Silly Argument: Taking on Authorial Intent

Once again, the image below is making the social media rounds.

As both an author and a scholar, I find the underlying assumptions and message insulting.

First, it misrepresents and trivializes literature scholarship. I will fully admit that there was a time when I held a similar view regarding literary interpretation. I was rather naive back then.

Second, the image does exactly what it complains about. One of the complaints is the teacher as source of meaning. Instead, this image places the author as the source of meaning. Nothing has been gained, merely a switch of sources. Which leads to my third issue.

The image creates this shift is a very naive way. It assumes that the only things an author includes are done consciously. It negates the unconscious. Psychology and an honest look at our own work as writers both show that a lot of material enters our writing on an unconscious level. For instance, I’m sure J.K. Rowling was aware of Marie de France (given that she studied French at Exeter), but given a lack of direct reference, I think her use of Marie in her werewolves was unconscious. Likewise, when I look back at a lot of my fiction, I see unconscious influences throughout the stories.

Fourth, the image reinforces the myth of authorial intent and dismisses reader interpretation. It holds the author as the only source of meaning (also falling into the Cult of One True Meaning, a falsehood itself). Authorial intent and One True Meaning are easily disproved, both by talking with multiple readers and thinking honestly about our own reading (consider what we get out of reading a given novel multiple times over several years).

As a writer, I find the Cult of One True Meaning particularly insulting, since it basically says that my writing is shallow. To paraphrase Ursula K. Le Guin, any truly vibrant text can mean twelve things before breakfast. To say there’s only one meaning is to say the work is one dimensional.

I’ve hung out with authors like Nalo Hopkinson, Nancy Kress, Norman Spinrad, Jennifer Stevenson, and R. Garcia y Marquez. I have friends who regularly hang out with Neil Gaiman, Fred Pohl, and China Mieville. I’ve been around authors at scholarly conferences. I’ve seen them in sessions in which papers about their work were presented. I’ve seen them engage scholars and listen to others’ take on their work without dismissing or trying to shut down the conversation with claims of authorial intent.

I know it can be difficult for authors to relinquish control of their work. But, whenever we put our work out there for the public to see, we give up control of meaning.

 

P.S. To quote Mike Levy (U. of Wisconsin), “the idea of the Intentional Fallacy grew out of the realization that authors are often not the last word on their own work. Authors often work intuitively and can be blind to things in their writing that are quite obvious to other readers.  Thus, the Intentional Fallacy, which should be seen in these terms: the author is a valuable point of entry into her/his text but, again, not the last word.  His/her intent can’t necessarily rule out other interpretations.”20131120-085536.jpg

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8 comments on “Silly Argument: Taking on Authorial Intent

  1. blackwatertown says:

    Amen to your final sentence. It was brought home to me when an agent began discussing various clever things I’d done in some writing. I tried to look both sage and blithe – and remember my accidental cleverness.

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  2. lordtaltos says:

    It’s one of those things. Writing is often, I think, seen as a solitary practice. What we often forget is that there’s no point in writing if there isn’t a reader. And the reader’s going to bring all sorts of baggage to the conversation and see all sorts of things that we, as writers, don’t.

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  3. calmgrove says:

    Thank you for putting into words (and more precise terminology) what I’ve always suspected.

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  4. colonialist says:

    What I have always taken issue with are these wild flights of fancy into what some writings ‘mean’ which are not only contrary to author intent, but also challenge pure logic. There has to be a limit.
    Having said which, I have to admit that on re-reading some of my own work I find with surprise that there are other levels which I did not consciously strive to achieve.

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    • lordtaltos says:

      Of course, there are limits. There has to be reasonable evidence in the text to back up the interpretation, that’s assumed by the vast majority of (scholarly, at least) lit critics.

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