Friday, September 23, 2011

Authorial intent

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?

On 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 write.

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.

But 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.

I've 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.

And at 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.


  1. I cringe that someone would try to analyze and guess my authorial intentions. I agree that "Nobody ever really knows what anyone else means. . . We bring our own experience and opinions to the table." Well said. And your last paragraph sums things up beautifully. Thank you.

  2. Wow, I never really thought about all the things author's have to think about and what might possible happen if you don't. It's not even something anybody can ever have control over. This kind of reminds me of a comment my dad's colleague made recently. He took it negatively, while I was indifferent. Only the person who made the comment really knows what he meant, just like only you can 100% know what you meant with something you wrote.

  3. Angelina: I actually like it when people ask themselves what I was trying to do in a particular story. I don't like it as much when people take the story at face value and assume I wasn't going for anything more than that. But then, it's hard to find that balance between planting seeds and whacking someone over the head with an idea.

    Petra: Yes, I suppose that's why we can all have such interesting discussions about art! We don't all agree on what it means.