Skip to content

What is an Author? Understanding the Role, Function, and Legacy

Have you ever wondered what defines an author beyond being a writer?

The term “author” often conjures images of celebrated literary figures whose works have stood the test of time. However, the role of an author encompasses much more than the act of writing.

A key factor in being recognized as an author is having published work, which distinguishes one as an author regardless of whether one continues writing.

In this blog post, we'll explore the concept of authorship and its significance in literature and society. By exploring the historical perspectives and philosophical insights of thinkers like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, we will unpack what it means to be an author in the modern world.

Table of Contents

Defining an Author

What is an author?

The etymology of “author” offers insight into its rich history and connection to “authority.”

The term originates from the Latin word “auctor,” which means “promoter, producer, father, progenitor; builder, founder; trustworthy writer, authority; historian; performer, doer; responsible person, teacher.” This multifaceted definition highlights the various roles an author plays in society.

Not all writers are authors. This is a key distinction. While a writer is anyone who writes, an author takes on a more significant role.

An author is not just someone who puts words on paper; they are creators who own their ideas and shape them for the world to judge. Specifically, an author writes books, which are formal literary works that contribute to their recognition and authority. This distinction is crucial in understanding the broader scope of authorship.

The publishing industry often emphasizes this difference. Authors are seen as authoritative figures whose works contribute meaningfully to literature and culture. For example, Cornell University Press and other academic publishers seek authors who can provide depth and originality in their literary work.

person holding black Amazon Kindle e-book reader

Meanwhile, freelance writers and those involved in investigative journalism may produce compelling articles and reports, but becoming an author involves a deeper commitment to one’s craft.

Dean Wesley Smith, a prolific author, embodies this by not only writing books but also understanding the historical and philosophical contexts that influence his work. Authors may also produce short stories, adding to their work and showcasing their versatility.

Michel Foucault describes the “author function” as a role that goes beyond the individual to encompass the discourse they create. This concept helps differentiate between someone who writes and an author whose written work carries a distinct, influential voice.

Essentially, an author is a writer who transcends the act of writing to become a creator, a historian, and an authority. This important distinction helps us appreciate the unique contributions authors make to our world.

The Mindset of an Author

To produce lasting work, it is crucial to adopt the mindset of an author.

This mindset goes beyond the mere act of writing; it consists of a deep connection with one’s ideas and the responsibility of shaping them into meaningful discourse. By embracing the author’s mindset, writers can transcend their immediate context and create works that endure the test of time.

Michel Foucault’s exploration of the “author function” highlights the significance of authorship in the modern world.

Foucault argues that authorship is not just about the individual who writes but about creating a discourse that transcends the personal to engage with broader cultural and intellectual currents. This perspective encourages writers to think beyond their personal experiences and consider the larger implications of their work.

Big Thinker: Michel Foucault

By understanding the historical evolution and philosophical underpinnings of authorship, writers can better appreciate their roles and responsibilities. This knowledge empowers them to approach their craft with a sense of purpose and commitment, aiming not just to write but to author works that contribute meaningfully to literature and society.

Historical Perspectives on Authorship

The concept of authorship has undergone significant evolution over time, with profound implications for literature and criticism. One of the pivotal figures in this discourse is Roland Barthes, whose seminal essay "The Death of the Author" provides a critical perspective on the role and perception of authors in contemporary culture.

Barthes posits that the author is a modern figure that emerged post-Middle Ages.

The rise of the author coincides with the rise of English empiricism, French rationalism, and the personal faith of the Reformation. This period marked a shift in focus towards the individual, elevating the author's status as the central figure in literary creation. The author's name became synonymous with authority and originality, shaping how literary works were interpreted and valued.

Roland Barthes

In contemporary culture and literary criticism, the dominance of the author remains pervasive.

Biographies of writers, literary history manuals, and interviews often place the author at the center of the narrative, emphasizing their personal lives, tastes, and passions.

This focus on the author, Barthes argues, can be detrimental to the reader and the text itself. It places undue importance on the author's intentions and biography, potentially limiting the interpretation and meaning derived from the work.

Barthes introduces the concept of "the death of the Author," advocating a shift away from this author-centric view. He argues that the birth of the reader must come at the expense of the author's death. This means the reader should be empowered to interpret and find meaning in the text independently of the author's influence.

By doing so, the text can be more liberated, open to multiple interpretations, and richer in meaning.

Michel Foucault's Insights on Authorship

In his seminal essay "What is an Author?", Michel Foucault explores the concept of authorship, challenging traditional notions and providing new perspectives on how texts are viewed and interpreted.

Written in response to Roland Barthes' "The Death of the Author," Foucault's work delves into the role of the author and the ideological underpinnings that shape our understanding of literary creation.

Key Concepts Foucault Describes

Foucault's analysis introduces several key concepts that reshape our understanding of authorship.

Notably, he critiques the traditional view of the author and explores how writing and the role of the author have evolved over time. These concepts help us see beyond the individual and focus on the broader discourse that texts contribute to.

  • The Traditional Idea of an Author as a "Genial Creator": Foucault critiques the traditional notion of the author as a "genial creator"—a solitary figure whose creative genius produces a work of infinite significations. This view positions the author as the central authority, imbuing the text with personal meaning and significance.

  • The Evolution of Writing from Expression to an Interplay of Signs: Writing has evolved from being a direct expression of the author's thoughts to an intricate interplay of signs. This shift emphasizes the autonomous nature of texts, focusing less on the author's intent and more on the language and structure of the work itself.

  • Writing as a Form of Death and Sacrifice: Historically, writing was seen as a means to achieve immortality, preserving the author's voice for eternity. In modern times, however, it has become an act of voluntary effacement, where the author sacrifices personal identity to create a text that stands independent of its creator.

Key Concepts Foucault

The Author's Published Work and Name

Foucault also examines how we define and understand an author's work and name.

These elements play a crucial role in how we perceive and value authorship, extending the author's impact beyond their immediate writings.

  • Defining the Author's Work: What Constitutes an Author's Oeuvre?: Foucault questions what should be considered an author's work: Is it everything the person has written or only what has been published? This distinction is crucial in understanding the breadth and limits of an author's oeuvre.

  • The Transformation of an Author's Name into a Symbol of Their Contributions: An author's name transcends the individual, symbolizing their contributions. For example, the name "Aristotle" represents a series of significant contributions across various fields. This transformation underscores the impact an author can have beyond their written works.

The Author Function

The concept of the "author function" is central to Foucault's analysis. It describes how authorship is constructed and its role in the production and reception of texts. This function is influenced by societal, legal, and institutional factors that shape our understanding of literary works.

  • Foucault's Concept of the "Author Function": The "author function" views authorship as a constructed role rather than a natural given. Societal, legal, and institutional frameworks determine how texts are attributed and valued.

  • Discourses as Objects of Appropriation: Discourses are objects of appropriation. Authors build upon existing ideas, incorporating and transforming them within their works. This process highlights the interconnected nature of literary creation.

  • The Non-Universal Application of the Author Function: The author function does not apply universally across all texts and contexts. It varies depending on the type of discourse and societal norms. This variability challenges the notion of a single, fixed role for the author.

  • The Constructed Nature of Authors: Authorship is a constructed identity shaped by cultural and institutional forces. This perspective encourages us to see authors as part of a larger system of knowledge production.

  • The Importance of Transgression and Controversy in Authorship: Transgression and controversy are central to the author function. To be an author, one must challenge existing norms and ideas, pushing the boundaries of accepted discourse. This defiance gives an author's work its unique voice and authority.

The Author Function According to Foucault

The Three Characteristics of the Author Function

Foucault outlines specific characteristics that define the author function.

These characteristics help us understand how authorship operates within different contexts and how it influences the interpretation of texts.

  1. Discourses as Objects of Appropriation: Authors incorporate and transform existing ideas within their works.

  2. Non-Universal Application: The author function varies across different types of discourses and contexts.

  3. Constructed Identity: Authorship is a role shaped by societal and institutional influences, not an inherent trait.

In sum, Foucault's insights on authorship challenge traditional views and advocate for a more dynamic interaction between the text and the reader. By understanding these perspectives, we can engage with texts in a way that honors their complexity and richness, free from the constraints of authorial intent.


The Ultimate Form of Authorship

The ultimate goal of authorship, according to Foucault, is to produce discourse that shapes the formation of other texts.

Founders of discursivity, he argues, achieve this by establishing foundational ideas and methodologies that others can build upon. This form of authorship extends beyond creating individual works, aiming to influence and guide future discourse, ensuring that the author's contributions continue to resonate and evolve over time.

Examples: Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud

Two prominent examples of founders of discursivity are Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.

Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx

Through his writings on political economy and society, Marx established a discourse that led to the development of various Marxist theories and movements, significantly impacting political systems and real-world events such as the Russian Revolution.

Similarly, Freud's contributions to psychology and the theory of psychoanalysis laid the groundwork for an entire discipline, influencing both academic study and therapeutic practices.

The discourses created by Marx and Freud have had profound and lasting impacts.

Marx's theories on class struggle, capitalism, and social change have influenced political ideologies and policies worldwide, which led to significant historical events and transformations in various societies.

Meanwhile, Freud's psychoanalytic theory revolutionized the understanding of human psychology, influencing not only psychotherapy but also art, literature, and culture.

The Challenges of Being an Author

Being an author comes with its own set of challenges and doubts that can often seem overwhelming.

The journey of creating meaningful and lasting work is fraught with obstacles that test the resolve and perseverance of even the most dedicated writers.

author writing

The Difficulties and Doubts Inherent in Being an Author

One of the primary challenges authors face is the constant struggle with self-doubt.

Questions about the value and originality of their work, the fear of rejection, and the pressure to meet high standards can all contribute to a sense of insecurity. Additionally, the solitary nature of writing can sometimes lead to feelings of isolation, making it harder to stay motivated and focused.

Moreover, the writing process itself can be daunting.

Crafting a compelling narrative, developing complex characters, and maintaining coherence throughout a piece requires significant time, effort, and mental energy. Authors must also navigate the often harsh realities of the publishing industry, where fierce competition and success can be elusive.

The Reward of Authorship

But despite these challenges, the moments of clarity and insight that come with being an author make the journey immensely rewarding. Sometimes, everything clicks into place, and the words flow effortlessly, creating a sense of profound satisfaction and accomplishment.

Achieving milestones such as completing a manuscript, receiving positive feedback, or seeing one's work published can significantly boost an author's confidence and motivation. These achievements serve as reminders of the purpose and passion that drive the act of writing.

Moreover, the impact of an author's work on readers is perhaps the most fulfilling aspect of authorship.

Knowing that one's writing has touched, inspired, or provoked thought in others can be incredibly gratifying. These connections with readers often provide the most compelling reason to continue writing despite the difficulties.

In Closing: The Role of an Author

Understanding the role and function of an author is crucial for anyone aspiring to create lasting and impactful work.

The author's role and function go well beyond writing to encompass ownership, responsibility, and the ability to influence cultural and intellectual landscapes.

By adopting the author's mindset, engaging with historical and philosophical perspectives, and striving for ultimate authoring, writers can transcend their immediate context and leave a meaningful legacy.

Additional Resources

For those looking to dive deeper into the concepts of authorship and the philosophies of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, here are some recommended readings and resources:

Further Reading:

  1. "The Death of the Author" by Roland Barthes - This essay that challenges traditional notions of authorship and emphasizes the importance of the reader in interpreting texts.

  2. "What is an Author?" by Michel Foucault - This essay examines the role of the author in literary discourse and introduces the concept of the "author function."

  3. Authorship: From Plato to the Postmodern: A Reader edited by Sean Burke - This anthology provides a comprehensive overview of the evolution of authorship, featuring key texts from Plato to contemporary theorists.

  4. The Author by Andrew Bennett - This book offers a detailed analysis of the role of the author in literary theory and criticism, discussing the contributions of Barthes, Foucault, and others.

Trivium Writing Services

For personalized writing services, consider Trivium Writing. Whether you're looking to develop your writing skills, need help with editing and publishing, or seek coaching on becoming an author, Trivium Writing offers comprehensive services to support your journey.

Click here to browse all our services.

Leandre Larouche

Article by Leandre Larouche

Leandre Larouche is a writer, coach, and the founder of Trivium Writing.