Literary and Literal Murder

“The Death of the Author” by Gilbert Adair

As you must realize by now, I like and much admire world literature and its authors. However a lot of academic literary criticism leaves me cold.  If I am reading a book and I see the words “the text” that is my cue to toss the book aside.  Semiotics, the theory of signs or semantics in literature, bores me silly.

When I was in college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, I toyed with the idea of switching my major from mathematics to sociology until I took a course in sociological theory.  At that time, sociological theory was in thrall to the theories of Talcott Parsons and “functional structuralism” (or was it “structural functionalism”?.  Never had there been such a clumsy meaningless name for a school of academic thought until “post-modernist deconstruction” came along. Thus my interest in switching majors came to an abrupt end.

Marshall McLuhan’s slogan of “The Medium is the Message” was floating around at the time to which I asked “WTF does that mean?”

The first-person narrator of Gilbert Adair’s novella “The Death of the Author”, is a famed literary theorist who propounds the Theory of the ‘death of the author’ in which the interpretation of the text exists beyond the author, so the author is irrelevant, thus ‘dead’.  The novella is a pastiche on the real-life story of literary theorist Paul DeMan.  DeMan was famous as one of the main proponents of the literary theory of post-modernist deconstructionism along with Deridda and Barthes.   Then it was exposed that DeMan had written several journalistic pieces sympathetic to the Nazis during World War II.

My problems with this book began when the narrator started expounding the Theory.  I don’t take these kinds of theories seriously because they seem so abstruse and out of date.  Chaucer, Cervantes, and Shakespeare are not at all out of date, but a lot of the academic literary theories from twenty or thirty years ago now seem terribly outdated. As I said before, when I see the words “the text”, my eyes and brain glaze over.  Also some of the sentences in this novella seemed clumsier than they had to be.  Perhaps the obtuse sentences were the author’s attempt to enhance the narrator’s credibility as a literary theorist.

So at the halfway point of this novella, I was considering giving up on it, but it is a short book so I kept reading.  The remainder of the book flowed along smoothly enough, and I did develop some interest in the story.  I did think that all of the other characters besides the narrator were sketchily drawn to the point they made zero impression.   The murders and the murderer did not seem convincing at all, but I suppose they were supposed to be metaphysical anyway.

I realize that I’m skating on very thin ice in being lukewarm to this book, given that The Complete Review gave “The Death of an Author” an A, and both Lizzy’s Literary Life and KevinfromCanada loved the novella.   Perhaps I was expecting a real story with real convincing characters rather than a pastiche. Perhaps I couldn’t get over my disappointment that the author of the title was not a fiction writer.

Besides the issues I have already stated I had with this novella, there are two other unusual things about this book.  One of the strange things I won’t explicate, because it would be a spoiler. The other is that in this short novella, the four opening pages are repeated two more times, word for word, for a total of three times    I could understand repeating a short passage with slight variations to good effect, but four whole pages printed three times with no variations whatsoever?

4 responses to this post.

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