LotR (was Re: reviews (but not of MC))

Charles Butler hannibal at thegates.fsbusiness.co.uk
Sat Dec 13 17:24:38 EST 2003

> That's because you're talking about a *respect* for authorial intention,
> I'm talking about the more restrictive sense in which any reading not
> intended by the author is less (or in)valid.  In other words, the way in
> which English literature is frequently taught in secondary school: as
> the book is a plot of earth and the reader is meant to delve into it with
> the spade and trowel of criticism to find the one true meaning of the
> Hence a deliberate search for the author's intent.

Okay. I suppose my worry about that is that it makes authorial intention
into a kind of straw man - because I suppose (hope) none of us would think
that kind of treasure hunt for the One True Meaning was the best way to talk
about literary meaning. (I'll note in passing though that One True
Meaning-hunting  isn't the particular preserve of intentionalists: you could
equally well have an OTM defined as 'the meaning that fits the text best',
or 'the meaning that brings about the Revolution quickest' or whatever.
Chimeras all, I say!).

> But perhaps you could elaborate on this.  In what way does having a
> for authorial intentions affect how one reads or interprets a book?  How
> does it differ from...I can't think of a better word than postmodern, but
> that may be too harsh...say a reading that creates meaning that is
> perpendicular to the author's intent?

I don't pretend to have the whole answer to that one, but I'm pretty sure
you can't cut respect for (at least an interest in) authorial intention out
of the equation. Partly because it's human enough to want to know what was
going through the mind of the person who wrote the words - just as I'm
trying to figure out your own meaning now, Melissa, not just decipher a
pattern of linguistic elements on my computer screen. (Unless we want to say
that literary language is radically different in this respect from other
kinds, which I wouldn't.) More fundamentally, there are limit cases where a
knowledge of the author's intention is written into the definition of a
genre. Satire is the obvious example: perhaps you could write an essay on
Swift's *Modest Proposal* without reference to his intention, but it would
seem perverse to try. And what's obviously true for satire, is I suspect
likely to be true, if to a lesser or less obvious extent, for other kinds of

> It also occurred to me that "authorial intent" is often synonymous with
> "most reasonable interpretation" which might not always be true.  I don't
> know if that has anything to do with the discussion, but for one thing,
> can't have a strong reading unless you also have a standard or reasonable
> reading to provide a frame of reference.  I'm thinking about the
> of defending the most reasonable interpretation as reflective of the
> author's intent, and discovering that what the author really meant was
> something else entirely.

There are certainly examples of this, and it would be surprising if there
weren't - since authors are no more likely to be universally reasonable than
anyone else. If letters from Jane Austen to Cassandra were discovered which
made it clear that in her opinion the true hero of *Pride and Prejudice* was
Mr Wickham, I doubt many of us would concede the point, author or no. On the
other hand, I wonder how much easier it would be to come to an agreement on
'what is reasonable' than on 'what an author intended'?

But I've waffled long enough - now I'm going to gauffre it! After quite a
few years troubling myself about all this kind of thing, I am groping my way
to a kind of conclusion, which is:

a) that authorial intention *is* an aspect of meaning, though not the only
or the definitive one

b) that an author's business with a text doesn't end when it hits the
bookstands, but continues with everything they write or say about it

c) that an author's extra-textual pronouncements can - even
retrospectively - make the book better or worse

Of these, c) is the one that most obviously needs justifying, I suppose, and
I'll try to do it briefly. I'm a bit of nominalist: I don't think books
exist in a Platonic realm, only in actual readings. Now, readers are
generally interested in and respectful of authors' intentions, for the
reasons given above. But if authors make bad/unintelligent/dishonest
comments on their own texts, that interest and respect can be thwarted - it
makes a successful and rewarding reading harder. And a book that cannot be
read successfully and rewardingly is, for practical purposes (and being a
nominalist I admit no other kind) a worse book.

I don't know if this seems counterintuitive, but to me it seems a natural
consequence of refusing to put artificial barriers around certain acts,
called 'reading' and 'writing', as if they could somehow be divorced from
the rest of reality and our experience of it.

More than time for me to shut up now.


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