Book Lovers: Literary Necrophilia in the 21st Century

This essay is excerpted from The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online, edited by Houman Barekat, David Winters, and Robert Barry, and out this month from OR Books.


RECENTLY I WAS EMAILING with a friend about the new book by Geoff Dyer and I said:

Is that piece he wrote for the LRB about having a stroke in it? My take-home from that was a deep envy of the “twice-baked hazelnut croissants” he ate every day in LA. Come to think of it, I remember a croissant in the piece he wrote for Yoga too. I think it was almond. Maybe he really likes croissants.

A few emails before, my friend was telling me an anecdote about the French author, Michel Houellebecq, who is a regular visitor to a bar where his friend works. We speculated about Houellebecq’s tastes as evinced in his writing — which, like Dyer’s, is often autofictional — for “fancy French reds.” We wanted to know more about Houellebecq, about Dyer, and we combed their texts for clues, as though knowing were the point. Reading this way made us feel cool. It also made us feel a bit fake.

In 1967, the French theorist Roland Barthes said the author was dead, shifting the burden of textual meaning to the reader. “To give a text an author,” he wrote, “is to impose a limit on the text.” In What Is An Author (1969), often considered a response to Barthes’s work, the French theorist, Michel Foucault wrote: “The author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning.” It was around that time that my parents, who loved books, bought vast numbers of cheap paperbacks, which were cheaper than they had ever been. My parents rarely saw even a jacket photo of these books’ authors who, until they died and their biographies were written, gave little or no account of their lives outside what could be deduced from within the limits of the texts they produced. Just as the idea of the author provided limits for the textual meaning, the texts provided limits within which these limiting author-figures could be constructed.

In 1967, it really was possible to be a “book lover.” What readers loved about books was sometimes the language, the story, but this very seldom occurred without their also loving the characters. To love a character could be, to paraphrase Barthes, a way of putting a limit on love. Characters could also be, after Foucault, the ideological figures by which one marks the manner in which we fear love’s proliferation. This love was accompanied by the anxiety of their knowledge that these people were fake.


In 2007, the author Sheila Heti wrote, of her autofiction How Should a Person Be?: “Increasingly I’m less interested in writing about fictional people, because it seems so tiresome to make up a fake person and put them through the paces of a fake story. I just — I can’t do it.” The line between “fiction” and autobiography from the 20th and into the 21st century has acted as an increasingly sharply acknowledged focus for anxiety grouped around ideas of fakeness, and consequently of authenticity, and so of “virtue” in terms of moral good and quality of writing. But it is “fake” writing — the ability and intention to make up a “persona” — that has historically been seen as “good” writing. Autobiographical writing in fiction has been decried as “bad” writing, and an admission of autobiography as what identities a “fake” writer.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger thought autobiography had nothing to do with “good” writing. Of Aristotle he said: “He was born, he thought, he died. And all the rest is pure anecdote.” I cannot track down this quote to identify it with its speaker, as the story is itself anecdotal. It was told by Jacques Derrida in the film, Derrida (2002), a purely anecdotal biography that shows the French philosopher making some breakfast that is not a croissant, and choosing his teaching suits, but little of his work, other than what is revealed through his everyday activities. Jacques Derrida, author of Circumfession, an autobiography written in collaboration (“this book presupposes a contract”) with the scholar Geoffrey Bennington, and published in their jointly written book, Jacques Derrida (1999), valued autobiography in a writer’s work. In the biographical film, Derrida, he asked “Why have [philosophers] effaced their private lives from their work? Why do they never talk about personal things? I’m not saying someone should make a porn film about Hegel or Heidegger. I want to hear them talking about the part love plays in their lives.”

In 2012, Sheila Heti responded to critics who panned her book for directly discussing the part love (both friendly and erotic) plays in her life: “People who look at themselves in order to better look at the world — that is not narcissism. It is, and has always been, what people who make art do, and must do. You cannot do it blind. You cannot do it by looking at a toaster.” Heti implicitly accepts her critics’ point that a “narcissistic” author-position — presumably one that demands and relies on a legitimizing response from the reader — is both morally undesirable and produces “bad” writing. In 1948, Truman Capote published Other Voices, Other Rooms, a novel he only later recognized as autobiographical. “Rereading it now,” he said later in 1972, as related in an anecdote written by Gerald Clarke in his biography Capote (2013), “I find such self-deception unpardonable.” The autobiographical material about the part love played in Truman Capote’s life in Other Voices, Other Rooms was hidden in fiction and the author escaped accusations of “narcissism” exactly because his material was considered “immoral” enough for him to — by fictionalizing it — practice a deception on himself and, by extension, his reader. That the fictional and the immoral are close companions can be revealed only when fiction is “narcissistically” confessed to be autobiographical, at which point its writer encounters the double bind of having written not only “immorally” but “badly.”

While the potentially controversial autobiographical subject matter of Other Voices, Other Rooms went under the radar, Truman Capote’s “seductive” author photo appearing, unusually for the time, on the book’s jacket made him instantly recognizable, and caused, wrote his biographer Clarke, “uproar […] He had not foreseen that the picture would overshadow, and in some ways trivialize, the work it was promoting, transforming the real right thing into something that many dismissed as the product of a brilliant publicity campaign.” Clarke relates how Random House’s publicity posters for the book showed the photograph, with the strapline: “This is Truman Capote.”

Capote’s image became his acknowledged avatar, a communiqué from the author that bypassed his work. Another Clarke anecdote goes that, while Capote denied complicity with the campaign in public, he colluded with it enthusiastically in private. In The Words of Selves (2000), Denise Riley wrote: “[M]y self-definition can be a determined appeal for recognition […] In [some] sense it may well be a performative, like a first declaration of love.” Wikipedia puts the date of the “Affective Turn” — the rise of the study of affective theory and emotion in the humanities and sciences — also in the year 2000. In 2015, the star of approval on Twitter turned into the heart of affection. We are no longer giving prizes for writing: what we are giving is (and is for) something else.

I think my metaphor is falling in love. Wait, I didn’t mean metaphor, I meant métier: some kind of work. Of art.


In 2016, I talked to the American poet Anne Boyer about the regular “suiciding” of her Twitter account. She had, she said, become addicted to self-destruction. She also spoke of the labor of accounting for yourself in writing. In Wages Against Housework (1975), Silvia Federici says:

Many times the difficulties and ambiguities which women express in discussing wages for housework stem from the reduction of wages for housework to a thing, a lump of money, instead of viewing it as a political perspective. The difference between these two standpoints is enormous. To view wages for housework as a thing rather than a perspective is to detach the end result of our struggle from the struggle itself.

Or she could have said:

Many times the difficulties and ambiguities which authors express in discussing wages for accounting for yourself stem from the reduction of wages for accounting for yourself to an object, a lump of money, instead of viewing it as a political perspective. The difference between these two standpoints is enormous. To view wages for accounting for yourself as an object rather than a perspective is to detach the end result of our struggle from the struggle itself.

In 2016, an author undertakes the labor of self-accounting online. Of course it is possible to avoid self-accounting, just as it would have been possible for Capote, in 1948, to have written a novel that gave an open account of his life, but the demands of contemporary culture weigh against both. On social media authors fake themselves, drawing up accounts of themselves as digital objects, differently from the ways an author-figure can be constructed via the pages of a book. Dyer’s croissants made me and my friend feel cool as readers not only, perhaps, in the sense of being post-morally disengaged from the affective possibilities of the text (its characters, its language) but also in the McLuhanian sense, drawn into a critical game of constructing the author from a series of associated objects across different media, in this case crucially beyond the limits of the text. The game (as Federici says, the “perspective”) seemed the point.

An object in digital programming is not, as Federici puts it “a lump”: it works a bit more like an anecdote. It is a set of data, plus a method. A programmed object is its characteristics, plus how it is used: its data is encapsulated in its functions. Why call it an object at all, why fit it to a figure of speech? Well, programming is semantic. Names are grasping tools, bridging the gap between concept and code, and what they grasp is physical, or so it appears. The language of programming is one of metaphor: its “objects” correspond to things found in the real world. When we think of data + method as a “library,” or a “checkout,” it’s easier to understand, to maintain, to evolve the virtual, but this also means our behaviors are carried over from the meatspace. A programming “object” is a real white elephant in the room, a whatnot, a bibelot, a conversation piece: useless in itself until it demands our response. Its metaphors are social, familial, the stuff of private lives, or anecdote (as in the real world, “inheritance” give rise to a “hierarchy” — behaviors are carried across from one object to all its “relations”). Textual meaning is best located in the author-space into which can be put any number of possible anecdotes (a.k.a. digital objects) hinging on seemingly 3D anecdotal objects such as croissants, teaching suits, and fancy French reds. The burden of fakeness shifts to the reader. Now it is as possible to fall in love with a croissant as a book. And I mean the word “croissant.”

(In the meantime, I would like to read a novel about a toaster.)


The Italian writer Elena Ferrante does not have an author photo. This is not the same as not having an author photo in 1947, or in 1967. It is her lack of photo that now invites anecdote. To have a biography means you must not account for yourself.

“The anecdote,” said the poet Anne Boyer, when I met her for the first time in the flesh and not on Twitter, in 2016, “resists authority.” Until late 2016, there were no anecdotes about Elena Ferrante, only about readers’ experiences of accounting for Elena Ferrante, including guesses as to her age, sex, nationality, inheritance, hierarchy, and familial and professional relations. Ferrrante was not a “dead” author as she had no public identity from which to “suicide” (the only contemporary option open), and so provided readers with no limit, no ability to mark their fear of love’s proliferation. Given few other objects to work with, readers often tried to identify her by traditional means, via her books, and the accounts she gave, in them, of her characters’ lives. This labor, shifted to the reader, is not in an appeal for recognition by the writer, but marks a corresponding desire, in the reader, to recognize. With books no longer a reliable holding zone for implicit autobiography, Ferrante’s refusal either to admit or hide her “narcissism” shifted the moral burden of creating meaning back to her readers who, once more, were left to attempt to mark their anxiety via the limits of their creation.

“They say it is love,” wrote Silvia Federici in Wages Against Housework. “We say it is unwaged work.”


Joanna Walsh is a writer, literary journalist, and activist. Her latest books are Seed, and Worlds from the Word’s End.