Authorial Intent

minnow at minnow at
Wed Jul 16 17:19:01 EDT 2003

Deborah expostulated:

>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. ;)   )

(Hoy: "a lot of" doesn't mean all, or even most.  In the average university
library, well over half the books in the section for the use of English
Literature students will be critical works, not the texts being studied,
since each text being studied has many-many books written about it.
There's so much of the stuff that even a small percentage of the total
would be a lot, think on.  You really mustn't go assuming I mean that a
majority of critical work is garbage -- even I am unsure that I *quite*
mean that!)

If someone is setting up as an expert -- and that is what the critic, any
critic, must do, or must be deemed to be doing, because they are
*interpreting texts to others*, and to be doing that is to be saying "I
know whereof I speak, so hush up and listen" -- then s/he should be
prepared to be told "you made a mistake", and far more importantly should
be prepared to accept "I made a mistake" and *say so*.

One of my most valued friends is the critic and writer John Clute, and one
of the facets of his character for which I find him most admirable is that
if someone says, "I think you got that wrong" he will listen, and even if
the person saying it is in almost all respects extremely ignorant as
compared to him, or a long-time opponent of his ideas, if he finds merit in
the remark, he will accept it, and he will do his damndest to correct the

(Which is why the entry on Sarban in the *Encyclopedia of Fantasy* wasn't
published the way it was when he first wrote it.  A great man and a fine
editor.  But I digress....)

I suggest that the authority of the critic carries with it responsibility.
The author has no right-of-reply unless he or she is actually libelled (and
even then is unlikely to sue); and what, and where, is the mechanism for
correcting an error of fact in a work of literary criticism?  The book it
is printed in ain't gonna be called in and pulped, and then re-issued: nor
can the magazine be recalled as if it were a batch of faulty lightbulbs.
So it is very important indeed that something simply *wrong* should not be
published in the first place.  It doesn't matter that much if a mistake
(missing out a "not", say, or putting "now" where one meant "not") happens
in a forum such as this: as soon as it is noticed, it can be amended.  If
the thing is published in a book for the use of first-year university
students, who will tend to accept its content as accurate, then it really
does matter that it not be wrong, whether by accident or of intent.

>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.

Yes.  I don't think this is something confined to critics, though people
who don't happen to be of the trade may express their ideas in different

>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.

Isn't that a part of a slightly earlier thread: that if you are talking in
"criticese" to a non-critic, the onus is on you to explain, not on them to
run-and-find-out, what you mean by the word you have just used
(particularly since the word may not be defined in that way in any book of
reference easy to lay hands on, or may be one of those critical terms the
critics have not yet agreed to use in a particular way)?  Being a critic is
just another trade, same as silversmithing, or printing, or acting.
(Incidentally, if being a silversmith is silversmithing, and being a
printer is printing, and being an actor is acting, is being a critic
critic[k]ing?  Or critting?  Or what?)  So a critic using the arcane words
of his trade should, like the others, accept that not everyone will know

>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.

Heh!  My bet would be that when Jones read that, Jones grinned and said
"whoopppeeee!  'course I do!  I revel in 'em!"  (I don't think you did do
this anywhere else, BTW.  I could be wrong.  I've only read the piece about
four times.)

Isn't it a matter of courtesy, and of common-sense?  You don't wish to say
what someone else *thinks*, because you perhaps don't have a high enough
opinion of yourself to be that confounded bigheaded?  So as a critic,
rather than saying "obviously what Jones intends here" you say "in Jones'
works" the power of language does this or that, without ever straying into
"because Jones wants us to see" this or that.  I salute the style: you're
speaking for yourself, not for someone else, and I find that to be an
honest approach.  And no, you're not to take yourself as a representative
of the sort of critic whom I was criticising.... criticking ... critting

talking about, drat it!  :-)


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