Non-Linear Texts Versus the Notion of Authorship

A narrative is a story structured to impart a series of fictional or non-fictional events, often designed with a clear start, middle, and end. Non-linear narrative adheres to the same definition, but not necessarily in stated order. It can be presented in a number of ways: A shuffled narrative, like Memento (Nolan, 2000). Memento has been described as being linear, only backwards, but not only is the film constructed as a series of forward-running scenes presented in reverse order, it is intercut with a series of black and white scenes presented in chronological order that together form a prologue; flashbacks: a device again used by Memento, but was most famously employed in the pioneering bazinga Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941); and, a hypertext novel can decentralise its structure such that one story can turn into another – portmanteau-style – as seen in These Waves of Girls (Fisher, 2001), where the story and perspective switch between that of a four-year-old girl, a ten-year-old girl, and a twenty-year-old girl – out of chronological order – depending on which hyperlinks are selected. Each hyperlink provides little or no clue as to when or who it is going to lead.

The term auteur came to prominence during the French cinematic New Wave – or Nouvelle Vague – movement, which was spearheaded by such critically influential figures as Andre Bazin, Jean-Luc Goddard, Eric Rohmer, and Francois Truffaut. These men were a collective of University drop-outs and autodidacts who came together under the forum of the renowned film critique publication Cahiers du Cinema during the Fifties. They were concerned more with counter-culture than the musicals and war films of the American mainstream. It was in 1959, when Truffaut’s first film Les Quatre Cent Coups (The 400 Blows) won him the coveted Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival, that the talents of the Nouvelle Vague gained recognition. Despite the directors’ assertions that they were each making such intensely personal films that they did not consider themselves as belonging to a movement, the critics pushed their collective names to the forefront as Zeitgeist-capturing icons; a symbol of France’s rejuvenation after the trials of the Second World War. Goddard made A Bout De Souffle (1959); the same year Rohmer directed Le Signe du Lion; Truffaut’s sophomore effort was Jules et Jim (1961). In spite of their differences, this movement – including a number of other French films made during the Sixties – sparked a cultural revolution, changing not only how films were made but perceived by giving cinema a distinct cultural and social significance.

Although the main tenet of the Nouvelle Vague was that the filmmakers worked without constraints, if there was one rule – albeit unspoken – was that their films were based on original material, and not adaptations of existing works. The logic behind it was their desire to reaffirm the director’s role as that of an auteur; to make their films signature pieces, at odds with the Hollywood studio style of filmmaking, which was based around compromise, collaboration, and committee. This was the approach particularly favoured by Truffaut, which led to aspersions being cast upon his artistic integrity after not only moving to work in Hollywood, but directing an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel, Fahrenheit 451 (1966). This was unfair, however, as the Nouvelle Vague and Cahiers du Cinema had long championed the work of directors Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock – who they perceived as artists rather than hacks – despite both working under the confines of the Hollywood system. It could be said that the Nouvelle Vague and its personal centricity were designed to be in direct opposition to the polished, anaemic American culture of filmmaking, which was smothering the French cinematic identity with its cultural imperialism.

Roland Barthes argues against the auteur’s existence, or at least the need for one. He believes that the auteur’s presence detracts from the reader’s engagement with the piece, or, as he phrases it:

“To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing”

(1977, p147)

It is the reading of the text, not the writing, that brings meaning to it, Barthes suggests. If this is so, then non-linearity would surely elevate the reader above the author/auteur, as the format allows a broader level of interpretation over a linear structure. It is therefore reasonable to conjecture that hypertext narrative supplies Barthes with the paradigm that proves his theories: it is the reader that navigates the text as there is no ‘director’ dictating the order in which the piece should be viewed. But, if Barthes’ theory is true, does non-linear narrative – and its increasing popularity – threaten the integrity of the auteur?

“Storytelling and narrative lie at the heart of all successful communication. Crude, explicit, button-pushing interaction breaks the spell of engagement and makes it hard to present complex information that unfolds in careful sequence”

(Whitby, 1993)

Here, Whitby suggests that hypertext fiction fails to express itself to the reader by failing to allow them to be immersed within the text; that as clicking on hypertext links requires – on some level – thought and reason, it distracts from the text itself communicating with the reader. This seems a technophobic view, as the same could be argued of turning the page of a book. Page-turning may be something that becomes habitual to the point of reflex, but is that not because it is so culturally ingrained? Is the act of clicking on a hyperlink overwhelming enough to spoil a text? Maybe after five-thousand years of the hypertext novel this idea will become moot.

Although hypertext fiction does not entirely compromise authorship, it does place far more importance on the reader as it necessary for them to decide which narrative path they wish to choose; the reader is given an element of control, but only within the parameters set by the author. Whitby would surely argue that although this statement is true, the more hyperlinks there are to choose from the more the narrative would befuddle the reader and erode their immersion in the story; that the hyperlinks draw the reader’s attention to the fact that they are viewing a series of records rather than experiencing a story. In the case of These Waves of Girls, this is most certainly false; the links actually increase the reader’s level of engagement with the narrative. The stories of the four-year old, the ten-year-old, and the twenty year old girls appear to merge randomly – and it is left open to interpretation whether these three perspectives belong to the same person at different stages during her life – which encourages the reader to place them within a context; it challenges the reader to consider the text. Whitby, in order to support his argument, would rather a mindless text, surely?

Barthes belief is that a text – either literary or cinematic – does not exist as a narrative until it has been experienced. Therefore, the author’s existence – auteur or no – is directly affected by the extent of the reader’s engagement with the work. If it is the audience’s perception that determines the position and integrity of the auteur, does that mean that the author “lives or dies” dependent on that degree of audience engagement? If a novel is skimmed through leisurely by a reader, does that allow the author to breathe for another day? Barthes theory on the death of the author is so rigid that it allows no middle ground. He makes such sweeping statements as:

“The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but its destination.” (p189, 1977)

Which suggests that the author’s personal biases do not impact upon the reader. But of course, they do. He may counter that the reader is not just a receptacle for the text, but is also an interpreter, and it is the interpretation that enlivens the text. This not only assumes that the reader is of uniform identity – that this ‘reader’ entity is stimulated unilaterally without exception – but that the reader’s bias resists and nullifies the author’s bias. This fails to acknowledge that the text would not exist without author bias: without it, there would be nothing for the reader to engage with. The author/reader relationship is symbiotic rather than parasitic.

If the auteur ideal is that of striving towards a state of textual omnipotence – imparting knowledge as an Oracle – the hypertext is its zenith; it reinvents the auteur for the Twenty-First Century. Just as the cinematic auteurs, such as Brian de Palma, used split-screen in the Seventies (see: Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and Carrie (1976)), new literary auteurs are taking advantage of new technology to expand their creative vocabulary.

Auteurism in film represents an ideal based on artistic integrity and creative freedom. The critics-cum-directors of Cahiers du Cinema and the Nouvelle Vague understood that intelligent, challenging film could be made under the constraints of the commercial film industry. Non-linear narrative is a complex and challenging literary device and so would undoubtedly provide another means of expression to the author, and not dilute or bypass the intent, despite Barthes’ claim. Barthes argues against authorship and the developments in non-linear narrative – especially hypertext works, in which the reader is able to influence the order and structure of the narrative – seem to reinforce his theory. His theory, though, must be appraised in relation to the author’s intent.


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