Roland Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ theory, if you’ll allow me to get academic for a moment, is sort of a philosophy on reading and writing, and basically states that once a written work goes out to its readers, the creator loses all control over it. Not in a copyright sense, but in a more intangible and symbolic way: essentially, the human being who made up the story becomes totally irrelevant to the story itself because the power to bring that story to life lies with the reader. Whether or not you agree with that wholeheartedly, I think it’s an interesting thing to think on regarding fandom, especially in its modern incarnation, where we not only have fans speaking directly to and demanding more from authors, but fans gathering in greater communities to demand more from these works of fiction themselves.
Straight up, an excellent example of this is Harry Potter, always a good specimen to examine simply because its fanbase is so huge and so dedicated, and at this point in time, heavily consisted of people who read and loved the books as they were growing up and are now looking back at them with their new sense of maturity. And, as even I learnt, there’s a lot of thinking you can do about the Wizarding World even if you’re not super involved with it, which has naturally led to swathes of headcanons and theories that extend the story world from how it’s presented in the texts, whether that’s prodding into plot holes or extending the story, and doing so with far more varied perspectives than the original author’s. As this compilation post nicely puts it: “Thus the muses spake: ‘JK you dealt kinda shittily with Dumbledore and other diversity aspects, so we’re gonna go ahead and fix this ourselves’.”
I think this is a key aspect of fandom, and definitely translates nicely into fanfiction: readers enjoying something, but wanting more from it. A character is shafted by the narrative, so a reader who thought they could have had more potential will start musing on or writing about them to give them the development they were denied. A story presents a pair of characters they tease heavily as a possible romantic pairing, but won’t actually get them together for whatever reason, so a member of the audience will write about that romantic arc actually occurring. An audience member has trouble finding themselves represented in canon, so they tweak it in their own creative space to make it more inclusive and interesting to them personally. Viewers will wrangle headcanons or stories of sexuality, gender, background and all sorts of things onto characters you’d never have considered them for, mostly, in my experience, because the text itself would never go in that direction and is content with keeping its characters on a narrow, conventional path. And not all consumers are happy with that.
Hell, for a practical and officially published example, supposedly the defeat of the Nazgul King in The Return of the King stemmed from J. R. R. Tolkien being annoyed with the lost potential in Macbeth with that whole “no man of woman born can kill me” thing. Death by C-section baby is alright as a twist, but he reckoned it would have been pretty awesome if the loophole had embraced the concept of a woman having the power to murder the king, and promptly doing so. Hence Eowyn’s role in the battle, and the long whiny cry of “Oh no! I forgot that female characters could be important in this story!” from the dying Nazgul and everyone watching in awe around them. Jane Eyre is also reportedly inspired by a side character in one of Jane Austen’s books, who Charlotte Bronte was interested in enough to adopt and gave a novel-length story of her own to.
And so, so many books and works are written out of frustration with a lack of something—be it diversity, good vampire fiction etc.—already out there in the field, often the field that the author loves dearly. The desire to write is often inspired by reading, whether it’s reading something you want to be as good as one day, or reading something you’re sure someone, and it may as well start with you, can do better than. Hey, the second sign of loving a work is your heightened ability to tear it apart (remember how I end up talking about Fate every three posts? There lies a perfect example). Whether it’s directly borrowing characters for fanworks to flesh them out, or being inspired to explore the same themes, but more to your personal liking, in original stuff, or just to talking about the work and bringing all these points up for discussion, stretching and playing with the world at hand like putty until it’s recognisable, but has your fingerprints all over it. That’s what engaging with a text is all about.
So, the Supernatural crew won’t confirm Dean as bisexual even though you can see evidence of it in the show? You know what, audience member, it doesn’t matter. The beauty of the Death of the Author philosophy is, if you personally have a certain interpretation of the text or the characters and themes within, that is yours and no one can take it away from you, even and especially if the creators themselves debunk it in interviews or what have you. Which is also what makes Harry Potter an interesting case study of this whole phenomenon, because while the fandom is happily theorising, making additions and reading the books in different ways, J. K. Rowling is still blurting out Word of God statements that change the story world, as if she still has any control over it.
Like the whole “Dumbledore is gay” thing, which created a different kind of uproar to the “I don’t think Ron and Hermione should have ended up together” thing. One of them brings up the argument whether something’s true and legitimate representation just because the author says so, even if it’s not mentioned at all in the text itself, the other is just plain silly. The major point here is that it’s a bit of a grab at thin air, whether you’re the most powerful children’s writer in the world or not, to still try and change people’s perceptions of your work long after it’s been published and finished, and long after you’ve “died” as an author.
On one level, you could haul in all the nuances of Barthes’ theory, on another, it’s just pretty straight-up insulting to build your own interpretation of a text—and it might be a very important interpretation to you personally—and have the author come out in interviews and say “No, that’s not right. You must all see this the way that I did when I wrote it.” Overall, that kind of attitude defeats a bit of a the purpose of writing—sure, a lot of works are written with a particular message or musing in mind, and people missing that completely will be a bit of an emotional drain for the writer. And I’m not saying that fans should outright ignore the intention of the author or the substance of the text itself, or use the headcanoning process to squish it so out of shape it’s clearly not the same work. But, we shouldn’t try to strip the power of interpretation and their desire for more from readers, because in the end that’s what readings all about—the story coming alive and weaving in with their imagination.
You want to read a fantasy story as an allegory for coming out? Go ahead. You want to like the side characters more than the ones the author puts the spotlight on? Rock and roll. You appreciate the work overall but are unhappy with the way it handles certain aspects, and wish they could have been less problematic? Go, go, go. The power is in your hands, fiction consumer. Use it for good and don’t let anyone, even if it’s the writer of the work, who has a different brain to you and is abjectly seperate from the story itself, tell you no.