Foster describes receiving an email from a student who asked: “How do I know I’m right?” Foster calls this “the great question of literary analysis.” He responds by arguing that if something in a work of literature has captured your attention, it’s likely there for a reason, meaning it has some substantial significance. Foster adds that it’s usually impossible to know whether writers included signals, clues, and symbols “on purpose,” and so we shouldn’t worry about whether or not this was a conscious decision. Ultimately, it does not matter much what the writer planned to do, as “a reader’s only obligation… is to the text.” The text holds the authority, not the author.
As Foster has repeated throughout the book, succeeding at literary criticism is mostly a matter of confidence. It can be difficult for students—who are used to being assessed, corrected, and graded—to rely on their own instincts and let go of the desire to appeal to a higher authority over whether or not their interpretation is “correct.” As Foster explains, there is no use relying on the authority of even the author, whose opinion is often impossible to know.
Foster explains that this line of thinking became particularly popular following Roland Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author” (1967). While the essay has been hugely influential, many scholars remain critical of it. However, Foster urges the reader to consider the fact that most authors are already dead; even when they’re not, they are not necessarily available for consultation. Meanwhile, writers who choose to publish anonymously seem themselves to want “the death of the author.” They want their texts to be read in their own right, without readers being influenced by their impression of the author.
Foster’s consideration of the “death of the author” connects this passage back to the very beginning of the book, when Foster described literature taking on “a life of its own.” Once authors publish their books, they no longer retain authority over them, meaning they implicitly consent to the books being read and interpreted in ways that are beyond the author’s control. In this sense, the author then becomes somewhat irrelevant to critical analysis.
Foster concludes the chapter by encouraging students not to be apologetic about their interpretations of texts. He urges students to “take ownership of your reading.” The fact that each reader’s analysis is unique is a positive thing, and allows people to learn from one another. It’s good to have your interpretations change, but make sure to “trust your instincts” and believe in the value of your own opinion.
It can be difficult to strike a balance between having faith in one’s own opinions and being prepared to be persuaded by the arguments of others (if they turn out to be more convincing!). Foster’s advice to the reader is to approach the practice of criticism with a mix of confidence and humility.