When I first dipped my toes into the world of writing, there was a great deal of excitement. It was as if I had been given a beautiful ball gown and a pair of clear crystal shoes, and then the clock struck midnight and it all vanished into thin air. Melancholy quickly replaced the excitement. I chewed my nails and wore paths into the hardwood floors. The idea of writing stories had birthed something inside me that I had never known or previously experienced. However, I only had a high school diploma with nine-weeks of grammar and a few creative fiction classes. I did not have a Master of Fine Arts in writing or even a Bachelor of Arts like so many of the writers I had encountered during my grand quest to write. Authors like Cathy Maxwell, Julia Quinn and even Shakespearian Professor Mary Bly who writes steamy romance sunder the name of Eloisa James. I wanted to give up the dream and walk away, but I could not. Like a mouse hiding in the corner nibbling on a crumb, I secretly wrote, and I hesitantly began to call myself a writer, not an author. In my mind the term author could only be attained by the greats, greats like Shakespeare, Dante, Catherine Coulter and Nora Roberts. The definition of a writer held very little association to the term author. It was like a chain of command, writer being the low man on the totem pole and author being the elite of the elite. It wasn’t until after I sold my fourth book to one of New York’s top five publishing houses that I forced myself to carry the title of author. It was like wearing a pair of glass slippers meant for someone else. The term author held prestige. I thought the word author was not reserved for someone like me. Until recently, I had forgotten about the angst associated with the word author during my beginning years penning stories. Until recently, I had forgotten the confusion I had experienced over whether to call myself a writer, suggesting amateur, or to call myself author, someone much more profound and successful. Fortunately, history has provided the world with men who have declared their thoughts on what an author is. In this informative synthesis, I will explain how Aristotle, William Wordsmith, and Roland Barthes define an author, which I hope will ease the minds of anxious writers. It should be noted that for the purpose of this paper, the words poet and author will be interchangeable as they do share an association which I hope will be made evident by the positions of the authors noted above. It should also be noted that Aristotle states in “Poetics” that “The art which imitates in language alone, in prose or in verse remains to this day without a name” allowing for the term author of any genre of work and that of poet to be interchangeable (Aristotle 99).
Aristotle, a student of Plato, and one of “The most influential classical theorist in Western culture” believed a prominent characteristic in poetry was the idea of imitation, or representation (Norton 7). In fact, in his treatise, “Poetics”, Aristotle actually defines a poet as an imitator, which carries a simplistic nature to the term over the modern, contemporary thought which tends to push the definition of a poet as someone who excels at verse, syntax and rhythm. The image Aristotle creates in “Poetics” is that of an author creating a replica of something that has already been made. One of the examples he uses is that of a painter, which we can clearly see by visualizing still life artists. For example, if an artist paints a bowl of fruit, he is replicating what has already been made. He is imitating the very creation that is laid out before him. In such a way, a poet is an imitator, only instead of using paints and a brush, the author uses a pen and words to paint the very thing he hopes to replicate. The idea that a poet is solely an imitator allows a writer to freely represent what it is he is attempting to recreate without the structured meter so often carried by poets in later years. Although, Aristotle offers more freedom to the poet and what it means to be a poet, he does lay out a few rules for the poet attempting to imitate by stating, “He (poet) must necessarily in every case be imitating one of three objects” (Aristotle 123). Aristotle lists these three objects as, “Things as they once were or now are; or things as people say or suppose they were or are; or things as they ought to be” (Aristotle 123). The last of these three seems to move away from Aristotle’s position that a poet is only an imitator, given that if the object written about isn’t as is or was, and nobody gave an opinion on the object, but that the author is allowed some creative license to state how a thing ought to be, then the thing may not have already been and therefore is a new creation within the world, and not an imitation. Aristotle’s view is made even more evident in the “Classical Theory and Criticism” section of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, “Aristotle asserts that poetic imitation can reveal truth precisely because it does not passively copy appearances: it is a more creative act” (Norton 7).
Although Aristotle made concessions in “Poetics” for how one should represent characters within written works, one of them being lifelike, he speaks little of how an author should represent the psyche of a character. However, William Wordsworth, a Romantic Theorist from the early to mid-1800s, addresses this in “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” when he defines a poet as “A man speaking to men” (Wordsworth 574). Wordsworth goes on to say that this man speaking to men is “endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul” (Wordsworth 574). The passion with which Wordsworth defines a poet jumps from the pages. His definition moves beyond a man imitating what is before him and seeks to represent a man’s emotions. It is almost as if Wordsworth is beseeching the poet to interject himself into a man’s heart and mind and speak to him there. This level of imitation seeks to draw the reader into empathy, to pull on his heartstrings and excite his passions. In fact, Wordsworth gives the poet one rule; to write as a man (Wordsworth 575). The poet should remove any other identity from his works. He should not write as a “lawyer, a physician, a mariner, an astronomer, or a natural philosopher” (Wordsworth 575). In essence, he is stating that the poet should remove all knowledge and education from his prose and speak as regular man. He goes on to say that as long as a poet writes as a man there is nothing between him and the “image of things” (Wordsworth 575).
In “The Death of the Author”, Roland Barthes defines author as “a modern figure” (Barthes 1268). What exactly does this mean? Well, even though Barthes seems to agree with Aristotle and Wordsworth when it comes defining an author as an imitator, his theory of an author suggests that a writer, or poet, is subject to histories, such as community, religion, and education, thereby making him a modern figure. To quote Barthes, “The author is… a product of our society insofar as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French nationalism, and the personal faith of the Reformation” which seems to state that the “modern figure” has no original thoughts but only imitates that which has planted him and nurtured him. (Barthes 1268). Therefore, literature produced by an author is nothing more than an image centered on the author’s life and the influences that have impacted him, making the work of imitation nothing more than a self-centered piece of the author’s culture.
All three theorist agree that a poet, or an author, is an imitator. However, they each vary in their own ideas of what that imitation means. Aristotle defines imitation by rules of what has been or is, what another says it is, or what one decides a thing should be. Although Wordsworth attempts to define an author as nothing more than a man speaking to a man, his definition dives deep, and should be redefined by stating that an author is an imitator of man’s psyche, his thoughts, emotions, and sensitivities. Barthes holds a pessimistic view of an author, in that the author, as an imitator can represent nothing outside his influences. If we think of this in terms of Cinderella, according to Aristotle she could imitate just about anything she pleased, even if it was through the words of another or a world she chose to create of her own making, such as a Fairy Godmother and pumpkins that turned into grand carriages. If she abided by Wordsworth’s rule, she could not be anything other than a woman speaking to the emotions of women. The term stepdaughter could be nothing more than a prop to propel and excite the emotions of another. And, if Cinderella was Barthe’s “modern author” she could only imitate that which she had been subjected to by her histories, and not imitate, or create a world she had not experienced. She could not imitate the life of a Crusader, but rather, only the life of a young woman suppressed by a wicked stepmother. She could only imitate the magical rescue by her Fairy Godmother and the fairytale wedding to Prince Charming.
So, what is an author? According to some of the greats, an author is an imitator and a creator, and if that is what you are doing, that is what you are.
- Aristotle. “Poetics.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, W.W. Norton & Company, 2018, pp. 99-123.
- Barthes. Roland. “The Death of the Author.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, W.W. Norton & Company, 2018, p. 1268.
- Leitch, Vincent B., et al. “Classical Theory and Criticism.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, W.W. Norton & Company, 2018, p. 7.
- Wordsworth, William. “Preface to Lyrical Ballad.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, W.W. Norton & Company, 2018, pp. 574-575.