Greatly Exaggerated

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Back to David Foster Wallace or A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.


Summary

“Greatly Exaggerated” was originally written in the Harvard Book Review in 1992 as a review of H.L. Hix’s book called Morte d’Author: An Autopsy. Hix’s book is a compendium of the debates concerning the post-structuralist notion of The Death of the Author (named from an essay by Roland Barthes). Barthes’ essay was an argument against the practice of invoking the notion of an author in distilling any meaning from a literary work. In the debate, “the anti-death guys still see the author as the ‘origin’ / ‘cause’ of a text, and the pro-death guys see the author as the ‘function’ / ‘effect’ of a text” (142). Wallace’s review includes a brief but thorough introduction into this complicated literary/philosophical issue, an explanation of Hix’s own argument, as well as hints as to his own ideas related to the debate. Although the essay is ostensibly a book review, it tends more towards an avenue through which Wallace is able to engage in a debate for which he has an obvious particular interest. In the end, Wallace seems to come down on the pro-life side of the argument, connecting to the average reader by explaining that “for those of us civilians who know in our gut that writing is an act of communication between one human being and another, the whole question seems sort of arcane” (144). And ultimately, quoting William (anti-death) Gass, "one thing which it cannot mean is that no one did it."

Themes/Motifs

Writer vs. Author

At the start of the essay Wallace lays out for the reader the seminal difference between a writer and an author, an extremely important concept in the debate concerning the death of the author. A writer is “the person whose choices and actions account for a text’s features,” and an author is “the entity whose intentions are taken to be responsible for a text’s meaning” (139). Barthes’ argument is that we cannot attribute responsibility or meaning to an author because “it is really critical readers who decide and thus determine what a piece of writing means” (139). Wallace continues on to explain that this central post-structuralist argument that the reader decides meaning is very closely connected to the New Critics argument of the Intentional Fallacy. “It doesn’t matter what the writer means, basically, for the New Critics; it matters only what the text says” (140). The Intentional Fallacy attacks the notion of the author by taking away from the author all apparent intention in the text. From then on, only the text itself mattered. Wallace confronts the issue of the Intentional Fallacy in another essay entitled Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky. In that essay, Wallace rallies against the New Critics and praises Joseph Frank for committing the Intentional Fallacy, and thereby refusing to “treat the author’s books hermetically, ignoring facts about the author’s circumstances and beliefs that can help explain […] what his work is about” (JFD, 260).

Presence vs. Absence (Speech vs. Writing)

Wallace expounds on the death of the author debate explicating the larger Western philosophical war behind the issue, the war “over the idea that presence and unity are ontologically prior to expression” (140). The deconstructionists (a term synonymous to poststructuralist) question the traditional belief that “if there is an utterance then there must exist a unified, efficacious presence that causes and owns that utterance” (140). The deconstructionists refute the “Platonic prejudice in favor of presence over absence and speech over writing” (140). Wallace explains that this traditional notion grew out of the instinct that speech is more trustworthy than writing because it is immediate and because the owner of the speech is present as the expression is occurring. But, the poststructuralists’ entire philosophy is built around the concept that is it writing, not speech, that is a better form of expression. For “writing is iterable” (140) and is a function of absence rather than presence: “the reader’s absent when the writer’s writing, and the writer’s absent when the reader’s reading.” (140). Beyond Barthes, these notions of presence and absence in writing and language take a strong cue from the philosophies of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Ultimately, it is the poststructuralists’ belief in the absence in writing that leads them to declare the author dead, for the “context imposes no real cinctures on the text’s meaning” (140). If meaning in language is absence and not presence, then the meaning of the text “involves not the imposition but the erasure of consciousness” (140). Therefore, for the poststructuralists, no concept of author is needed to distill meaning from a text.

Kill the Author to Save Him

Wallace spends considerable time presenting and dissecting Hix’s suggested resolution to the debate. “Hix posits that both sides of the debate ‘mistake…one aspect of the author for the whole’” (142). Essentially Hix believes that the notion of an “author” has been oversimplified by both sides of the debate who have been “simplistically regarding ‘author’ as referring to ‘a unitary entity or phenomenon’” (142). His point is that if we actually look at how the word author is used in critical discourse

we are forced to see the word’s denotation as really a complex interaction of the activities of the ‘historical writer’ (the guy with the pencil), that writer’s influences and circumstances, the narrative persona adopted in a text, the extant text itself, the critical atmosphere that surrounds and informs the interpretation of the text, the individual reader’ actual interpretations of the text, and even the beliefs and actions consequent to that interpretation. (142)

In this way, Hix argues that the notion of author is much more nuanced than both sides of the debate have been willing to admit. His stand is that both the pro- and the anti-death camps must first develop a proper definition of the term “author” in order to make a final judgment.

Yet, Wallace points out a problem with Hix’s theory: in questioning the use of the term “author,” Hix obviously “does think a text requires an author, and so what pretends to be a compromise between the Bury-Him and the Save-Him camps is really a sneaky pro-life apology” (143). But, Wallace further complicates the matter when he then goes on to say that ultimately Hix’s definition of the “author” is so complex, diverse, and broad “that the word ceases really to identify anything” (143). Therefore, Hix actually ends up killing the author: “he essentially erases the author by making the denotation of his signifier vacuous [….] Hix destroys the author in order to save him” (144). So, in the end, Hix offers no clear solution, though Wallace insists that though Hix fails to resolve the debate, his attempts “yield some impressive scholarly writing” (144).

Context

The Death of the Author

"Death of the Author" (1967) is an essay by the French literary critic Roland Barthes that was first published in English in the American journal Aspen, no. 5-6. In the essay, Barthes argues against incorporating the intentions and biographical context of an author in an interpretation of text. Essentially, writing and creator are unrelated. In his essay, Barthes criticizes the reader's tendency to consider aspects of the author's identity—his political views, historical context, religion, ethnicity, psychology, or other biographical or personal attributes—to distill meaning from his work. Barthes says: "To give a text an Author" and assign a single, corresponding interpretation to it "is to impose a limit on that text." Readers must separate a literary work from its creator in order to liberate it from interpretive tyranny, for each piece of writing contains multiple layers and meanings. In a famous quotation, Barthes draws an analogy between text and textiles, declaring that a "text is a tissue [or fabric] of quotations," drawn from "innumerable centers of culture," rather than from one, individual experience. The essential meaning of a work depends on the impressions of the reader, rather than the "passions" or "tastes" of the writer; "a text's unity lies not in its origins," or its creator, "but in its destination," or its audience.

Ideas presented in "The Death of the Author" were fully anticipated by the philosophy of the school of New Criticism, a group of 20th century literary critics who sought to read literary texts removed from historical or biographical contexts. New Criticism dominated American literary criticism during the forties, fifties and sixties. New Criticism differs significantly from Barthes' theory of critical reading because it attempts to arrive at more authoritative interpretations of texts. Nevertheless, the crucial New Critical precept of the "Intentional Fallacy" declares that a poem does not belong to its author; rather, "it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it. The poem belongs to the public." William Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley wrote this in 1946, decades before Barthes' essay. ("The Intentional Fallacy." Sewanee Review, vol. 54 (1946): 468-488. Revised and republished in The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry, U of Kentucky P, 1954: 3-18.) From the perspective of authorship, Barthes' "Death of the Author" concept breaks little new ground in denying the possibility of any stable, collectively agreed-upon readings. Instead, Barthes himself has pointed out that the difference between his theory and New Criticism comes in the practices of "deciphering" and "disentangling."

The Intentional Fallacy

The Intentional Fallacy, in literary criticism, addresses the assumption that the meaning intended by the author of a literary work is of primary importance. By characterizing this assumption as a "fallacy," a critic suggests that the author's intention is not important. The term is an important principle of New Criticism and was first used by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley in their essay "The Intentional Fallacy" (1946 rev. 1954): "the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art." The phrase "intentional fallacy" is somewhat ambiguous, but it means "a fallacy about intent" and not "a fallacy committed on purpose."

Wimsatt and Beardsley divide the evidence used in making interpretations of literary texts (although their analysis can be applied equally well to any type of art) into three categories:

(1) Internal evidence. This evidence is present as the facts of a given work. The apparent content of a work is the internal evidence, including any historical knowledge and past expertise or experience with the kind of art being interpreted: its forms and traditions. The form of epic poetry, the meter, quotations etc. are internal to the work. This information is internal to the type (or genre) of art that is being examined. Obviously, this also includes those things physically present to the work itself.

(2) External evidence. What is not actually contained in the work itself is external. Statements made privately or published in journals about the work, or in conversations, e-mail, etc. External evidence is concerned with claims about why the artist made the work: reasons external to the fact of the work in itself. Evidence of this type is directly concerned with what the artist may have intended to do even or especially when it is not apparent from the work itself.

(3) Contextual evidence. The third kind of evidence concerns any meanings derived from the specific work's relationship to other art made by this particular artist—as in the way it is exhibited, where, when and by whom. It can be biographical, but does not necessarily mean it is a matter of intentional fallacy. The character of a work may be inflected based upon the particulars of who does the work without necessarily characterizing it as an intentional fallacy.

Thus, a text's internal evidence — the words themselves, and their meanings — is fair game for literary analysis. External evidence — anything not contained within the text itself, such as information about the poet's life — belongs to literary biography, not literary criticism. Preoccupation with the author "leads away from the poem." According to New Criticism, a poem does not belong to its author, but rather "it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it. The poem belongs to the public." It is the contextual evidence that presents the greatest potential for intentional fallacies of interpretation. Analysis using this type of evidence can easily become more concerned with external evidence than the internal content of the work.

Criticism

Wallace writes in his essay that Hix’s solution to the “death of the author” problem “is a combination of a Derridean metaphysics that rejects assumptions of unified causal presence and a Wittgensteinian analytic method of treating actual habits of discourse as a touchstone for figuring out what certain terms really mean and do” (GE, 142). In Understanding David Foster Wallace, Marshall Boswell comments that just like Hix, Wallace “amends Derrida by way of Wittgenstein” (171) in his own work. Boswell explains that although most of Wallace’s work is a critique of the Derridean poststructuralist model, Wallace does, at the same time “affirm the poststructuralist argument for ‘the death of the author’” (Boswell, 171). In an interview with Larry McCaffery, Wallace insists, “Once I’m done with the thing, I’m basically dead, and probably the text’s dead: it becomes simply language, and language lives not just in but through the reader” (McCaffrey, 141). But, Boswell asserts that Wallace

amends his Derrida with a healthy dose of Wittgenstein: the text is not a chain but a “form of life” that exists only as an exchange between himself and a reader. The book does not refer back to itself solely to call attention to its artificiality but rather to create a free space in which the language can exist “simply [as] language.” Yet it is language that “lives.” And the reader’s interior is the place where the text comes alive. (171)

Boswell’s remarks inform our understanding of Wallace's enjoyment of Hix’s book, as Wallace ultimately gives Hix’s book a favorable review.

Some Questions To Consider While Reading

  • In the discussion of the death of the author, should there be separate discourse for fictional and non-fictional writing?
  • In our present age of the self-referencing and self-conscious loop, is the intentional fallacy merely a moot point?