Authorial Intention

There were so many interesting comments about how we can know what a narrative means, and how far it’s possible to take an interpretation on Monday’s post that I thought I’d post on authorial intention. It comes up so often with the students and is the first port of call of most general readers. It seems such a neat and tidy idea that the real meaning of a work is the one that its creator intended it to have. Back when literary criticism was in its earlier stages, it was also one that was generally deemed respectable, and the job of a critic was to be interested in everything the author seemed to be interested in, in the hope it would shed light on that elusive ‘origin’ of the story where its answer lay. Then about the middle of the twentieth century, everything changed. A critic called Roland Barthes wrote a ground-breaking essay (crystallizing, if you like, a range of uncertainties that had been building over time) entitled ‘The Death of the Author’, in which he turned the whole idea on its head. And when people thought about what he had to say, it seemed to make a lot of sense.

So, let’s run with the idea that the author’s intentions for their work are irrelevant – or even more strongly than that, they’re misleading and often misguided. Let me give you a couple of examples that might make it a bit clearer. The 19th century writer, Émile Zola is the classic case that late 20th century critics trot out. Zola wrote a whole book in which he described, carefully and in detail, what his intentions were: he intended to create a whole new genre, and he called it ‘naturalism’. It was to be a kind of super-realism, as real to the reader as if he or she were walking through the slum areas of Paris. It would be a stencil off the world, and authors would be sensory recorders of everything about their environment, the dilapidated buildings, the pungent, slangy speech of the working classes, the taste of the absinthe they all anaesthetized themselves on. So there would be no frills, just the bare, unadulterated truth of life in Second Empire Paris. And Zola wanted to write about this because he truly believed that literature could be a kind of laboratory. You could set up the context for any situation, and it would play out in a scientific kind of way, showing you exactly what would happen in reality. The thing was, Zola had a pretty good idea of what he wanted to prove, before he ever began writing. He was convinced that our destinies in life were wholly determined by the twin factors of heredity and environment. The bad genes the poor inherited, and the treadmill of their lives, doomed them from the very start.

Now there are lots of problems with this, the first and most important being that Zola never stuck to his own rules. Far from being a no-frills realist writer, Zola drew heavily on myth, symbolism, the supernatural and metaphor in his writing. It made for much better books, of course. The one pure naturalist novel in existence (and I do apologise but I’ve forgotten its author) details a family picnic outing and is quite possibly the dullest book in existence. Zola’s idea of literature as a laboratory is sheer nonsense; no fictional narrative can be said to ‘prove’ what would happen in a similar real life set-up. And often Zola had to intervene quite heavily in his own novels to pull his determinist theories off. In Nana (a fabulous book, by the way), the slovenly courtesan of the same name rises to great heights in society and has the world at her feet. Zola creates a character of such power and charisma that you get the sense he scares the living daylights out of himself with his own creation, and in a last-ditch attempt to exert his control over the narrative he kills her off with a bizarre foreign illness. There’s no causal necessity to any of this. In the equally brilliant Thérèse Raquin, two lovers connive to murder the importunate husband, who exerts a supernatural influence from beyond the grave and drives them mad with guilt. It’s a wonderful story, but it has nothing to do with the kind of books he was intending to write. Leaving aside the lorry you could drive through the gaps in his theoretical arguments, Zola just didn’t write narratives that conformed to the principles he was endorsing, although he was pretty confident that he had shown other novelists the way to embrace the doctrine of naturalism.

I’ll give you a snappier one. When Sartre was in his prisoner of war camp, he wrote and, along with other inmates, performed in, a little play called Bariona, which was intended to disprove the existence of God. In one respect his intentions were fulfilled: he hoped very much to make a profound spiritual impact on his audience and indeed he did, as following its premiere, many of them converted to Christianity.

Authors do have intentions that stand a good chance of getting fulfilled: they want to move us, and to make us question. They want to let us into their worldview so we all share it, and often they want to tell us things that have gone unspoken for too long. But as to what the novels and stories and scripts they produce might mean, well, that’s a different matter entirely. I wish now that I had put this question to some of my blogging friends who are authors to get their opinions on it, as I’m not a writer in that way, but my sense is that writers and literary critics can produce wonderful marriages of ideas. That good criticism ought to open a work up and show readers all kinds of passageways and perceptions within it that they hadn’t noticed themselves. I think that if it’s done right, good criticism enriches a reading of a work and encourages other readers to foster and develop their own insights and ideas.

Because let’s look at it the other way around. What if authors are the only people to know what their works mean? If that’s the case then there’s one reading that’s right and all the others are just shades of wrong, no matter how convincing the case we make for alternative meanings, no matter what we think is blindingly obvious. It makes returning again and again to older works for what they still have to offer us very problematic, because by rights those 16th and 17th century ideas have passed their sell by date and can only have a historical interest for us now. It takes all the creativity out of reading books, because readers can’t think for themselves; we’re only allowed to hear the one message, and if we don’t have access to that, what’s the point in thinking about what we’re reading? It’s a lottery whether or not we hit on the right interpretation. Forgive me, people, but most serious of all, if only the author is right, then I’m out of a job. You can all look the answers up in the back of the book. When Barthes wrote about the death of the author, he proposed that at the exact same moment that we let the author and his ‘tyranny of meaning’ die, we assisted at the Birth of the Reader. It’s officially a democracy out there among the bookshelves now, and that can only be a good thing.

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17 thoughts on “Authorial Intention

  1. I really liked this:

    “…my sense is that writers and literary critics can produce wonderful marriages of ideas. That good criticism ought to open a work up and show readers all kinds of passageways and perceptions within it that they hadn’t noticed themselves.”

    And I agree that that is one of criticism’s best functions.

    As a counterpoint, I had lunch yesterday with a friend I worked with years ago in tech publishing. He complained about internet commentary. He’s as associate publisher now and looks up on Amazon and other sites what is being said about books, and he’s flabergasted by people who will anonymously flame books. That it’s one think for a critic in a newspaper to criticize while signing his name, and another for someone to blow a lot of hot air just to puff themselves up, without the nerve to expose themselves to a reply.

    So I liked what you had to say about pointing out the good bits, too. It’s what I like about the better critics: they let you know what works even when complaining about what doesn’t.

  2. Ben, that’s a really interesting point. I tell the students that a critic’s job is to explore what’s going on in a story but never, ever to judge it. If I like or dislike a book is a personal matter. What I think it means has general interest. Of course I’ll also review books on this site with that different critical hat on, but it has to be said that there are very, very few I don’t enjoy or consider valuable in some way!

  3. This is a wonderful post. I like the way you have explained things–it actually makes a lot of sense about interpretation. Lately I have been wondering about novels and intentions and critical works after the fact. Does the author intend for us to interpet a book a certain way, does he intend meaning or do we put meaning into the text that isn’t actually there? I have heard of Roland Barthes, but I didn’t know anything about his philosophy. I really like the idea of the birth of the reader–it gives us a certain power. And very interesting Zola story!

  4. God forbid I should ever think I’m the one who has all the answers to what I write. What I find most interesting is seeing how others interpret what I write (even what I blog), as well as coming back to something I’ve written and getting some completely new insight I never thought of while I was composing it. I guess, in that sense, I see writing as a real learning process for the author, with the hopes that readers learn something, too.

  5. I am not sure what your intention was when you wrote this piece, but I like it the way I understood it 😉

    Old fashioned literary commentary was my Dad’s favourite caricature of a French lesson: “Résumez la pensée du poète”. It never failed to make my Mum react.

  6. Interesting. In class I often hear the question, “did the author do that on purpose?” — meaning, did the author really purposefully create all that complexity (of symbolism or sound or metaphor or whatever) or are we (are you) reading too much into it? They have a hard time grasping just how clever writers can be with language. And I want to say, yes! the author put that there on purpose! She knew what she was doing! But then I think, well, we don’t really know, do we? We have no idea what went on in the author’s head. And what went on in the author’s head doesn’t really matter. I find myself in a bit of a bind, because I do want them to realize just how carefully authors construct poems and stories, but I don’t want to imply that we can really know what the author intended, or that it matters.

  7. Wow, so this is a question I have been considering a lot lately. For me, I am totally author-centric while at the same time I try to form an interpretation of what the author wrote, or maybe who he was when he was writing, as it relates to our environment today. There is no way that a strict meaning dictated by the author can keep through the passage of time, but at the core, for me, it is always important to understand that meaning first in context with the time period. If it’s a load of rubbish, so much the better. Also, would you happen to know the name of the novel that Zola wrote about restaurant inspectors in Paris? I’ve been on a quest for it.

  8. This is a excellently clear account of the complexities of the topic. There probably is no way of producing a solution. In life we all have intentions, which are not fulfilled, which somehow in the process of enactment become something else, are misunderstood, misconstued by others. We probably view authors and readers as somehow different, but the same processess must apply.The reader’s times & contexts are immensely variable. No doubt our own situations and realtionships,and how they are going will influence our view of a predicament or character and his/her reactions in a novel. I think it is similar to the movement for authenticity in classical music. No matter how close to original instuments, techniques and styles we may get, we can’t have the same experience of hearing the music, as our sound world is so different, if merely in how accessible and ubiquitous music is in our lives brought about by recording. Fiction offering a version of life as it seems to be lived, to be ‘authentic’, must have the potential for all the complexities and open-endedess of life, even as it fools us by neatly tying up the loose ends and offers us, sometimes, an ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ ending. I also think that we want an explanation, a solution, which fiction, like life, does not offer. It can only help us develop our understanding, thinking along the way, like experience itself. The need for a solution is what drives students to crit. books and teachers to distraction with their desire to offer back the right answer.Isuppose this is natural in a school at least, as they come to literature from a whole host of other subjects which do have a correct answer, as in 2 add 2 is 4.

  9. I’ve not read Barthes’ essay but I’ve heard about his ideas, and I must say I really like the idea that the reader has such a large part in the creation of a story. We can never really know what the author intended, I always like to give them credit for everything though. But I was always taught in school that you can make any interpretation you want as long as you can prove it with the text.

  10. Emily – I love your perspective on this! I’m always fascinated by other people’s reading of my writing, and I’m delighted to think that other writers would feel the same. Ha! Mandarine! That really made me laugh. I loved the comment about your parents too. My husband made the remark that few families could manage to have a family joke at that level. Dorothy – I agree absolutely that the author decides to put every clever thing into the narrative – they might not be fully aware of all the myriad implications of their own cleverness however! But yes, they deserve every atom of praise we can give them. Ian – as you well know, I have a great taste for fascinating biographical material and it can produce a lovely, intriguing reading if the critic can complicate and question the straightforward conclusions a little. So my own sense is that there are many ways to read a text, and including an element of the biographical can really work. But as you rightly say, no reading ends there. As for the Zola, oh! oh! If only I knew for sure which one that was. It’s not one I have read myself, but it ought to be traceable. Leave it with me! Bookboxed – it amazes me how many times my academic writing is interpreted in ways I had never intended, and yet it’s not supposed to be in the least enigmatic, the way a novel is, so yes, that whole question of motivation is a vexed one. I do like the comparison to music. No, we can’t hear that music the way it was heard because we have so many different types of music to compare it with. Our reading of music is so much more sophisticated, no matter how untutored we are in the intricacies of it. Reading novels is exactly the same thing – we’re all very sophisticated readers these days. And finding answers is so fundamental to the human soul. Hey, I think I’ve found ‘the answer’ when I read, even though I know I haven’t! Stefanie – absolutely. That rule holds very good still. If you can back it up and make it convincing, then it works. And I do agree – whatever we make of it is thanks to that brilliant author.

  11. What a wonderful essay on a topic that fascinates me – and is probably crucial to a lot of other related debates – Who makes something a classic? – criticsm or the text itself, for example. Your comments made me think of how Edward Said’s book The World, the Text and the Critic examined the author/critic relationship. I’m shaky on the specifics now, will have to go back and find it for a re-read, but I remember him describing the critic as the one who in fact gives the text its second and third degree levels of meaning. So in that sense – I don’t think you’ll ever be out of a job! 🙂

  12. I like the idea of the autonomy of the text, with its mythopoetic resonations. I agree with the outlines of the Intentional Fallacy. However, Barthes argues something else altogether: meaning itself is dead, the (post-)modern reader has no hope of disentangling the text. An author’s intention is subverted by the very medium in which he hopes to express itself; it is annexed, nulled before it is fully formed. Isn’t the logical conclusion of The Death of the Author a pretty depressing, overtly political one? It’s pretty much The Death of God, but in the library rather than the church. I’ve no wish to subscribe to a nebulous world in which everything means nothing, and anything, because we are so displaced by our insecurities that we are unwilling to make judgements.
    In any case, isn’t the author’s role that of manipulator, directing behind the scenes as we watch? To deny, as readers, any instance of this manipulation seems a little disingenous.

  13. Verbivore – thank you so much for reminding me of that Edward Said text – now that certainly is a classic! I shall be hunting it out, too.

    Mark – well there we disagree on what Barthes says. I think he is saying that unified, absolute meaning is dead but I don’t for one second think he means that meaning is dead per se. Plurality is the watchword of the poststructuralists, not nihilism. He wouldn’t have signalled the birth of the reader if everything means nothing. Barthes is also following his own interests here which were linked to the writing people were producing around him at the time. Have you read any Phillipe Sollers? Barthes was very interested in his work, which on occasion dispensed entirely with punctuation, and so he was also responding to the latest movements in art at the time. I don’t think either that I an denying ‘any instance of manipulation’ on the part of the author. Of course authors manipulate; my point is that the outcome might not be exactly the same as their intentions. Still, thank you for your comment which was very interesting!

  14. So, Mark and Litlove disagree on what Barthes meant–which is exactly what we are discussing. Which of you is correct? or are both of you correct? or could it be possible neither of you are correct?

    In the novel I am sometimes writing this discussion plays a major part. Does a text acquire meaning once when it is written by the author, or does it acquire meaning anew every time a new reader reads it? I remain unconvinced one way or another, which is the best explanation for what makes it so interesting.

    I belonged to a cabal of writers who supported and critiqued one another’s work. When I read something I had written, and somebody said they thought it meant x, but it was supposed to mean y, then I knew I needed to change what I had written. One of our most recurring questions was, “What are you trying to do/say/mean with this passage?” for how else do we determine whether or not it works?

    When reading, one must allow that the author has written everything necessary to make her point. To read with any other expectations is being unfair to the author. Can there be multiple meanings to a text? Yes. Can the meaning Litlove finds in Barthes be just as true as the meaning Mark finds in Barthes? Yes. Then the question becomes, does this turn the single original work into two distinct works? Certainly the results–the two distinct critiques–are brand new creations, existing independent of the original. I believe the only way to determine whether or not an author has succeeded with her writing is to know what she intended.

  15. Litlove, thanks for replying so politely – my post seems a bit blunt in retrospect.

    My main gripe with Barthes is this: surely one of the proofs of great art is an essential clarity; and one of the traits of a great author is the ability to manipulate successfully, to evoke convincingly, to direct the reaction of the reader in a certain way. However, Barthes is arguing for the separation of art and artist; he is, in my opinion, denying the obvious causal relationship between creation and creator. And I’m not sure that this isn’t in fact confusing one of the most important conditions of great art: that it communicates; and one of the most essential traits of the great artist: that he/she elucidates.

  16. Doesn’t the concept of “authorial intention” only make any sense if we assume that the work of literature s/he is writing contains a “message”, and the work of the reader is to uncover the message?

    Here’s something Nabokov had to say to readers who want their novels to contain “real life”, and a “message” (from “Lectures on Literature”):

    “An original author always invents an original world, and if a character or an action fits into the pattern of that world, then we experience the pleasurable shock of artistic truth, no matter how unlikely the person or thing may seem if transferred into what book reviewers, poor hacks, call “real life”. There is no such thing as real life for an author of genius: he must create it himself and then create the consequences”.

    And yes, didactic, realist art is always stupefyingly dull – try reading any of the socialist realists for example.

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