Authorial Intent

deborah deborah at
Wed Jul 16 12:25:42 EDT 2003

Now, now, Minnow, have a little mercy on us poor critics.  ;)   It is
true that some critics read too much into the actual thought processes
of an author.  But it is also true, as someone (Charlie?) said, that
when you are writing an entire long essay you can make minor slipups in
language.  Yes, it's careless, and a good critic tries to avoid doing.
Nonetheless, I'm not sure it quite merits: "Sloppy.  Careless.
*Unnecessary*."  (Keeping in mind that I haven't read the TotS essay,
but you do extrapolate out to "a lot of critical work", so I felt I
needed to defend the rest of us. ;)   )

Many people get sensitized as children and adolescents by teachers who
always tell them to write "what Dickens meant".  We know that's a poor
question, and unanswerable (I'm carefully ignoring several schools of
thought which try to answer it, but those schools of thought are not
where your average adolescent's English teacher is headed).  So it is
easy to put too much weight to the theory that "most critical writing is
stretching texts in rude and stupid ways".  But those of us on the list
who are critics -- and there are many of us here -- probably see it a
little bit differently.  I can speak only for myself, but I find it
fascinating to look for connections, shifts, intertextuality, fluidity,
and all kinds of games inside books I love.  Moreover, critical language
overloads certain English terms with specifically technical terms which
can be upsetting the unfamiliar.  I know that I have sometimes gotten in
arguments with friends that weren't resolved until we finally determined
that when I used the words "problematic", "hole", "cracks", and
"slippage", I'm actually not speaking disparagingly about the book at
all -- I'm describing something which intrigues me in the text.  Some of
my favorite books in all the world have issues which I considered to be
"problematic", and that's a good thing.  It makes them more interesting
to me.  In the same way, when I talk about tropes, ideas, and the like
from one work being used in another, I am neither assigning intent to an
author (necessarily), nor am I intending plagiarism on the second
author's part.  In fact, I'm intending *praise*.  When DWJ uses the
tropes of fairy tales in Howl's, I think she's written a brilliant
pastiche, and when Pullman uses long stretches of Blake in His Dark
Materials, he, too, is not doing anything I'd call plagiarism.

As for occasionally accidentally citing intent impossibly to an author
-- well, as whoever it was (Charlie?)  said, we slip.  I'm compulsive
about not a citing intent to the author, and I have been for years, but
sometimes an attempt to avoid awkwardly constructed passive voice
sentences, I make mistakes.  Just flipping through my essay and Exciting
and Exacting Wisdom, I see one place where I say "Jones plays with
misreadings"; I can only assume if I see it quickly once that I probably
did it more than once.

"I don't want to know what the structuralists think!  I want to
know what you think!"  -- Archer's Goon, Diana Wynne Jones

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