[DWJ] endings [was Best of 2008]

Elizabeth Parks henx19 at gmail.com
Tue Dec 30 11:08:41 EST 2008

On Tue, Dec 30, 2008 at 8:45 AM, Charlie Butler
<charles.hannibal at gmail.com> wrote:
> 2008/12/29 Phil Boswell <phil.boswell at gmail.com>
>>Again, this is not the same thing. It's one thing to intend to write a
>> romantic hero and have him turn out a bit of a jerk. It's quite
>> another to be told that your original intention is irrelevant or
>> invalid,
> I'm not sure what it would even mean to be told that one's intention is
> 'invalid': can you give an example of where this has actually happened? Or
> are you referring to interpretations rather than intentions here - in which
> case it's a whole new ball game?

I had a modern lit class in college where we were quite strictly told
that the author's intentions were immaterial.  To some extent this
served simply to keep us from bringing biography to the text (the same
professor later strongly disliked some of my work on C. Bronte's novel
"Shirley," where the title character is generally considered to have
been Emily Bronte, as written by her somewhat idealizing sister around
and published shortly after her death, as I was fascinated by the
character, who reads like the kind of character written by someone
idealizing and grieving her model, so perhaps I needed some of that
focus on avoding biography while reading fiction).

To some extent, this was a writing tip as well: one of the lessons I
have found frequently appropriate while teaching young writers is that
we read their writing, not their thoughts about their writing.  I,
too, have been in a class where a sweet family story was widely
interpreted to be about incest (and honestly, this story was much
better with an incestuous streak than as a slightly mawkish
death-of-a-sibling tale).  But while there is something to be learned
from seperating the author from the work, this professor was of a
certain school of modern criticism that almost despises the author,
rather like a sect that would worship Jesus while disdaining the
Virgin Mary for (presumably) giving birth to him in too mundane a

This attitude applied more to writers like Robbe-Grillet, who
frequently write while trying to negate the sense of an author
completely than to John Fowles in _The French Lieutenant's Woman_, for
example.  But yes, I have definitely had professors emphasize the
complete irrevelvancy of the author's intentions, be they stated
outside of the text or apparent within.  The effect is all, and if the
intention does not appear to match it, well, it is not considered a

That professor, by the way, is the reason I gave up the idea of
continuing to a PhD in English.  The idea of spending time with or
becoming a person like him was. . . uninviting (for more reasons than
the one given here, but mostly just that he did not seem to enjoy
literature so much as he enjoyed being right about it.)


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