Who is the author of Winnie-The-Pooh? Ask anyone who is familiar with the book and they will answer: ‘A. A. Milne.’ Pick up any edition of this much-loved children’s novel and you will surely find ‘A. A. Milne’ printed on the front cover. Why then, do some post-structural theorists claim that ‘The Author’ does not exist? If there is no Milne, then there is no Winnie-The-Pooh, which to an extent is true, because it is fictional, but at the same time, the characters are very much alive in our culture due to the mass media.
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Literature is a large part of Western culture, so it is difficult to comprehend that there might not be such thing as an author. Using Winnie-The-Pooh as a case study, I intend to explore ideas posed by some post-structural theorists, looking particularly at Michel Foucault’s essay ‘What is an Author?’ , in order to untangle the confusion swarming around the notion of ‘The Author’.
Foucault thinks that how The Author’s name is presented can change the reader’s perspective of a book. For example, very few people will say that the author of Winnie-The-Pooh is Alan Alexander Milne. The vast majority probably do not even know what the ‘A. A.’ stands for. Foucault claims that the author’s name carries a ‘specific link’ (Foucault, p. 284) to the text. In other words, the name A. A. Milne brings connotations of a children’s author who writes about the adventures of a talking teddy bear, whereas his proper name, Alan Milne, does not. Foucault believes a proper name is an objective designation, which always refers to the same person; the author’s name, however, is subjective, and how it is perceived is dependent on society’s reception of the texts associated with it. For example our view of Shakespeare would change dramatically if ‘we proved that Shakespeare did not write those sonnets’ (p. 285) for which he is famous.
Society’s reverence for Shakespeare can be attributed to his universal characters, timeless plots, and astonishing linguistic skill. The name Shakespeare is entirely synonymous with his works; if we were do discover that he did not write the famous soliloquy ‘To be or not to be’ , we would be disappointed, or even feel betrayed because the image his name stands for will be false. I see Shakespeare as a symbol for the best of British literature, but Foucault would disagree. He would not say Shakespeare is representative of British literature, but rather that he is an authority on it. Foucault posits that literary critics ‘prove the value of a text’ (p. 287) by how renowned the author is, which is why scholars look to Shakespeare as a ‘how to guide’. The Author is therefore a figure of respect, and some authors have their name elevated by their work so that they appear more than what they are.
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The use of Milne’s initials in society have become so familiar that it would seem strange to start referring to him by his proper name. By using his initials, Milne distances himself from his readers because they will never achieve a personal first name basis with him. There are a number of reasons why a writer may obscure his/her name; one may be to avoid the media so as not to be thrown into the public eye. As long as s/he is a name on a page, s/he is hidden, but once his/her true identity is discovered, s/he is open not only to professional criticism, but also social, political and personal criticism. If his/her author name is different from his/her personal name, s/he is less vulnerable. Also, if the author receives a bad review under one name, s/he can always pen another.
The name of The Author can be very influential. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century female writers were not respected; to ensure their books were bought, it was imperative that no one knew that they were women. A number of great children’s writers used their initials to hide their true sex, including E. Nesbit, P. L. Travers, and even today, J.K. Rowling found concealing her gender necessary to get published.
Pseudonyms are also used to replace a writer’s proper name, and can be particularly effective in children’s books. Daniel Handler, for instance, has the Pseudonym, Lemony Snicket. A fun, visual, and quirky name, it suggests his books are of the same nature, thus encouraging children to read them. The fact that a character called Lemony Snicket also appears in A Series of Unfortunate Events creates the illusion that the reader knows the author.
Like Snicket, Milne also puts himself ‘into’ the text. He addresses his readers in the first chapter: ‘I hope you do too because it is all the explanation you are going to get’ (Milne, p. 1), making his readers feel closer to him. This, however, is all an illusion; Milne acts as the narrator, but the narrator is only a persona of the real man. Milne in real life would not speak in the same voice. Just as film stars such as Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart create on-screen personas, Milne’s authorial voice is also a persona. It is deceptive because the reader thinks they know who the author is, but in fact they do not.
Using his initials instead of his proper name ultimately makes Milne less tangible and real for the reader, which is why Foucault compares The Author to a ghost. The comparison can be likened to Plato’s cave analogy. Plato describes prisoners chained to a cave, who can see nothing more than the distorted shadows opposite them. To them the shadows are real. But the shadows are merely a projection created by the fire behind them. Like the prisoners, a reader can only see the distorted image of reality, through written in a book. The book is only a shadow of the real author. S/he is a ghost.
Foucault notes that in Saint Jerome’s collection of short biographies, De viris illustribus (Concerning Illustrious Men), Jerome explains that a name alone is not indicative as to who the author is, and believes if one text is written in a different style, then it cannot be by the same author even if it is under the same name. With Homer’s The Iliad style changes within the very work itself, suggesting multiple authors. The Iliad is an oral epic created by several poets; there never was an individual called Homer.
Foucault points out that Jerome’s ‘criteria of authenticity’ is ‘totally insufficient for today’s exegetes’ (Foucault, p. 288), especially since the arrival of post/modernism, which endeavours to achieve experimental or inconsistent styles. The change in criteria indicates that the definition of The Author has also changed over the years, in part, due to the ‘author-function’ (Foucault, p. 285). The purpose of a text can determine whether it has an author, for example, a private letter is intended for an individual and, ‘it may well have a signer’, but as it is not published, ‘it does not have an author’ (Foucault, p. 285).
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Winnie-The Pooh was originally intended to entertain Milne’s son, Christopher. With only one reader in mind, it could not originally have had an author because question of ownership would never arise. It is only when Winnie-The Pooh was published to the mass market that it could be said that Milne is the author. In that case, being an author appears directly related to who owns the text.
In its widest context that means that potentially everyone is the author of Winnie-The Pooh because anyone who buys the book, owns it. It is also true that each reader brings in his/her own interpretation of the text and therefore a new text is created with every new reading. Perhaps this is too wide an interpretation of the term ‘author’, for while everyone has their own take on the text, they did not write the words. An author is someone who produces a canonical piece of work within society, so for these people to be authors, their work would have to be published. Even then the rights should fall back to the originator – unless, of course, those rights have been sold. In a Capitalist society even one’s ideas can be bought. Currently copyright lasts the ‘author’s lifetime plus 70 years’ . Authorship could have an expiry date; once a text enters public domain, anyone can reuse the material. Since Milne wrote The House On Pooh Corner, many Pooh stories have been published through different mediums, including films by the Walt Disney Company, who bought the rights to Milne’s material. In 2009 David Benedict wrote The Return to the Hundred Acre Wood. Although Benedict clearly places himself as narrator, he uses the same voice and style as Milne; it is a sign of respect, but some might feel he is just a copycat.
According to Roland Barthes, all texts are just ‘a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture’ . For over a thousand years the same plots and story arcs have been used again and again. Christopher Booker states that there may be ‘only seven basic stories in the world’ , thus ‘the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original’ (Barthes, p. 315). Fairy tales are a classic example; they are thousands of years old, and have been changed so many times that they are almost unrecognisable from the original. The Author, lost in history, has become a ghost because back in those times, stories were told orally, not written down. They were passed down from one generation to another, each time changing slightly. No one claimed authorship.
While Milne may not be reusing plot material from a specific literary text, he is reusing a familiar theme: toys coming to life. In The Steadfast Tin Soldier the toy soldier is emotionally alive, although physically inanimate, and in The Velveteen Rabbit, a toy rabbit is turned real by a magical fairy. Another instance when a fairy brings a toy to life is in Pinocchio. There is, however, no magical intervention in Winnie-The-Pooh; the toys are simply alive in the mind of the child, Christopher Robin. It was the make-believe games Christopher played with his toys that inspired Milne in the first place.
In contrast to the theme of non-living things coming alive in fiction, Foucault believes that ‘writing’s relationship with death’ (Foucault, p. 282) is one of the most significant themes in literature. Citing A Thousand and One Nights, he explains how the character, Shahrazad, preserves her life by telling the king stories. The Author’s role in this plot is complex because the author’s main narrative is just a framework for the more important secondary narratives, relayed by Shahrazad. Shahrazad is a pseudo-author, merely a creation of the real author. Shahrazad substitutes the role of author, despite not actually existing. While she avoids death by telling stories to the king, ironically, the original author has been lost due to the nature of oral tradition. It may be impossible for The Author of an oral story to survive, but many people believe that The Author is immortal: the writer’s physical body may wither away but his/her words forever haunt the pages of his/her book. Foucault, on the other hand, believes such a text is the ‘author’s murderer’ (Foucault, p. 282). To tell a fulfilling story the authorial voice must not intrude on the narrative otherwise the reader will be taken out of the story, thus ‘the mark of the writer is reduced to nothing more than the singularity of his absence; he must assume the role of the dead man’ (Foucault, p. 282).
In the case of Milne, the statement seems wholly inaccurate, particularly considering his use of narrative. In many novels, the author and the narrator are two separate entities. In Winnie-The-Pooh, however, Milne is clearly narrating as shown when he begins telling a story to his son:
‘What about a story?’ said Christopher Robin.
‘What about a story?’ I said.
‘Could you very sweetly tell Winnie-The-Pooh one?’
‘I suppose I could,’ I said.
(Milne, p. 2)
It is here where the lines between fiction and reality blur. The novel’s dual narrative creates a metafictive scene in which Milne establishes that he is going to tell a story. Metafiction deliberately self-references itself to establish the fictitious nature of the text, but as with A Thousand and One Nights, Milne creates a narrative within a narrative. The initial framework of Winnie-The-Pooh sets up the illusion of an oral story, which he achieves through Christopher interrupting the narrative: ‘“What does ‘under the name’ mean?” asked Christopher Robin’. But as the secondary narrative forms, his authorial voice becomes less intrusive. In this way, Milne successfully avoids the role of the ‘dead man’, yet maintains enough distance not to distract from the story.
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As narrator, he essentially turns himself into a character in the book, ultimately making him less real in the outside world. But at the same time, his ability to talk to characters makes them more real:
I had written as far as this when Piglet looked up and said in his squeaky voice, ‘What about Me?’ ‘My dear Piglet,’ I said, ‘the whole book is about you.’
By breaking the fourth wall, Milne allows Piglet to be aware of an existence outside the book. Perhaps, when his novels were first written, the characters did not live in the real world, but today young and old alike know who Pooh Bear is. He is a prominent figure in Western society, appearing in books and on television. The bear does not just have a visual presence, but through merchandising, a physical one as well. Anyone can go to the toy store and buy their very own Pooh Bear; they can touch him, hold him, talk to him – in some cases even get a reply. Due to mass production, there is not just one Pooh Bear, but hundreds, all sitting on a shelf waiting to be bought. Employees dressed as Winnie-The-Pooh will hug children at the entrance to Disneyland. Over the years Pooh has become more than real; the growth of Capitalism has made him ‘hyperreal’. In fact, Jean Baudrillard goes one step further, saying that the ideological world of Disneyland is contagious, to the point that the Western world is ‘no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal’.
This is not such an outrageous theory when considering Hollywood, a place where celebrities live out ‘jazzed up’ lifestyles. The Author (who is a type of celebrity) has become an ideological image; The Author is a hyperbole, an exaggerated form of the real person, created by society. Through his/her writing, The Author can create a fantasy world in which readers can emerge themselves and escape the mundane existence of everyday life. The fantasy is made hyperreal by the ability to visit places like Disneyland, The Magical World of Harry Potter, and even Ashdown Forest – where The Hundred Acre Wood is set.
So perhaps, if The Author is not real, s/he can be considered hyperreal. The Author may not exist in physical form, but to Western society, s/he is a higher ‘entity’. This is somewhat contradictory since Milne does not have full authority over his work. There are powers higher than himself: publishers and editors, but curiously, they do not share the same hyper existence.
Milne is not fully in control of his work, just as a parent is not fully in control of their child, but he is none the less responsible for its birth. The question of whether The Author exists is merely a matter of semantics. Language is an artificial construct created by humans to help make communication more efficient, and to the general populace, The Author is merely a word used to define a writer of a particular text. What Foucault is trying to establish in his essay, however, is that The Author is formed out of a cultural aspiration to achieve – but ultimately fail at gaining – immortality. The man Alan Alexander Milne did exist, but after his literal death in 1956, his books only retained the persona – or ghost – of Milne, for his true essence is too fragmented within the text to be recovered.
Anon, The Arabian Nights: Tales From A Thousand And One Nights, trans. Sir Richard F. Burton, (US: Modern Library, 2001)
Benedict, David, Return to the Hundred Acre Wood (London: Egmont UK Limited, 2009)