Readers' perception of an author

In an interview published in 1980 ("The Masked Philosopher"), Foucault was interviewed anonymously. When asked why in this interview he chose not to reveal his identity, he said:

Why did I suggest that we use anonymity? Out of nostalgia for a time when, being quite unknown, what I said had some chance of being heard. With the potential reader, the surface of contact was unrippled. The effects of the book might land in unexpected places and form shapes that I had never thought of. A name makes reading too easy.

And then he made an interesting proposal, obviously not seriously:

I shall propose a game: that of the "year without a name." For a year, books would be published without their authors' names. The critics would have to cope with a mass of entirely anonymous books. But, now that I come to think of it, it's possible they would have nothing to do: all the authors would wait until the following year before publishing their books ...

Of course, what Foucault was talking about was not just names, but fame --- names that are well-known or at least recognized. An author's name will not have the kind of effect on readers that Foucault lamented if it is a name nobody knows. After all, none of Foucault's earliest work was published anonymously; as he himself understood it, what he said back then "had some chance of being heard" because his name was still "quite unknown", not because he did not use any name.

However, readers' perception of an author is not just a matter of how famous the author is. At the beginning of the interview and before he made the remarks quoted above, Foucault mentioned a story:

You know the story of the psychologists who went to make a little film test in a village in darkest Africa. They then asked the spectators to tell the story in their own words. Well, only one thing interested them in this story involving three characters: the movement of the light and shadow through the trees.

These African villagers were not interested in the characters of the film; perhaps they were not interested in characters generally. By contrast, as Foucault pointed out:

In our societies, characters dominate our perceptions. Our attention tends to be arrested by the activities of faces that come and go, emerge and disappear.

Readers' perception of an author is not just a matter of how famous the author is; it is also a matter of seeing the author as a character. If the author was seen only as the creator of some text, where attention was paid exclusively to the text, that would not be much of a perception of the author. If we are interested in the text enough to be interested in its creator, and if the text does not tell us much about the author, we will somehow create a character to be the author, sometimes by researching the life of the author, sometimes by reading more of the author's work, and sometimes by imagination alone.

But why are we so fascinated with characters? Because, I think, we see individual human lives as different stories, and stories require characters. If the African villagers were really not interested in characters at all, that was probably because they did not see their lives as stories, or, their lives were too simple to be seen as stories.

Now that we know "the masked philosopher" was Foucault, we won't be able to read the interview the way it was read in 1980 --- we won't be able to read it without seeing the character Foucault in it.

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