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New Trajectories Between Signs. The Transformations of the Author Function at the Turn of the 21st century

Written by: Jon Helt Harder |

When Cecil Bødker (b. 1927) was still a young and unknown writer, it made a difference to the – male – reviewers whether they thought Cecil was a male or female name. The female writer was judged quite differently from her male counterparts. Gender thus plays a pivotal role in readings of literature. But one might perhaps also suggest – as many have over the years – that the author should be extraneous to the reading of the literary work. Seen from this perspective, the reviewers were not merely male chauvinists but also incompetent readers – because they allowed their ‘knowledge’ of the author to influence their reading. 

Whatever we may think of this, it is first of all evident that the relationship between the author and the literary work is not a simple given. Secondly, perceptions of this relationship contribute to the framing of the act of reading as well as the role of the writer. The author function, i.e. how the writer is perceived, while historically variable, helps to determine what constitutes literature and authors, and thus influences the way we read. Gender constitutes a part of this history – as demonstrated by the simple fact that for centuries, the writer was: male.

The author function fundamentally moves along a continuum framed by two extremes. At one end, the writer is considered a somewhat random medium for the expression of God, inspiration, history, society, or literature. At the other extreme, the writer is considered a genious, a conjuress, an idol, a spectre – a creative exception, whose life the reader must be familiar with in order to read the oeuvre. These two fundamental understandings have been historically variable.

During the postwar period, we have witnessed the emergence, reshaping, and complementation of three distinct author functions as a continuation of the dominant author function of the 19th century. Media history plays a significant part in this development as new media also determine new relations between addresser and addressee. However, it is not the case that a literary oeuvre is exclusively created within the paradigm of one particular author function, e.g. the Danish writer, Klaus Rifbjerg, who, at various points, has manifested all four author functions.

The Biographical Author Function

Undoubtedly, the majority considers literature as a form of communination with another person – the writer is a voice we hear. Writers constitute a particular kind of communicators with whom we engage through their works as well as through other media. Our understanding of the works is rooted in our knowledge of the writer, similar to the way our understanding, during conversations, of an interlocutor is tied to our impression of that person. I call this conception of the author, at the very extreme of the continuum mentioned previously, the biographical author function. 

The biographical author function assumed its final guise during the 19th century establishment of a modern media environment with realism as the dominant writing convention and the breakthrough of biographical literary criticism. As women gradually achieved social positions outside the domestic sphere, the author function was adjusted to allow women to be writers, too. From the Norwegian writer, Sigrid Undset (1882-1949), to Danish Tove Ditlevsen (1917-1976), and Swedish Kerstin Ekman (b. 1933), female writers have  assumed the position as society’s existential and realistic-recognisable narrative voice alongside the male writers. Presumably, the biographical author function still fundamentally constitutes the frame within which writers continue to assume their role – as do we as readers – and new forms have been able to define themselves. 

The Autonomous-Text Author Function

In the Nordic countries, literary modernism had a late breakthrough during the immediate postwar period. During much debate, a fragmented and not easily approachable literature assumed the position of principal interpreter of humankind in the modern world. Sweden came first: the roots of fyrtiotalism, literally 1940s-ism, reached back to the beginning of the century, but it was only during the particular atmosphere of the postwar period that the metaphor-laden and complex centrallyrik (a Scandinavian poetry tradition, where the author’s subject constitutes the unequivocal point of departure) came to represent the (only) proper way to engage with contemporary life.

These new ideals brought about their own set of concepts regarding the role of the author. While the modernist poem clearly came about as the outcome of a poet’s personal work with language, the end result had to appear devoid of private references. While poets could claim centre stage in the media, he (and it was usually a he) had to disengage himself from the poems. As the Danish poet, Villy Sørensen, affirmed in 1959: “During the creative process, one must sever the umbilical cord which ties together personality and literary work”. This autonomy doctrine also harboured the notion that the gender of the addresser was extraneous to the readings of literary works.

The autonomous-text author function is at odds with the biographical author function: in a successfully executed work of art, we now hear the voice of the work rather than the voice of the writer. During this period in time the Nordic welfare model reached its pinnacle with the institution of an arts funding system. Playing their part in a ‘critical alliance’, modernist artists could thus contribute universal artistic interpretations. The Danish literary scholar, Pil Dahlerup, addressed the autonomous-text author function head on, when she, using Bødker as an example, demonstrated how gender actually plays an important role in the assessment of literary works. (Pil Dahlerup: Litterære kønsroller. Gyldendal, 1973). 

Despite the Finnish-Swedish writer, Edith Södergran (1892-1923), and such later figures as Swedish Rut Hillarp (1914-2003), Norwegian Gunver Hofmo (1921-1995), and Danish Dorrit Willumsen (b. 1940), Nordic modernism remained, in literary historical hindsight, a largely male endeavour. It is perhaps, on closer inspection, the case that the notion that a literary work could and should stand by itself, irrespective of the gender of its creator and other such contexts, entailed the elevation of one gender to universal standard as representative of the norm. The association of men with high-profile artistic endeavours and women with the pragmatic, autobiographical sharing of experiences has been a habitual constellation in the history of Nordic literature and was particularly noticeable with the subsequent disappearance of the women of the ‘Moderne Gennembrud’ – a literary period in Denmark (1870-1890) characterised as a counter-narrative to Romanticism and a shift towards political realism. The fierce debates during 2015-2016 concerning the dominance of the ‘Culture-men’ in Sweden and the supposed cliquey girlishness of experimental literature in Denmark presumably constitute the latest skirmishes on this front.         

The Political Author Function

The advent of Modernism in the Nordic countries as the privileged interpreter of modernity and its concomitant alliance with the welfare state was met with severe resistance. In the 1960s, younger avant-garde artists, many of whom were women, turned against modernism’s concept of the oeuvre, ie. as an artefact, which – detached from its creator – could be exhibited in the new museums of contemporary art. The public funding schemes for art in the Nordic welfare states were concomitantly the subject of an extensive public debate, which pitted modernism as the primary bone of contention. The emerging left-wing culture also assumed – albeit for very different reasons – a critical stance towards modernism and high culture. 

In literature, a comprehensive departure from modernism occurred. Documentarism, neorealism, concretism, minimalism, and systemic poetry broke inwardly with complex metaphors as the primary mode of expression, the pathos of modernism, and the notion of the literary work as the expression of a personal – never private! – interpretation of unconscious creative processes. Outwardly, new forms of immediate interaction between writer, work, and the world emerged. 

Basic Form. Fra serien The Director. Anna Strand, 2006

The fourth author function of the turn of the millennium traces its roots to these movements of the late 1960s, not least the experimental use of of the writer’s body and personhood, e.g. the Danish writer, Per Højholt. However, the new – political – author function of the 1970’s was particularly influenced by a changed relationship to mass media, a noticeable autobiographical turn, and a showdown with male literary dominance.

The emergence of a general left-wing culture, and specifically the women’s movement, turned the separation of creator and work of the autonomous-text author function on its head. The direct reproduction of private experiences became a necessary political action and the hallmark of the social relevance of the arts: the private is political. We thus re-approach the biographical author function, but this time in a radical form typical of the era and linked to the political and artistic currents of the 1960s as well as the changing conditions of communication under the growing force of visual media.     

The literary exchange of experiences entailed a new relationship with mass media; while public debates about, for example, gender roles, became a force for good, the, at times, provocative autobiographical accounts of sex did equally ‘well’ in the media. A high-profile writer such as Danish Suzanne Brøgger (b. 1944) paid dearly for her status when the prevailing media logic reduced her to a mere scandalous celebrity, thereby reinforcing the very notions of gender, identity, and sexuality she had subjected to critique in her work. 

Old Functions – and a New One

Drape BF2. Fra serien Drape. Eva Stenram, 2013.

The establishment of a new author function at the turn of the 21st century does not preclude previous author functions. On the contrary, literature continues to be characterised by the conventional author functions. Popular authors in particular continue to lend a voice to debates on aspects of modern life, while the separation of work and writer is upheld as a precondition for critique, canonisation, and research. The autonomous-text author function has moved from being a new formation to epitomising the highbrow author – a role which is no longer the exclusive domain of the male modernist poets of centrallyrik.

Publications where modern daily life is discussed with definite autobiographical references and a mode of presentation characterised by newspaper columns or email (preferably with a minimum of one celebrity in on the exchange) are clearly related to the 1970s. However, the literary kinship with the politics of the 1970s is perhaps slightly more removed than the relationship with column-based transmedial successes such as Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996), Sex and the City (1997), and various blogs. Generally, blogs have become a central platform for confessions, interpretations of aspects of modern women’s lives, and not least fashion and personal branding. This is where one begins to appreciate the internet’s particular significance for literature, its creators, and users.   

The Seminautic Author Function

Jeg drømte jeg googlede de lokale nyheder for at finde ud af, om der var noget nyt om den nærliggende dommedag. Adele Marie Rannes, 2015.

The French curator, Nicolas Bourriaud, defines a new kind of artist in his essay, Esthétique relationelle (1998; Relational Aesthetics, 2002): “The artist of our time is a semionaut, mapping new trajectories in order to manoeuvre between the signs.” A range of artists seemingly do not interpret present times through representation in, for example, painting. Rather, they recycle existing material or abandon the idea of the object-based artwork in favour of various practices, which – by audience involvement – propose new ways of being in this world.  

This description of significant aspects of the international art scene of the 1990s may well be adapted to describe literature at the turn of the millennium in a more local context. The semionautic author function entails a writer who views the world as accessible material ready for collection and re-working. The semionautic writer does not invent ficticious worlds in order to shed light on the world we live in and does not create a specific, poetically-condensed language in order to elucidate reality. Rather, she probes and reworks material concerning, for example, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity by means of literature. This literary recycling is most concrete and pronounced in literature such as conceptual or relational poetry where language retrieved fom various contects is recycled as poetry.

The Swedish writer, Ida Börjel’s (b. 1975) Skåneradio (2206; Radio Scania) is based on the transcriptions of a local radio programme of music, small talk, and listeners calling in. The elevation of these dialogues – often of a parochial or downright racist nature – from a lowbrow to a highbrow register such as a collection of poetry constitutes a kind of political act, which traces new trajectories through already known material in order to map the uncharted territories of contemporary Sweden. The rendering visible of chauvinism is even further pronounced in the Danish writer, Christina Hagen’s (b. 1980) White Girl (2011). Collected accounts of the bad travelling experiences of Danes have been subjected to the writer’s black box (sic!) in order to reemerge as an aggressive and comically broken ethnolect: “You stand all the time outside restaurant in your waiter’s kit and say to me in the Danish: ‘ Hello, hello’, and ‘How are you?’ like a parrot. I fucking want cut off your insignificant mouth, put in a jam jar, and place in fridge, and really eat for Christmas with PORK and SAUSAGES and CABBAGE and other thing, smelling bad and be ugly.”

My Mother’s Eyes, My Father’s Hands and Hair. Eva Stenram, 1999.

In some writers, the recycling of language is more generally directed towards particular kinds of language, which are transposed into the literary domain from other domains. As a poet, Danish Lone Hørslev (b. 1974) has often drawn on gossip magazines, which also constitute a source in Kristina Nya Glaffey’s (b. 1979) Lykkejægere (2007; Fortune Hunters). In Majse Aymo-Boot’s (b. 1974) Over os hænger en vidunderlig sol (2014; Above Us Hangs a Wonderful Sun), the narrator’s memories of school are permeated by language appropriated from the web pages of the Ministry of Education and a PhD thesis. Here, the possibly authentic disappears in a parodic quagmire of school jargon and the narrator’s constant indications of the mutability of the narration and thus also the fictive status of the self: “If I am academically weak as well as clumsy, poor at sports, and socially isolated and unpopular, the schoolday may very well seem very long.” 

The material choices of other writers are motivated by journeys, events, or a case that is well-documented and may thus be retold. Such a case may very well be related to the author. It is a central feature of the semionautic author function to view the author’s own life as a source of material among other materiel, and there is thus a convergence between the autonomous-text and the political author function. The private is decidedly political but the forms and strategies of publication are far removed from the exchange of experiences, which featured prominently in the mainstream literature of the 1970s. There is rather a kinship with the great upheavals of the 1960s – and with the off-centre figures of the 1970s’ literary landscape.  

Gender and Celebrity

The body and private life of the writer is considered neither fundamentally irrelevant nor relevant per se, rather it is viewed as material to be reworked. Here, the utilitarian aspect concomitantly articulates a subversion of the distinction between fiction and reality and a sort of phantasm concerning the unmediated return of reality. This is seen clearly in the highly biographical and autobiographical literature referred to as autofiction, the double contract, literary self-presentations, fiction-free fiction, and performative biographism.

Performative biographism does in a way resume a central activity of the 1970s, the sharing of private experiences, however there is less of an unequivocal political objective and an intriguing shift in gender composition. These types of text have largely been written by men, and the high esteem awarded to Danish Jørgen Leth (b. 1937), Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard (b. 1968), Swedes Lars Norén (b. 1944), and Stig Larsson (b. 1955) is remarkable compared to the general denigration of swathes of 1970s literature and the deprecation of contemporary writers with comparable projects such as Swedes Carina Rydberg (b. 1962) and Maja Lundgren (b. 1965).

Litografi uden titel. Hansina Iversen, 2007.

In Rydberg’s Den högsta kasten (1997; The Highest Caste) and Djävulsformlen (2000; Devils Formula), the role of autobiographer enables the victim to return as avenger. Carina discovered this power as a child, showing her diary to a woman on the train, letting her know that she was writing about her: “I close the diary. I am pleased, if not triumphant: this is power. And it is so simple, at least for me. A pen and a notebook. This is my weapon, my only weapon.” In adult life, the autobiographical project similarly awards Rydberg a menacing power in the great train compartment of contemporary life.  

The reception of Maja Lundgren’s vendetta novel against the alleged Swedish ‘culture mafia’, Myggor och tigrar (2007; Mosquitoes and Tigers), similarly demonstrates the collision between the writer’s rebellious project of achieving subjecthood through literary self-presentation and an opposing force where the public acts as a willing stage to the scandalous, name-dropping undertaking, while concurrently subjecting the writer to a media logic of commodification and short-term newsworthiness. It may, particularly in the case of Lundgren, be difficult to determine whether the reception is determined by resentment to the exposure of named individuals or by a gendered logic, which renders female confessors into representatives of a celebrity culture – from which, male confessors presumably keep a noble distance.

This issue was raised once more when the – subsequently convicted – youth case manager of Danish writer, Yahya Hassan (b. 1995) tried to gain recognition from being something other than an accessory to her previous ( and much too young) boyfriend’s literary project. Louise Østergaard’s (b. 1973) Ord (2014; Words) does not compare with YAHYA HASSAN (2013), there is, however, an intriguing irony to Østergaard’s desire to narrate her own (as well as Hassan’s) story and finally become an author, rather than a mere teacher in the provinces, and the fact that this may only occur in the aftermath of the literary breakthrough of the young male divine poet and on the shaky ground of public opinion. 

Between Nobody and Somebody

Younger female semionauts are seemingly able to stear clear of this system by keeping to the field of high literature. An example of this is Danish Asta Olivia Nordenhof (b.1988), whose very direct literary use of her personal life takes the form of undeniably Good Poetry rather then the more popular prose genres, and thus enjoys the protection of leading critics and Nordenhof herself cannot be reduced to a nobody hankering for fame in the freakshow of contemporary culture. 

This fate was almost bestowed on Lone Hørslev upon the publication of Jeg ved ikke om den slags tanker er normale (2009; I Don’t Know if These Kinds of Thought are Normal), when she intimated that her Skilsmissedigte (Divorce Poems) referenced her own divorce from another poet. From the outset, Hørslev has in fact used herself as material on a par with various forms of language retrieved from here and there. As suggested in Et digt, som at prøve at huske, er en bevægelse med hele kroppen (2003; A Poem, Like Trying to Recall, Is a Movement of the Entire Body): “‘I’ is perhaps putting it bit strongly”. However, when the large-circulation reality shows bare their golden teeth and the allure of celebrity status beckons, even a poetically tentative ‘I’ from the field of high literature may appear just like the unprotected Østergaard, as an effortless quarry.   

Perhaps the manoeuvring vis-à-vis gender and public recognition dramatises the general premises for becoming a (gendered) subject, a fact semionauts may examine in a number of different ways. The Norwegian writer, Mona Høvring’s (b. 1962) rewriting of Camilla Collett’s (1813-1895) autobiographical novel, I de lange nætter (1863; During the Long Nights), entitled Camillas lange netter (2103; Camilla’s Long Nights) includes a programmatic note in the introduction: “When I discovered who I was, I stopped writing.” Here, writing is seemingly not a matter of gaining a stable identity but rather a question of taking up temporary residence between Nobody and Somebody (and thus also between or before the genders). The ambiguity of the ‘I’ in Høvring’s text is telling: the ‘I’ of the text, the ‘I’ as Høvring, the ‘I’ as Collett.  

Literary rewritings are a characteristic subset of semionautic literature (and quite obviously associated with the contemporary digital age). This practice challenges traditional concepts of originality: who is, in fact, the Author? Herein lie, as previously noted, issues pertaining to the philosophy of subjecthood and gender politics – beside the linguistic issue: Høvring’s novel is set and narrated during the 19th century, but the novel’s distinct prose is an expression of radical Bokmål (one of the two official forms of written Norwegian), an orthography that did not exist at the time; Collett – naturally – wrote in Danish. The use of Bokmål firmly places the novel in Høvring’s modern times yet presupposes the entire historical chain of events, which separate and connect the various occupants of the ‘I’ of the novel.  

Language and Identity

Keun. Fra serien Ja, hvad vil du spørge mig om. Laura Eriksen, 1998.

The connections between, on the one hand, languages and other sign systems, and identity, on the other, are highly charged subject matters in the multi-cultural countries of the present day, and thus constitute obvious sites for exploration by artists whose very medium is language in print as well as other artistic activities. Hassan Preisler (b. 1969) appears on the cover of Brun mands byrde (2013; Brown Man’s Burden) dressed in an outfit straight out of Lille Sorte Sambo (1937; The Story of Little Black Sambo, 1899). The immigrant identity attributed to him due to his physical features – despite being brought up in Denmark – is thrown right back in the face of the white public as fancy dress. In general, the novel is not black and white; it covers a satire of the well-meaning ‘monster of inclusion’, which funds præmieperkere, or trophy minorities, working in the arts, such as Hassan, and has a sharp eye for male gender identities in colonial and postcolonial settings. 

Another hybrid writer, Swedish Jonas Hassen Khemiri (b. 1978), wrote Ett öga rött (2003; One Eye Red) in a seemingly authentic form of ‘immigrant’ Swedish. However, it turned out to be an artefact in line with the particular language used by father and son Khemiri in Montecore. En unik tiger (2006; Montecore. The Silence of the Tiger, 2011). The father so desires to be ‘Swedish’ that the rebellious son deliberately acquires non-standardised, ‘immigrant’ Swedish as an identity marker and writes a novel that could very well be Ett öga rött. The mysterious Kadir, the old friend of the father, who relates the father’s story in letter form, writes in a prodigiously delightful Swedish with French influences in particular. Kadir and the novel thus begin: “Divinate who to you writes these phrases? It is KADIR who keys the claviature!!!! Your father’s most antique friend!”

In Greenland, the dynamism of literary prose has been hampered by a certain kind of purism (though poetry has fared better). Niviaq Korneliussen’s (b. 1990) HOMO sapienne (2014) is perhaps one of the literary works that may make a difference. It is a novel about same-sex love but it is also, as suggested by the title, a novel about getting caught out by standardised gender codes. The difficulty entailed in both of these experiences is exacerbated in small communities such as in Nuuk – where the Greenlandic-Danish relationship also informs indentity formation.

Like the Swedish writer, Mikael Niemi’s (b. 1959) Populärmusik från Vittula (2000; Popular Music from Vittula, 2003), and also wherever people rap in their local tongue, this is a distinct form of glocalisation: a revitalisation occurs by embedding global media phenomena in local oral practises. The form of the HOMO sapienne is taken from the familiar multi-protagonist television series format. Each of the five stories about love, sexuality, gender identity, and intense youths is associated with a particular rock tune and modern forms of communication such as texting, facebook, and twitter are represented verbatim on the idiomatic and impassioned surface of the novel. 

What is Not Costume

Pakistani woman 31 years old. Fra serien Seven Years. Tina Enghoff, 2010.

Generally, there is a coupling between the semionautic author function and the notion of identity – e.g. gender identity – as culturally constructed, and as language rather than biology.  In recent years, however, there are indications of an interest in materiality, such as climate change or the body as physical manifestations: “behind the costume was that, which was not costume, experience, for example, and exertion, and exhaustion” writes Danish Olga Ravn (b. 1986) in Jeg æder mig selv som lyng (2012; Eating Myself Like Heather). Exertion and exhaustion suggest bodily experiences and the female body is a constant presence, like the menstrual discomfort manifesting itself as “Grammatial Discomfort” in the eponymous poem. The ‘I’and the language of the poem are both most inconveniently influenced by the “involuntary downpour of the red-day”.     

The protagonist of Danish writer, Hanne Højgaard Viemose’s (b. 1977) novel, Hannah (2012), is on a physically exhausting and seemingly futile sojourn in Australia. This limbo is discernibly associated with her disgust – developed during puberty – for the developing female body as a biological reality and as a determinant in the eyes of others: “I was unable to settle into my new body, my life careened onwards, while I was unable to follow other paths than those already at my feet.” The ending of the novel hints at a return and a deliverance as if it were a coming-of-age novel, however one may perhaps also insist on interpreting the account of the grim sojourn as an experiment with a state of being before the establishment a definitive gender identity. Tellingly, the protagonist was not christened ‘Hannah’, it is a name she has assumed – and a name, which autofictionally is situated between being identical to and different from the author’s name, Hanne. The name also fuses her birth name, Anne, with the boys name, Hans, which she prefers in pre-puberty. 

Piano Lessons and Class Journeys

Like the father in Khemiri’s Montecore. En unik tiger, the mother in Athena Farrokhzad’s (b.1983) Vitsvit (2013; White Blight, 2015) is eager to push her child into the domain of white majority culture and standard Swedish. Like Khemiri, Farrokhzad’s narrator resists the push for assimilation. “My mother let bleach run through the syntax”, she protests. Khemiri and Farrokhzad both appear to act against the backdrop of relatively functioning families with well-intentioned parents trying to do good by their children growing up in an unfamiliar environment. Another passage from Vitsvit reads: “My mother said: ‘I have spent a fortune on your piano lessons / But you will refuse to play at my funeral’”. Yahya Hassan, like Swedish Kristian Lundberg (b. 1966), bears witness to a class journey from the lowest rung of the social ladder, with neither a piano lesson nor a well-intentioned parent in sight. Following Farrokhzad’s critique of Hassan’s childhood accounts and the ensuing, so-called ‘whiteness’ debate in Denmark during 2014, one may contentiously ask: Is she entitled to discuss his poetry? She doesn’t share his background? (Athena Farrokhzad: “Hans raseri hylles av danska resister”. Aftonbladet, 21.01.2014). 

In the present context, the actual reply remains unimportant. It is, however meaningful to note that the gender, ethnicity, and social background of writers constitutes a part of literary life in a way that fuses features from the autonomous-text and the political author function. In the semionautic author function, identification with the role as artist converges with the desire for immediate social relevance and political power, whereby a host of younger writers assume positions of simultaneously employing autobiography in order to debate the pressing questions of our time, and doing so to such a level of sophistication so as to enter the realms of high literature. Gender, for example, is thus employed in ways that do not invoke the condescending term, ‘confessional poetry’, and which allows them to dream of appearing as figures capable of being awarded arts funding from the hitherto functioning arts funding schemes of a welfare state under increased pressure from globalisation.


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