It is perhaps appropriate to be questioning the authority of Michel Foucault, who famously held that, if the author is not exactly dead, at least he is a tiresome and repressive figure who should be removed from office, by force if necessary:
The truth is quite the contrary: the author is not an indefinite source of significations which fill a work; the author does not precede the works, he is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction.
But the exclusion of pork from my kitchen does not prevent its being sold to you. Indeed, you can purchase (and consume) my portion. Feel free! And the limitation of a text’s meaning to its author’s intention does not impede my creation of a different meaning. I can even do so in the author’s name, although I will be mistaken. I will be burglarizing his authority while simultaneously claiming to reject any authority of the kind.
At all events, it is appropriate this morning to question the authority of Foucault, the leading authority for the disregard of the author, because my 3,000-word life-and-works essay “In Praise of Prose”—Francine Prose, that is—has just appeared in the May issue of Commentary. This is the second such essay I have written, after having surveyed the career of Michael Chabon in the Sewanee Review a year and a half ago.
I should like to write more such essays (Stanley Elkin is next on my to-do list), but more immodestly, I should like to persuade other critics to undertake essays that offer a panoramic view of an author’s life and works.
A good book-length model of the genre is William H. Pritchard’s Updike: America’s Man of Letters (2000). In his Introduction, Pritchard explains that he has not written a literary biography. “From time to time I point to facts in the life that seem to parallel or even help to account for certain moments in the writing,” he says. But his subject is Updike’s writing. If his method is not biographical but critical, though, he has built according to biography’s structural plans. “[M]y practice,” he says, “has been to take chronology seriously by using it to tell a story of Updike’s progress from one book to the next.” The ultimate goal is to promote “the discussion of artistic value.” (Pritchard is even more immodest than I.) But what this also means is that “artistic value” is more central to his purpose than is “meaning”:
Criticism needs to recover from the daze of meaning and return to the more difficult and important question of value, from the isolated and naked text to the author and his lifelong work. And why? As William Maxwell said in agreeing to speak to a biographer of John O’Hara: “Good writers deserve to be remembered.” And critics are around to see that they get their deserts.