To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing” ( Roland Barthes) – Do you see yourself as an author and do you agree with this?
Barthes’ announcement of the death of the Author was a utopian and liberatory call. The meaning and value of the text no longer rested in the hands of the Author as God, nor in dead cold hands of the academy, the canonical great and the good or the publishing industry. The meaning and effect of literature lay in the hands of the reader. The reader rewrites the text. In Barthes’ vision the page is a place where the reader and the writer meet and the meaning and power of the writing lies in that meeting, in their conversation.
This isn’t to say that every reader is an equally good re/writer. The chief weakness of Barthes’ method of deconstruction is precisely his unequalled mastery of it. His deconstructions present us with an enriched text, linking us to so many other texts and references. Those who have followed in his wake mainly produce desiccated academic husks with all juices, passion and joy extracted from the text. Few have come close to his rich and readable deconstructions, for instance in S/Z his deconstruction of Balzac’s Sarrasine or in A Lover’s Discourse, his deconstruction of heart break.
Not every writer is equal in his thinking either. Barthes is a playful libertarian but he isn’t a relativist. Some texts he tells us are richer – more open to rich and revelatory re-writings.
Barthes has been tremendously influential; his playful literary interventions pack a tremendous political punch long after the barricades of 1968 were dismantled. However times have changed. Dreams of equality, fraternity and liberty have been replaced by a world where just 62 people own as much as 3.62 billion, the poorest half of this planet’s humans; refugees live in lawless camps like the Jungle in Calais and we give up more and more of our daily liberties in the hope we can avoid horrors like the Bataclan mass slaughter. Whilst the author is less and less adequately remunerated (a survey in the UK in 2014 reported that median annual earnings for professional writers have fallen to just £11,000, 29% down since 2005); the author function, the author-as-signifier is more important than ever. So often the writers of best sellers are perforce whores, always selling themselves, trying to pump up their metrics. The publishing industry sees the author as a brand and in the UK and US writers are exhorted to tweet this, blog that, network for that publishing deal, schmooze for that prize, suck up for that grant, or they become ghosts, putting words in celebrities’ mouths.
And in a brutalised minimum wage world so many readers are looking for reassurance rather than liberation. Self-help books outsell poetry or literary fiction by far, and most of what passes for literary fiction is pedestrian middle brow bullshit.
Barthes had a huge impact on me when I first read him as a teenager. Despite the fact that the world, and I, have changed so much in the intervening decades everytime I return to his writing I find new and different things to celebrate and inspire me. A Lover’s Discourse is my go-to self-help book!
Am I an author? Yes, you can’t avoid the way everything is politically organised around an author function but I really hope people can discern in my work that I’m not some egoist who insists that I am source of the real and fixed meaning of my text, and sees themselves as the God of their writing terrain and a guru in making in the literary world. I find those types really tiresome and pompous. I hope I am a writer in a conversation with other writers and readers, their writing, my writing meet and mingle, change meanings over time and at each reading. That’s the liberatory promise of writing: that our moments together do not depend on time, that we can speak across decades and centuries and that we might say things we cannot even begin to dream the many meanings of. To paraphrase Saussure, “It is not we who speak language, but language that speaks us”.
Have you ever participated in collaborative author/reader projects? And if so, what do you find interesting about them?
Sometimes I work alone, sometimes I work with others but I always think of my work as a collaboration. It is an enunciation to, and a complicity with, an imagined other. Having a partner in crime can make that adventure even more precious and delicious.
I was first drawn to both reading and writing at a very early age, as an only child. Writing and reading were ways of creating my own environment, making a world I could control. I was drawn to living in literature because it freed me from all the politics and social pressures of collaborative work. But I grew to learn that literature was a way of connecting to different people, that shared passions are a way creating intimacy. My practice as a performance poet/artist and as a creative writing teacher have also taught me the pleasures, more than that the ethical imperative (for me), of collaboration. My collaborations have tended to be mostly in terms of running projects where we are all the writer/s performer/s. I have run workshops with young children, excluded teens, refugees, and people living in conflict zones as well as teaching on a Creative Writing Master’s programme in a university setting. I have grown to enjoy, and value, the process of collaborative creative work as much if not more than solitary writing. I have learnt a lot from my students and collaborators, both about them but also about myself. When you collaborate you lose control but in the process you gain a lot of insight. My collaborators have all touched, enriched and changed me. The process more than product of collaboration matters most in this context.
Which literary event has fascinated you most and why? (Please give a link to the website of the event)
I’m part of Literary Agency Cyprus. LAC is a collective of writers living in Cyprus, or connected to Cyprus writing in English. We organise performances, reading and workshops both on and off the island. My favourite event thus far has been the Walking Nicosia project headed by Aydin Mehmet Ali, the founder of LAC. The project is very close to my heart both because I am obsessed by the old town of Nicosia and the dead zone on the border, the scene of my childhood, and also because much of my work arises out of the Debordian Derive and psychogeography. I couldn’t be there in October 2014 but at around 4.30 minutes you’ll hear the poet Lisa SuhairMajaj reading an extract of my work. (Click here to watch the video)