Morality of the Author, Morality of the Work
Gisèle Sapiro

Taking as her starting point cases that have caused some scandal, in this article sociologist Gisèle Sapiro raises the question, which is also the title of her book, Peut-on dissocier l'oeuvre de l'auteur? [Can we separate the work from the author?] and advances in the possible answers (which vary according to the cases) to another complex question: what to do with the work when its author's personal conduct is objectionable?

Martin Heidegger

Martin Heidegger in his Hut in Todtnauberg, in the Black Forest, Germany, 1968 © Photo: Digne Meller Marcovicz / Scala, Florence / bpk, Bildagentur für Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte, Berlin


The controversies and scandals surrounding authors who have taken objectionable stances, such as Céline or Heidegger, or who have held objectionable attitudes, such as Polanski or Gabriel Matzneff, have raised questions over the relationship between authors and their work. Can and should they be separated? Is there a relationship between the morality of the work and the morality of the author? If so, what consequences should we draw from this? Should they be ‘suppressed’, i.e. removed from circulation?

In my book Peut-on dissocier l’oeuvre de l’auteur?1, I argue that the author and the work are social constructs that have not always been clearly defined. From the divine inspiration that comes to the poet to the culture of imitating the ancients that prevailed during the Renaissance, other ways of thinking about the act of creation preceded the Romantic notion of creative originality, which is itself not unrelated to the emergence of intellectual property.

In his famous article entitled ‘What is an Author?’, Michel Foucault defines the author function as the unification of a series of discourses under a proper name. He points out that the legal attribution of works to an author (which in France dates back to the Edict of Châteaubriant of 1551, said edict requiring every author and printer to affix their name to published books) historically preceded literary and artistic property, which was not recognised until the 18th century (first in England and then in France). Before being a commodity, a work was a form of speech that could be subject to punishment.

The proper name indicates the relationship between the work and the author’s person, and therefore the author’s life. It also encapsulates the symbolic capital associated with the author by virtue of their work. This is what is meant by the expressions ‘to make a name for oneself in literature’ and ‘to be a great name in literature’. An author’s name is, however, a special form of proper name, referring less to a person than to a body of works attributed to that person.

"The notion of a ‘work’ also implies a unity, often associated with a style, which the author's name comes to designate, as in Garcia Marquez's magic realism."

Authors are often quick to experiment with their names as a way of questioning the relationship between the person and the work. Many authors and creators opt for an ‘author’s name’ quite distinct from their real name, while some remain hidden behind the name of one of their fictitious characters, as was the case with Fernando Pessoa, who created seventy-two ‘heteronyms’ for himself, fictional names with fictional biographies. This strategy illustrates the concept of the author as the ‘son of his own works’.

Unlike a pseudonym, which conceals a person’s true identity, an author’s name generally functions as a preferred name, whether official (legally registered) or not. It distinguishes the ‘author’, as the product of their work, from the social individual, marking their emancipation vis-à-vis career and identity, or in other words their social indeterminacy. Writer Chloé Delaume reinvents herself in her character, whose first name is borrowed from the heroine of Boris Vian’s Froth on the Daydream. In the introduction to S’écrire, mode d’emploi [Writing Oneself: A User Guide], she declares:

My name is Chloé Delaume. I am a fictional character. I decided to become a fictional character when I realised that I was already one. […] A secondary character in a family fiction and a passive extra in the collective fiction. I chose writing to reclaim my body, my actions, and my identity.2

Through the proper name, this identification between the author and their work takes on three dimensions: the metonymic relationship, resemblance and causality.

On Kawara

On Kawara, MAR. 11, 1967 © On Kawara Studio and David Zwirner, New York and London


Scope and unity of ‘the work’

The metonymic relationship concerns the author’s name as designating a body of work. Flaubert is the author of Madame Bovary, L’Education sentimentale, Sentimental Education and all his other novels and their respective translations. The use of the author’s name as a label for their entire body of work suggests that it constitutes a coherent ‘whole’, part of a creative project. This is why publishing complete works is a crucial phase in the process of canonising an author.

The work, however, is never a coherent whole. Firstly, there is the question of its scope. Then there is the issue of its unity.

The instability of a work’s scope is demonstrated in the following cases. First, the forgeries of Rimbaud’s The Spiritual Hunt. Second, the denied authorship of anonymous or pseudonymous writings, but also the right to repent or withdraw. For example, Céline exercised his right of withdrawal by prohibiting the re-publication of his antisemitic pamphlets after the war, even though he had written them as an extension of his novelistic ‘work’. A publisher in Quebec recently republished the pamphlets, which have fallen into the public domain, arguing that they are a continuation of his literary work. In France (where they are not yet in the public domain), Gallimard had obtained the agreement of Céline’s widow, but was forced to abandon the idea in the midst of an outcry from critics.

Reworkings, on the other hand, raise the question of what exactly is the original. Aragon, for example, rewrote his works, compiling them in OEuvres croisées [Crossed Works] with Elsa Triolet. What is more, published manuscripts are often the result of a collective effort involving reviewers at various stages.

1. Peut-on dissocier l’oeuvre de l’auteur? Paris: Seuil, 2020.
2. Chloé Delaume, S’écrire, mode d’emploi,, 2008.