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.


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

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