[DWJ] endings [was Best of 2008]

Minnow minnow at belfry.org.uk
Mon Dec 29 13:08:50 EST 2008

Phil Boswell wrote:
> On 2008/12/23 Minnow <minnow at belfry.org.uk> wrote:
>> (Not that the author's intention is a valid thing, of course, but in my
>> simple way I do feel that I'd rather know about it...)
> I've seen variations on this elsewhere, and I still find it an
> extraordinary thing to even contemplate the possibility of thinking
> about saying.
> What can possibly be any more valid than the author's intention?
> I suppose I must be frightfully out of touch if I think it is the
> height of arrogance for anybody but the creator of a work to say what
> it is intended to mean. I just have this image in my head of a bunch
> of people standing around the poor put-upon author, pointing nasty
> puffed-up literary fingers, yelling in broken unison "well, of course
> what you *meant* to say was..."
> Of course, I then dream of the author biting off those fingers in the
> manner of a velociraptor while incanting "if I had meant that, I would
> have written it", so maybe I ought to lay off the cheese for a bit.
Keep right on eating the cheese, Phil!

It has been an accepted fact in some circles and among many people for 
some decades now that what the author may have intended is not 
relevant.  I think I first encountered this when I read an Isaac Asimov 
introductory passage in one of his books of short stories.  In it he 
tells of an occasion upon which in a spirit of curiosity he went along 
to a lecture about his work, and was slightly stunned by the 
interpretation put onto various things by the expert giving the lecture, 
so he stayed behind to have a word with the bloke.  He explained that he 
disagreed with the interpretation in some places, and got a freezing 
'who do you think you are?' for his pains.  'Well, I'm Isaac Asimov,' he 
explained. 'And what makes you think you know anything about it?' asked 
the critic, as he left...

It can be awkward for a critic, of course, if an author is still alive 
and persists in saying 'No, what I meant was...', which makes it safer 
to deal with dead authors rather than living ones, but so long as one 
starts from a position within a critical school and works outwards from 
that rather than starting from a text and trying to find out about it, 
one is obviously entitled to state for example that John Donne was 
clearly an anti-feminist (not anti-female, nota bene: anti *feminist*, 
presumably after he got into his time-machine and traveled to a century 
in which feminists existed for him to be anti) or that Chaucer's work 
derives from Freudian symbolism, or whatever else.  They're not around 
to care.

The step from 'Here is an interesting way to think about this work' to 
'here is the way to think about this work' is a very short one, and from 
'I may have something interesting here' to 'anyone who thinks I don't 
have something interesting here is *wrong*' is also short.  Likewise, if 
anyone is entitled to say 'this is only your opinion of the work' to 
anyone who is discussing a work, they are clearly entitled to say the 
same thing to the author of the work.  After all, if it is possible to 
assert that the reader writes the text (which in some very specific ways 
s/he does, though as a general thing that's a clearcut gobbledegook 
statement) it clearly cannot have been written by the author, so wey-hey 
and away we go...

I do recommend a work entitled *Appropriating Shakespeare* by one Brian 
Vickers.  It may be out of print but you might be able to borrow a 
copy.  It makes me laugh aloud, in places, and is somewhat of a 
delight.  I especially like the chapter in which he treats with the 
Christian and the Marxist critics at the same time on the grounds that 
there is really very little to choose between them, and devoting a 
chapter to each school would be otiose.

'For rent: comfortable impasse.  All mains services; good view of the 
Abyss' is one of his fine moments.

I don't know for sure how long all this has been going on.  My late Papa 
used to mutter about 'the sort of person about whom it was written, 
"Until the only books on which he looks are books on books, or books on 
books on books",' so I would assume several decades, certainly since the 
sixties and probably since T.S. Eliot began to be deliberately 
obfuscatory, or Leavis got into his stride.

It is great fun to be present when DWJ reads something that states 
unequivocally but incorrectly what she meant when she wrote some book, 
and one can learn whole new interesting ways to express oaths and 

Clearly no offence is intended in anything I have written here to any 
critic living or dead or anything in between, nor are all critics to be 
included as having any relevance to anything I have said.  In the course 
of my work I have long since given up worrying, and simply read the 
introduction of any work of criticism.  If at the end of the first page 
more than six words have sent me to the dictionary to find out what they 
used to mean but clearly no longer do, and if more than two sentences on 
the first page have caused me to reach for my commonplace-book to store 
them for future reference and hysterical laughter, I return the book to 
the stacks and look for some other work by someone else  that refers to 
the text in which I have an interest.  There are still critical works 
available that are about the text rather than about the school of 
criticism espoused by the critic, though many were written before 1960.

(Sits back and awaits thunderbolts)


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