I've been thinking about authorial intent, and I haven't come up with any easy answers or absolutes. (But that won't surprise longtime readers of this blog, who know that I rarely find easy answers and I shy away from absolutes.)
Authors are responsible for what they write, but how responsible are they for what readers find?
In thinking about that question, I conclude: Authorial intent matters, and it doesn't. How's that for a fence-straddle?
one hand, I've long felt that a good review will look at a book in the
light of authorial intent. That is, a reviewer should not blast a light
romance for not being a murder mystery, especially if it doesn't bill
itself as a murder mystery. A reviewer shouldn't criticize an author for
failing to write the book the reviewer would have written. And yet--how
is a reviewer supposed to know an author's intent? Sometimes reviewers
guess at this and get it drastically wrong; is that the author's fault
or the reviewer's? At the end of the day, reviewers can only criticize
the texts in front of them, not the books the authors were trying to
Then there are issues to which readers take offense.
Authorial intent alone is not necessarily a defense against bigotry or
cultural appropriation. It's like stepping on someone's foot while
walking down the street--even if I didn't mean to step on that person's
foot, I still apologize, because I caused the person pain, however
accidentally. I don't say to the person, "Oh, your foot can't possibly
hurt, because I wasn't trying to step on it." And I try to watch my feet.
there comes a point where a reader can read way, way too much into a
text. "The character is wearing an orange shirt in Chapter 4, which is
an obvious alignment with the 1987 Weemblelock Movement, whose followers
wore the color orange. The Weemblelock Movement recommends the
colonization of Mars for military purposes, and the author obviously
sympathizes with that objective." How responsible am I for such an
interpretation if I've never even heard of the Weemblelock Movement
(which, by the way, is totally invented for the hypothetical purposes of
this blog post)? I believe in the ownership a reader takes of a
text--and yet I also believe wholeheartedly in the author's right to
reject interpretations that are along Weemblelockian lines.
been alternately dismayed, amused, puzzled, heartened, and delighted by
reader reactions to various things I've written. The fact is that a
story doesn't exist in isolation; every reader brings a context to it.
The writer can guess at some of that context, but can never know the
whole story of every reader's life. Some of what a reader brings to the
reading experience is unique to that reader.
The more I look at
these issues, the more I think we hammer out the answers between
ourselves, negotiating the boundaries between human beings. Nobody ever
really knows what anyone else means; we make lots of assumptions,
we look for clues and evidence, we go back and forth. We ask questions.
We bring our own experience and opinions to the table.
the end of the day, a reader can get something from a book that the
author never even imagined. That can be wonderful or horrible or
anywhere in between. A book released into the world never belongs wholly
to the author from the first moment that anyone else lays eyes on it.