[DWJ] authorial intent [was: endings]

deborah.dwj at suberic.net deborah.dwj at suberic.net
Mon Dec 29 15:27:44 EST 2008

Phil Boswell wrote:
> 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?

To which Charlie responded very cleverly explaining it. I can add
to Charlie's statement only that on *this list*, it's always been
a rule that the knowledge of the author's stated intent doesn't
make one the last word on anything other than, well, the author's
stated intent. In other words, Charlie saying "I wanted _The
Fetch of Mardy Watt_ to be a metaphor for the plight of East
Timor" doesn't make it any less valid for Hallie to counter
"Well, it read to me like a parody of _Archer's Goon_".

On Mon, 29 Dec 2008, Minnow wrote:
> 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. 
> It can be awkward for a critic, of course, if an author is still alive
> and persists in saying 'No, what I meant was...'

As an instructor who tells my students not to tell me what the
author meant, I can tell you it's because it is *not*, in fact,
relevant to what I am asking them to learn.  Anyone can look at
Neil Gaiman's blog to find out what he meant by creating the
character of Mr. Nancy; anyone who knows him personally can ask
him in person.  That's not a skill.

The skill of reading critically involves looking at the text and
making one's own judgements about what it says, rather than about
what one is told it says.  (That being said, sometimes author's
stated intent is valid context for that discussion.  I just had a
student incorporate Stephenie Meyer's opinions about her own
books into a paper, in order to show something interesting about
the distance between Meyer's stated intent and what the books
actually do.)

It's not awkward for me as a critic and says "No, what I mean
was..." because as a critic, I'm not concerned with what the
author meant, but with how the text reads.  Heck, as an erstwhile
fiction writer, this was a lesson I learned in *college*, when I
wrote a sweetly pretty story about a father/daughter relationship
and my classmates praised me for a harrowing tale of sexual
abuse.  Once a story gains readers, it has to stand on its own,
regardless of what the author meant.

> 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.

If my students were to make either of these statements, I would
point out to them that "John Donne's work is anti-female" or "You
can see Freudian symbolism in Chaucer's work" are valid,
defensible statements.  The key part here not being the straw man
of ahistoricity, which is a sloppy student error, but the
distinction between the *author* and his or her *work*.  (There
are fields of theory that attempt to psychoanalyse the author
herself from her work, but in those schools of thought the
author's stated intent is just as interesting as the literature
she creates.)

> 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's clearly nonsense only if you take it out of the context of
the specific jargon of reader-response theory and what it means,
yes.   Or you could read it in the context of some of what Roland
Barthes or Louise Greenblatt actually wrote, and realise that
there's some lovely fruitful ways of thinking about the reader as
a key person bringing meaning to a reading experience.  It's easy
to mock any way of thinking if you take it out of context and
misrepresent it.

> (Sits back and awaits thunderbolts)

This is not thunderbolts.  This is me asking you, not as the
listmod but as a member and -- I'd like to think -- a friend, not
to mock and misrepresent something that you know (because we've
had this conversation before) many of us here do for living or
avocation.  We can disagree about theory, and about the
irrelevance to the author's intent to interpretation, in
perfectly civil conversation.  In fact, in the past, we have! But
this is mockery of the entire concept, and it does rather make it
difficult to have a conversation.

This is exactly analogous to the Harry Potter discussions the
list had way back when, which went something like this (and from
which I do not absolve myself):

Person 1: "So, how about those HP books, eh?"
Person 2: "How could any right-thinking person think those books
are good?  Man, only a moron would like something so stupid."
Person 3: *raises hand* "I like them."
Person 2: "...Oops?"

At which point we started talking about the books, and the roots
of personal like or dislike, and everyone was happy again,
instead of making sweeping generalisations about things we
happened not to like.

I'd like to think we learned from these conversations, if only
because we didn't have them about _Twilight_.  (Note to self: if
this list ever starts to resemble the childlit's mode of
argument, cry.)

Amaze me, America 
Save me from armageddon.	-- Girlyman, "Amaze me"

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