Authorial Intent (Revisited?)

Thanks to a meme floating around social media sites, I was pulled into a discussion about interpretation of texts and the source(s) of meaning.  As usual in such discussions, the question of authorial intent arose, predominantly in the role of intending to shut down conversation and insist upon the “One Single True Meaning”™ of the text.

As both writer and literary critic/scholar (or so some tell me I am), I’m inherently suspicious of authorial intent.

Why?

Because authorial intent is only one aspect of interpretation and meaning.

It can be a great starting point, perhaps to ask questions and generate discussion.  For instance, asking “Author A says that Text B was intended to be about C, do they succeed in that intent?  Discuss.”  However, more often than not authorial intent is used as a stick to beat others, as a means for someone to say, “Aha!  You’re wrong, I have the One True Meaning, because the author said so!”, e.g. to shut down discussion and “win” in some way.

I always recall a Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA) listserv discussion of exactly this issue.  During the course of things, Michael Levy (University of Wisconsin) stated, “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.”  That has always stuck with me, as both a literature scholar and a writer.

So, why is the Intentional Fallacy (e.g. appeal to authorial intent/authority) dangerous or problematic?

First, relying solely on authorial intent removes the reader’s agency (reader response theory; Stanley Fish, et al.).  Writing is a two party relationship: writer and reader.  Readers inherently bring meaning to a text through their experiences, history, previous reading, education, and a host of other factors.  This is why a person can read the same book several times at different ages and get very different things out of the book.  The book has not physically changed, the author’s intent has not changed, but the reader has changed and therefore brings different things to the book and sees different things in the book.

Second, it removes the influence of socio-politico-historical context (new historicist theory, Stephen Greenblatt, et al.; any cultural studies), implying that the author wrote in a vacuum.  Simply, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, an author cannot write in a vacuum, at least not for very long.  Every text is, consciously or otherwise, the product of a particular socio-politico-historical moment.  If Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote the “I Have a Dream” speech in 1953 or in 1983, it would be a very different speech than what he wrote in 1963 because the context would be different.  Whether we like to admit it or not, we are the products of our environments and we bring certain assumptions and influences from our environment with us when we write, whether fiction or non-fiction.  Unless we are writing from a point in the vacuum of space (which won’t last more than a couple seconds at best), things are going on around us that influence how we think, our inspiration, and how we approach topics.  And those things are going to have an influence on our writing.  That said, as writers, we’re usually too close to recognize those, often subtle, influences.

Third, it removes the possibility, really probability, of unconscious or subconscious influences and insertions on the part of the author (Jungian archetype theory, Carl Jung, et al.; semiotics, Umberto Eco, et al.).  Similar to context, there are a host of factors that unconsciously influence writers, from half-remembered (or completely consciously forgotten) childhood experiences to subconscious recognition of archetypes.  And that is a good thing.  When we consciously try to incorporate and use archetypes, for instance, they invariably fall flat.  They become non-archetypal, because archetypes are inherently unconscious and hold unconscious signification.  Used consciously, they often become fads.  This sub/unconscious influence is, I think, unavoidable.  I think it is an inherent element of how the brain and mind function.

There are, of course, a whole host of other factors that can come into interpretation of texts that the insistence on authorial intent as the end all and be all of interpretation simply kills.  Ultimately, there is never going to be a “One Single True Meaning”™ to any vital, living text, that is, any text likely to outlive its reader and, in fact, culture.  This openness of interpretation, I know, drives some people crazy because they want the one, correct, true answer.  But, literature, writing, is organic.  Like everything organic, this means writing and literature are messy.  And that messiness is what makes literature, writing, all art really, so interesting and awesome.

Any creation, primary or secondary, with any vitality to it, can ‘really’ be a dozen mutually exclusive things at once, before breakfast.” -Ursula K. Le Guin, Language of the Night, 1982

Writer Advice: Getting from A to B, or Transitions

A common issue for early stage writers, although it appears with more experienced people as well, is transitions. These are the sentences and phrases that link paragraphs together. They serve to demonstrate how we are moving from one point to the next; they connect points A and B.

In short, transitions show the chain of logic that the writer is making.

Transitions can be seen akin to middle school algebra.

For example, a teacher writes: X + 5 = 10

Most people say, “X = 5”

Teacher says, “Show your work.”

Most people grumble and groan.

But, the teacher wants to see X + 5 – 5 = 10 -5; X = 5 because it shows the chain of logic. That becomes important when we get 2X + 3Y = Z – 5.

That chain of logic is important for linking evidence to claims and shifting between claims.

This is one reason that I like outlining before writing. With a formal outline, there is a good, visual representation of the main claims. These can be manipulated and moved around to where they best fit, compared to the other claims. It is, in my experience, always best to group claims based on what relationship they have to each other. That is, putting related claims next to each other. With that sort of organization, the transitions tend to be smoother, because the points are more closely related.

The chain of logic, aided by the transitions, or as shown by the transitions, makes the argument easier for the reader to follow. If the reader has a difficult time following the argument, then they aren’t focusing on the content, they’re focusing on the structure and trying to figure out what’s going on. This, obviously, is not good for convincing the reader. Rather, we want to make things easy for the reader to follow, so they don’t have to work so hard trying to figure out structural elements—ex. organization, syntax—and can spend more time chewing on the argument itself. Ultimately, that will produce a more convincing argument, or a more productive discussion.

Personally, I find that one of the easiest ways to create a smooth transition is the use of echoing language.  By echoing, I mean using one or two similar terms (or concepts) in the last sentence of paragraph A and the first sentence of paragraph B.

For example:

Her concern comes after years of knowing Lupin, the clearest exception to the prejudicial stereotype, and at a time far removed from a full moon.

The source of this prejudiced view, and its racial connotations, is nowhere more evident than in the words of Dolores Umbridge . . .

(Note the echoing of “prejudicial” and “prejudiced”.)

Alternately, referring to the next main point can create a smoother transition.

For example:

the medieval construct of sympathetic versus monstrous werewolf forms a lens through which Rowling discusses Lupin’s lessons as well as a historical connection to our literary past.

In Rowling’s work, the primary werewolf—Lupin—serves to directly educate key characters . . .

Here the last sentence of paragraph A links the idea of an old dichotomy to the concept of learning/education, with the first sentence of paragraph B moving straight into education.

 

Tips & Techniques: Self-Editing

I’ve been back to work in the writing center for a couple weeks now, tutoring, so I thought I’d put together a few posts of tips and techniques that seem to crop up a lot with the students I see.

 I figured I’d lead off with self-editing.

For editing my own work, I’ve used a few different techniques and I’ve had students tell me about others that work well for them. So, without further ado . . .

 1. Print versus Screen

I find the difference between print and screen reading is often helpful in identifying errors and putting a different spin on what I’m reading. This is especially the case since I can take the print copy into different environments, if I don’t want to tussle with iOS to get it transferred to my tablet.

2. Magnify on the Screen

Many students have told me that a trick they use to good effect is magnifying the text on the screen. In these cases, they’ll type in Word at 100% magnification, then do their editing at 125 or 150% magnification. The size change of the document helps them spot proofreading errors and missing words.

3. Read Out Loud

This is one of my favorite recommendations for students who come into the center. Reading the document out loud is helpful on a couple levels. First, reading out loud is slower than reading silently, so the mechanism forces us to read slower and more carefully. This, of course, helps us pick out missing words and typos. Second, reading out loud causes us to process the text more than reading silently. When we read silently, we process the words once. When we read out loud, we process the words visually, then convert them to vocalization, then hear them . . . so we process the words three times instead of one. And our ears often tell us when something sounds wrong, which usually indicates a missing word, problematic phrasing, or an incorrect word choice. Reading aloud to someone else can be especially helpful in this regard, as an extra set of ears.

4. Cover Passages (good for checking commas and pronouns [I vs. Me])

Physically covering up phrases can be very effective in determining a few issues. This is primarily useful, in my experience, for comma usage and first person pronoun usage. The short version: if the sentence makes sense without the covered phrase, then the phrase should have commas around it (because it is an interjection or bonus detail). If the sentence doesn’t make sense, then the commas are in the wrong place. Likewise, the use of I and me tends to confuse people. We are often told that the proper construction is “my sibling and I”, but this isn’t always true. What we have to do is read the sentence with “my sibling and” covered up, so reading it as I or me and determine which makes grammatical sense. For instance, “My brother and I ate sandwiches” is correct (“I ate sandwiches”), but “Our mom gave my brother and I sandwiches” is incorrect (“Mom gave I sandwiches”) and should be “Our mom gave sandwiches to me and my brother” (“Mom gave sandwiches to me”).

5. Read Backwards

A lot of things I’ve seen have also suggested reading the document backwards, e.g. starting at the last sentence of the last page and working toward the first. I’m not entirely sure of the effectiveness or usefulness, but apparently some swear by it. Could be worth a try.

Magic Revisited: Symbol vs. Tool

Lately, I’ve been working on several projects including posting things here. These include:

 Company Earth/Section 15—An urban fantasy worldbuild and story (about 2400 words, middle of chapter 2)

Kingshaven—An urban fantasy piece (about 2730 words, starting chapter 2)

Great Covenant—An urban fantasy worldbuild

Eight Cities—A fantasy worldbuild connected to the Great Covenant Earth

Kindred Spirit—A fantasy worldbuild and story (about 13,250 words, starting chapter 8)

The Tower—An urban fantasy worldbuild and story (about 1900 word scene)

 I list these here mostly because I’ve been looking up a lot, and thinking, about magic again lately. These six settings all use magic differently to one degree or another. Some are more different than others, whether at a fundamental level or a more superficial level.

 Symbolic Magic versus Magic as a Tool

I’ve come across a variety of blogs and writer (sadly didn’t save any of them) who argue that all magic must have a cost, whether in terms of fatigue or something more significant (life?). Others have suggested that magic should symbolize something, or be a character unto itself.

 An alternate view, and one I prefer, is the idea that magic is simply a tool. In this set up, magic is ultimately no different than a hammer or sword, regardless of how one actually performs the magic. I suppose one reason I like it is that there is still significant room for variation and playing with the idea, and at the same time there is no inherent moral or other symbolic element. And it can still have a cost.

 Rowling presents a good example of this method in which magic, while an important element of her world, is little more than a tool and has a cost, albeit a minor one, in the form of learning time, and sometimes fatigue (or more, as shown in Deathly Hallows with Voldemort’s blood sacrifice protection and the horcruxes).

 High Magic versus Low Magic

As I’ve been working on the settings above, I’ve become interested in this idea. In short, the concept is that there are two (or more) layers of magic: low and high. These can have internal layers as well. So, low magic would be simple, basic magics; the hedge magic or hedge witch idea. It could be roughly equivalent to a secondary school education or an apprentice in a trade. On the other hand, high magics would be advanced, potentially superior (and more costly) magics. They are special, powerful, and require extra training. Perhaps only a certain percentage of the magical community undertakes the necessary education, roughly equivalent to modern grad school or a master in a trade.

 I like this concept because it brings in the idea of abilities and knowledge hidden (because of danger, power, or some other reason) from the majority of mages. In a way it is also somewhat realistic, in that the master or grad degree holder has a higher degree of knowledge and information, or tricks, than the apprentice or high school graduate.

 Old Magics versus New Magics

Another concept I’ve been playing with is old versus new magics, or different ages for different magics. In my own thinking, this has mostly been an evolutionary track, but it could also take the form of lost magics or a host of other possibilities. And the different magics could exist concurrently in the modern era.

 Older magic could be taken as more raw in terms of power or involving less control. Alternatively, the old magics could be potentially more precise and stronger (in a form of declining magical arts). Meanwhile, new magics could be more precise, though perhaps weaker and/or more specialized. Trudi Canavan plays with this idea to a certain extent with her Black Magician trilogy (lost, powerful magic). Esther Friesner works with evolved, rarefied modern magic in Split Heirs. Steven Brust also plays with the concept in the Dragaera books with the differences between raw, powerful, uncontrolled Elder Sorcery and modern sorcery. Ilona Andrews does as well with the Kate Daniels series, through the title character and her father’s family.

 Raw Power versus Skill/Control

I’ve also been thinking about differentiating raw power from control. An individual may have a phenomenal amount of potential power, but little to no control (at least initially); such as the Skywalker clan, supposedly. On the other hand, someone could have great skill and knowledge, but very little raw power. Canavan suggests this possibility throughout her series as well.

 Power Generation versus Spellcasting

If energy is being used by the magician, there is also the question of how power is generated, acquired, or replenished. Some work with ambient absorption, a sort of unconscious recharge based on rest and time (Canavan uses this as do others). Others involve active rituals and even sacrifice (also appears in Canavan, via bloodletting).

 Sometimes, there are magics that exist solely to provide energy and power for the caster—blood sacrifice, organ consumption, draining magic items, tantric magic—while other magics are involved in actual spellcasting, e.g. creating effects with that power. This is something I’ve been playing with to an extent as well. Allyson James’s Stormwalker series seems to use this idea to some extent, ex. sex magic appears to be used solely for the purpose of powering other magics, whether already in place or cast during the act (ref. Stormwalker in which Janet and Mick reinforce her wards on the hotel).

 Enchanting versus Enchantment

There is also an interesting, not really confusion but multiple uses of the term enchantment. Traditionally, enchantment refers to mind affecting magics. Since at least the early days of D&D, enchantment can also refer to the creation of magically imbued items, e.g. enchanted items. I think much of the issue here comes from the real lack of definitive usage of terminology, both historically and in modern usage. This is true, in its own way, of virtually all terminology related to magic—e.g. sorcery, wizardry, magic, witchcraft, necromancy—that are, in some cases, used interchangeably, or for multiple things.

 To clarify this, some have referred to the creation of magic items as “artifice”. However, that term also refers to trickery, cunning, and deception. Recently, I’ve been favoring “crafting”, as in “He carried several Crafted items” or “She was a master of Crafting” versus enchantment (for mind affecting magics).

 Props versus No Props

Some writers, bloggers, and readers believe that all magic should involve complication. This can include the use of rituals, special words, or other devices that make it showy for the story—Rowling’s use of wands, for instance. Others, less commonly, prefer to employ sheer willpower for magic, with little to no “showiness” (Canavan). Some mix a variety of things—Brust, for whom most Dragaeran sorcery requires a simple thought, but witchcraft requires ritual, and advanced sorcery sometimes requires materials, psychic abilities work . . . differently.

 Props certainly limit the usage of magic, but whether props are effective or needed varies widely by world and writer.

Where I’m Coming From

Just figured I’d toss out a bit of context on where I’m coming from with writing (and worldbuilding, I guess).

To date, I’ve been a tech writer for a NASA contractor, a freelance writer for SJGames’ Pyramid magazine (essays based on reader submitted questions), a college English instructor, a book reviewer for a couple scholarly journals (SF and Fantasy focused), a freelancer for eHow, a member of the editorial board for a scholarly journal (general literature, history, and philosophy), and an editorial assistant for another scholarly journal (Chaucer era focus).

In addition, my published work also includes a fantasy short story (in a small magazine that only existed for a year), a few articles in scholarly journals (on Harry Turtledove and J.K. Rowling), and a book on modern fantasy werewolves due out from McFarland later this year.  Plus numerous unpublished fantasy and science fiction short stories and novellas, some of which I’ve posted online at various places and might migrate over here eventually.

So, my writing background is all over the place.  My worldbuilding mostly comes from my reading interests and gaming background (I started tabletop RPGs with my cousins when I was about four or five, roughly 30 years ago).

Introductions

So, yet another blog about writing.  And another about worldbuilding.

Great.

Lots of writers and others have been discussing both on the web and in print for a long time, so what’s the point?  Most, if not all, I’ve seen present their views or method as the only way.  Due to teaching, I try to present multiple views, methods, and explanations.  After all, what works for one person doesn’t work for everyone.  For instance, J.R.R. Tolkien and Terry Pratchett made worlds as they desired for their stories, other writers are more scientific in their worldbuilding.  Likewise, R.A. Heinlein knew the beginning and end of his novels but filled in the rest as he went along, while Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and J.K. Rowling mapped out an entire series before writing.

My goal is to present my views, my musings, on the subjects as one (or two or three) methods of many and to try to note other options as well.  Maybe more to pose questions and my ever evolving thoughts and approaches to writing and worldbuilding.

My primary purpose in creating this blog is to collect my thoughts on the subjects.  I do worldbuilding as a hobby (or compulsion) and write (and teach writing) professionally.  Along the way, I’ll probably include some links and quotes that I find helpful for both activities.