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.