Celebrating East African Writing!

Death of the Author

This is the blog editor’s response to comments posted on a poem posted on this blog. The thoughts are not the complete body of thought on critique, critics and authors. Therefore, the editor would greatly appreciate further comments about the topic from all you  readers and writers out there.

Dear Mr. Nena and Mr. Obiya,

As editor/moderator of this forum I chose to let your conversation continue so I could see where it would go. There was a moment when I doubted the wisdom of that choice. The Storymoja Writers’ Blog was envisioned as a forum where writers new and seasoned could have a chance to showcase their shorter works, works in progress and poetry with the hope of an interchange of useful critique.

Now critique, if it is to be honest, will analyse the work in hand from various angles. Critique is defined as:

a detailed analysis and assessment of something, especially a literary, philosophical, or political theory

It is true that when the critique highlights an author’s failure to execute or capture his audience, it can be painful for the creator of the work. One way to deal with this is to assume Roland Barthes stance on a principle called the ‘Death of the Author’ – That the author’s identity — their political views, historical context, religion, ethnicity, psychology, or other biographical or personal attributes are separate from the author’s work. Therefore as an author, you must never stand to defend your work as your work is ‘eternally written here and now’ with each reading or re-reading.

The theory of the ‘Death of the Author’ is in itself troublesome because our experiences invariably affect our writing, and our writing often has intent. However, it can offer sufficient comfort to the author if he takes critique as a judgement of his work and not his self. Even then, this is still a thorny front because works of art are such precious parts of an artist’s psyche that an attack on them can often feel like a personal affront.

Whether to take note of and possibly make an application of points stated in a critique is entirely up to the author. In my opinion, even if an editor offers you critique and recommendations, it is entirely up to you whether to take note of that critique and whether to follow those recommendations. Of course, refusing to follow an editor’s recommendation could be the difference between getting published or not. But it is still entirely up to you.

The interesting thing here is that, you Mr. Obiya, were not the creator of the work of which Mr. Nena spoke so scathingly. (Unless you were writing under a pen name.) So your comments were not really in the defense of the work but rather as to the manner in which Mr. Nena chose to execute his critique.

My assumption is that Mr. Nena is not acquainted with the author and therefore his comments were directed at the work and were not an attempt to rile or insult the author. Taking it as such, Mr. Nena is entitled to his feelings and opinions towards the work as well as the right to express them. Whether he is right or not is in fact irrelevant. If another reader was to disagree with him, then they would in fact be free to counter-critique the critique (but not the critic.) A reader with a different opinion would also be free and probably well-advised to formulate a critique of his own in the light which he better favors.

I believe that if the art of creative writing in Kenya is to grow to such standards of excellence as we dream of, both voracious readers and valiant writers must learn to support each other. By support I do not mean overprotective and indulgent forms of praise such as seen when ‘friends’ comment on Facebook poetry to the effect of ‘nice’ and ‘That’s my girl.’

By support, I mean that readers should read, think and analyse what they have read, how they truly felt about the execution and what they think of the issues the author may or may not have succeeded in addressing. Once readers are done ‘reading’ they can chose to be critics or not. Not everyone is a good critic. By ‘good critic’, I mean, equipped with the ability to study a work of art and not only judge it on its merits or demerits but also have the ability to express the success and/or failures in a clear and concise manner.

In exchange for this kind of honest judgement, writers should provide such pieces of work that will entertain their readers, inform and educate them (if that is in fact the purpose of the creation), and do it in such a manner that readers have hope in their hearts when they think of the kind of writing that they want to read.

This conversation has gone on in the recent past, with readers who aspire to be critics veering from one extreme to the other. I am constantly saddened to see such promise of cultural and creative talent either crushed or treated with such indulgence that the only kind of work that we see on the book shelves has no reflection at all of the real talent that does in fact exist.

And so to Mr. Nena and Mr. Obiya, I choose not to insult your intelligence by pointing out where either of you went wrong. Instead, I hope that both of you will return to these pages, to showcase your work, as well as be part of a new culture where we can engage in honest, intelligent conversation about our world and our stories without stooping down to be thugs in the bushes.


Blog Editor.


5 comments on “Death of the Author

  1. Alexander Eichener
    May 5, 2013

    I might not have begon with Barthes (as much as I can, I try to veil the fact that I heard his name, some time back then, in university…). But it is indeed part of the trivium to be able to distinguish work and author. Distinguish. Not necessarily separate.
    It was Ernst Jünger I think who had once quipped (presumably in his diaries): “Who comments on himself, writes below his level.” But it could also have been Jünger’s reminiscence of a French moralist.

    I see two dangers:
    – Knowing that an author is bad (say, Clay Muganda or Oyunga Pala) and hence automatically dissing what[ever] s/he writes, without necessarily doing justice to his (or her) OPUS.
    – Collegial I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-my-back connivance; far more common among academics than among poets.

    Lastly, Peter Nena’s critique is a scathing criticism, and it appears right to me. One may have issues with the tone he chose (as Nigel apparently has), but he has given some reasons why he felt and judged as he did. No, it’s not a “critical essay”, but better one such honest comment than none at all.


  2. Cornell
    May 6, 2013

    I agree with Alexander:

    “Peter Nena’s critique is a scathing criticism, and it appears right to me. One may have issues with the tone he chose (as Nigel apparently has), but he has given some reasons why he felt and judged as he did. No, it’s not a “critical essay”, but better one such honest comment than none at all.”

    In addition, methinks that what Peter Nena said was true and reasonable. But whether or not it was kind is a whole other matter. Where do we (and who gets to) draw the “moral” line in an otherwise “honest” critique? Methinks Mr. Nena’s critique evoked such an emotive response from Mr. Obiya because it exposed more than Mr. Nena’s mind (his valid reasoning), it inadvertently (or not) exposed Mr. Nena’s heart (his not so kind feelings). This is what Mr. Obiya was instinctively reacting (not responding) to. It’s an elusive balance, that one. Even for the most objective of us.

    I am inclined to call this a case of the “suicide of the critic”. 🙂


  3. Cornell
    May 6, 2013

    It is good to be brutally honest. But we must watch out that we are not more brutal (scathing) than honest. When our brutality outweighs our honesty, it obscures our honesty. The result is that the ones we are trying to help end up putting up their guards and defenses. They are more hurt than helped in the end.

    Even so, those receiving criticism also need to develop thick hides. Little reform was ever attained through pampering critiques. Sometimes we must hurt in order to ensure effective healing. In that light, I applaud Nigel’s approach.


  4. oluochcliff
    May 13, 2013

    Once a writer pens down a piece and shares it publicly, he/she should be able to take the response from the readers. My only concern about Peter’s response is that as a writer, Peter should be able to be both brutal and accomodating at the same time. He knows that writer’s have very fragile egos and they believe that their pieces are the best thing to have come out of the literary world. That makes it


  5. oluochcliff
    May 14, 2013

    ……That makes it more the reason why Peter’s response should be brutally exhaustive with suggestions on how to improve.


Comments are closed.


This entry was posted on May 5, 2013 by in Writer's Blog.
%d bloggers like this: