language used in texts18. Which means that audiences can read meanings other than those intended into a text. I think this is best resolved by recognising that there is a split between the author as an individual, and the ‘author’ as cultural construct and cipher. It is as a cultural phenomenon, rather than as an individual, that most readers create meaning for the term ‘author’.

Demidenko-Darville, an Author or not an Author?

To what extent does the Demidenko-Darville affair put the concept of author in jeopardy? There are two aspects to theDemidenko-Darville affair that potentially affect the concept of author: the author’s false claim to having special authority as a social commentator; and the charge that her work was not unique, but rather a plagiarism.

Author or Plagiarist?

The accusation of plagiarism against Darville is more fundamental than the accusation that she has lost her authority as a social commentator due to her lies, but also far less fraught. If the text is not unique, the writer is not an author, but a copier. However, unless plagiarism is in the form of outright stealing word for word, it is not always an easy thing to prove (ask half the writers in Hollywood).

In fact, as I have discussed above, many literary critics and philosophers are happy to postulate that texts are never original, although they can be in a unique combination. Many readers are taught to look for extra-textual references as a sign of ‘literate’ writing. Common themes are both expected and accepted in texts. Therefore, it seems to me that plagiarism is a crime of degree, and a charge of plagiarism only jeopardises an individual author, not the ‘author’ as cultural construct and cipher. In Darville’s case, she was acquitted of the charge of plagiarism, and so on the count of ‘unique writing’, she can be considered an author.

Author as Social Commentator

Helen Demidenko claimed that her prize winning book The Hand That Signed the Paper was a fictionalised version of her Ukranian family’s oral history. As such she was represented as having an authentic view as a social commentator on the issues she wrote about. It was later discovered that her Ukranian surname and heritage were fictions.

If we consider this book in the light of authorial intention, the result is confusion. It seems the book was intended to be read as a fictionalised version of an Ukranian family’s oral history. That is how the author represented it.

But The Hand that Signed the Paper is not what the author originally claimed. The text is a fiction based on second- or third-hand knowledge, by a non-Ukranian writer. This means that the identity of the individual author does not mesh with that of the proposed culturally constructed author. So in this scenario, the concept of author is jeopardised. Because of the conflict, we cannot decide whether the author has authority over the text, or how we should read it.

However, if, as I think is more useful, we consider the text from the point of view of the audience’s interpretation, the author’s intentions become only part of the interpretation. It becomes possible to separate the ideas of ‘this particular author’ and ‘the concept of the author’, because the text is no longer an isolated work, but a comparable work.

For this reason we must take into account certain political factors which are likely to affect the reader’s interpretation. It has been “implied that Darvilles’ real offence was seeming to appropriate a history over which Jews and Ukranians claim proprietorship”19 – that she tried to assume an authorial authority that would generally be considered as not appropriate for her, as a particular individual, to assume.

Given this idea, it is likely that some of the audience would consider Darville – the individual author – as discredited, and her text equally discredited. The critical furore, which immediately arose after Darville’s claims were publicised as being false, would support this idea.

This discrediting of the author is, however, limited to the Darville case. Her transgression can be seen as an individual error, which affects her standing as a cultural cipher, but does not affect the construction of the idea of the ‘author’. No other author is affected, and the concept of the ‘author’ is not jeopardised. In fact, rather than authors as a group being held in disrepute because of Darville’s actions, it has been the critical community who has been ridiculed for not spotting the fakery earlier.

[Author’s note: Actually I’ve changed my mind about this. I think this idea of authentic cultural writing, and ‘allowed’ authorial voice does destabilise the concept of author. It raises many questions for me: can I speak as a man in my fiction if I’m a woman? Can I address Aboriginal issues from inside an Aboriginal character’s mind if I’m not Aboriginal? Who gives me permission? Is it OK as long as I don’t claim to be a ‘man’ or ‘Aboriginal’ in the real world? Are there things, as authors, that we cannot convincingly write about because of reader expectation and the way they conceptualise us? Where is the boundary between the real person who writes and the culturally constructed cipher? It’s all a mystery to me, as both a reader and a writer! January 2003]

To conclude, I believe that what constitutes an author is: product, function, and audience. It seems to me that most debate about the role of the author revolves around the fundamental split in the idea of the author – author as an individual with intentions, and ‘author’ as a cultural construct, and cipher. Furthermore, I think that it was this conflict that was at the centre of the recent Demidenko-Darville case. If the idea of the author as the ultimate authority is accepted, then the Demidenko-Darville case jeopardises the notion of author. However, if the idea of author as cultural construct and cipher is granted greater weight, the Demidenko-Darville case affects the notion of author very little.


Bakhtin, M. M.
“The Heteroglot Novel”. In the English 291/391 Reading Theory Reader.
Nedlands, UWA English Department, 1996.
Buchanan, Ian.
English 291/391 Lecture on “Author, Authority, and Discourse”. Tuesday 19 March 1996. University of Western Australia
Gray, Martin.
A Dictionary of Literary Terms, Second Edition. Beirut: Longman York Press, 1992.
Saunders, Ian.
“Author”. In the English 291/391 Reading Theory Reader. Nedlands, UWA English Department, 1996.
Shakespeare, William.
“love’s Labour’s Lost”. In The Complete Works of Shakespeare, The Alexander Text. London and Glasgow:
Collins, 1990.
Stallybrass, Peter.
“Shakespeare, the Individual, and the Text”. In Lawrence Grossberg et al (eds) Cultural Studies.
London and New York: Routledge, 1992.
The Macquarie Dictionary,
Second Revised Edition. Macquarie University: The Macquarie Library, 1989.
Waldron Neumann, Anne.
“The Ethics of Fiction’s Reception”, Quadrant. November (1995), 53-56.
Wales, Katie.
A Dictionary of Stylistics. London and New York: Longman, 1990.
Woodmansee, Martha.
“The Interests in Disinterestedness”. In the English 291/391 Reading Theory Reader.
Nedlands, UWA English Department, 1996.

End Notes

  1. William Shakespeare, “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, Act IV, Scene III. In The Complete Works of Shakespeare, The Alexander Text (London and Glasgow: Collins, 1990) p. 184.
  2. Ian Saunders’, for example, asks ‘what is an author’ in his excellent article, “Author”. In the English 291/392 Reading Theory Reader (Nedlands, UWA English Department, 1996) p. 96-98. This is a succinct precis of the main issues in the ‘author debate’. Another example is Peter Stallybrass’ “Shakespeare, the Individual, and the Text”. In Lawrence Grossberg et al (eds) Cultural Studies (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 593-612. The article looks at what an author is from an historical point of view – how the concept of author arose in our society.
  3. Martin Gray, A Dictionary of Literary Terms, Second Edition (Beirut: Longman York Press, 1992), p. 37.
  4. Gray, p. 37. Katie Wales’ definition follows a similar pattern in A Dictionary of Stylistics (London & New York: Longman), p. 42-43.
  5. Ian Buchanan, English 291/392 Lecture. Tuesday 19 March 1996. University of Western Australia.
  6. The Macquarie Dictionary, Second Revised Edition (Macquarie University: The Macquarie Library, 1989) p. 151.
  7. Saunders, p. 97.
  8. M. M. Bakhtin, “The Heteroglot Novel”. In the English 291/392 Reading Theory Reader (Nedlands, UWA English Department, 1996) p. 75.
  9. Bakhtin, p. 75.
  10. Bakhtin, p. 78.
  11. Saunders, p. 96.
  12. Saunders, p. 97.
  13. Martha Woodmansee, “The Interests in Disinterestedness”. In the English 291/392 Reading Theory Reader (Nedlands, UWA English Department, 1996) p. 84.
  14. Woodmansee, p. 90-91.
  15. Anne Waldron Neumann, “The Ethics of Fiction’s Reception”, QuadrantNovember (1995), p. 53.
  16. Saunders, p.97. Here Saunders is quoting from Barthes’ influential essay “The Death of the Author”.
  17. Saunders, p. 98.
  18. Bakhtin, p. 72-79.
  19. Waldron Neumann, p. 55.

Comments are closed.