The author’s intent does matter

An important lesson that most of us, I hope, learned from English class is that the most important aspect of a work of literature is how it affects us: how it makes us think of other people and our relationships with them, how it affects the ways we interact with others, view the world, contemplate the human condition, and approach our lives from that point forward. The best literature is written with these thoughts in mind, not just to tell an interesting story; it is written by real people who want to affect other real people in a certain way.

Therefore, how we interpret a work of literature is paramount to extracting the fullest effect, the most substance from it. We also, hopefully, learned that literary analysis and criticism should focus less on the sequence of events that make up the plot and more on how the events affect the characters and, most important of all, on what the entire work says about humans and our world. What is the work’s message(s), its theme(s), its lesson(s)? Clearly, in analyzing such messages, more than just the author’s words on the page come into play; both the author’s message and our interpretation of his message affect the result of our analysis. In other words, to paraphrase Homer Simpson: It takes two to send a message: one to send the message and one to listen.

There are people out there who will tell you that the author’s intended message does not, in fact, matter at all. His motivation behind writing the work to begin with, the reasons the characters have the personalities they do and react in the ways they do, and the events that happen and how they affect the characters are, according to these people, absolutely meaningless because all that matters is how we interpret the work of literature. They say that works of literature are open to interpretation and that what matters is what we get out of it. Both statements are true, but many armchair critics go too far: They say that any interpretation of a story is acceptable and that all interpretations are equally right because all that matters is the interpreter.

That crowd would undoubtedly object to my characterization of their position as “the author’s intent is absolutely meaningless”, but how else can their position be interpreted? Either the literary critic’s interpretation should be compared with the author’s intent (if known) to judge how closely they match, or the two shouldn’t be compared. To say that any interpretation, as long as it is backed up with reasonable logic and a fair number text citations, is equally valid because the critic’s interpretation is all that matters is, in fact, saying that the author’s intended interpretation of his own work is totally, completely irrelevant.

The obvious flaw in this reasoning is that it pushes the author out entirely. What’s the point of even reading a work of literature if it is perfectly fine to ignore the author’s intended message and conjure up an interpretation that is its complete opposite? What’s the point of analyzing a particular series of events that happen to a particular set of characters in a particular setting and analyzing how those characters are affected if we’re going to ignore the intentions of the very creator of all of those things? Why not just make up our own story and type up an interpretation that matches our desires?

Or would the “equally correct interpretation” advocates say, “Well, an interpretation that is completely antithetical to the author’s obviously isn’t right, but an interpretation that adds something new to the author’s or extends the author’s message in an unintended way is perfectly correct and valid.” Why draw the line there? Why is one type of interpretation that the author didn’t intend wrong but another type 100% “correct”? Why draw the line anywhere other than exactly where the author intended (again, if the author makes it known)?

It does matter what the author meant by his writing, his themes, and his symbolism, and if you interpret them in your own way that is completely outside of his intentions, then yes, you have interpreted them wrong. There is a right way(s) and a wrong way(s) to interpret an author’s meanings and his intentions. The right way is what the author meant or what the author concedes is a perfectly fine interpretation of his work, and the wrong interpretation is one that the author didn’t intend and does not condone after he hears about it.

I make these judgments from a purely literary point of view. I can say nothing generalized about how valid a person’s conclusions are from a philosophical, sociological, or political point of view, because those all depend on a philosophical, sociological, or political analysis separate from the work of literature. The conclusions you draw about the world or the changes in your worldview that you have gained from reading the book might be great, but you could still be wrong in your interpretation of the author’s message. It is foolish and arrogant when people say that someone’s interpretation of a work of fiction isn’t “wrong” but rather all that matters is “what you get out of it” or “how you interpret it”.

The most famous example of this is the insistence that Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is about censorship, specifically, warning against censorship and a powerful government that employs it. Bradbury has repeatedly said Fahrenheit 451 is not about censorship but rather about how TV dumbs down people and makes them interested only in superficial, useless little “factoids” presented on TV screens instead of detailed, in-depth reporting and analysis of history and news. This article in L.A. Weekly reports these sentiments of Bradbury’s in addition to mentioning the time he walked out of a UCLA classroom because the students refused to accept his insistence that Fahrenheit 451 was not about censorship or McCarthyism or anything like that.

You can hear Bradbury himself refute that position in this video from his own website:

There is no more clear-cut case of some (most, in fact) critics of a fictional work being completely wrong about the meaning of the work and in how they interpreted it. There is a right way and a wrong way to interpret Fahrenheit 451, and an admonition against censorship is plain wrong. Period.

This doesn’t mean nothing is gained by taking the dystopia of Fahrenheit 451 as a warning against the evils of censorship. Censorship is bad, and if you are inspired to devote part of your life to combatting censorship because of something you read that wasn’t actually about censorship, then the end result is probably good. In that sense, your interpretation can be useful or beneficial, and the pronouncements it leads you to make about humanity and society can be true and good, but your interpretation of that particular literary work still remains wrong.

There are numerous other examples of (real or hypothetical) interpretations of literature that are simply wrong, regardless of how much the critic likes them. Contrary to the suave, heroic, exciting, adventurous image we get from the name James Bond, Ian Flemming intended the exact opposite when he created the character:

When I wrote the first one in 1953, I wanted Bond to be an extremely dull, uninteresting man to whom things happened; I wanted him to be a blunt instrument…when I was casting around for a name for my protagonist I thought by God, (James Bond) is the dullest name I ever heard.

Flemming later clarified even further:

I wanted the simplest, dullest, plainest-sounding name I could find, “James Bond” was much better than something more interesting, like “Peregrine Carruthers”. Exotic things would happen to and around him, but he would be a neutral figure—an anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a government department.

You might like the movies, their romanticizing of this dull literary figure, and the portrayals of Agent 007 by Sean Connery and others, but the fact is that Ian Flemming originally intended for James Bond to be the exact opposite, and no amount of essayist alchemy can change that fact.

Another author whose intentions and motivations are readily available for all to read is Ayn Rand. She wrote probably more about the meanings behind her novels than any novelist in history. Many people love her, and many, many more people hate her. Regardless of anyone’s opinion of her and her philosophy, there is a specific correct interpretation of her novels—and many wrong ones. If you read any of her novels and come away with the conclusion that the protagonists are awful, their ideas are wrong, the antagonists are admirable beacons of light, and communism is the greatest idea in mankind’s history, then it doesn’t matter how well you make your argument, how you apply it to the historical events of the real world, or how it makes you feel; it is simply the wrong interpretation of her writing. The author has said so. It is an easy yes-or-no question.

The list goes on and on. Nearly every meaningful work of art that has ever been made and ever will be made has one or very few (obvious or less obvious) correct interpretations and many wrong ones. “Born in the USA” is not a racist, pro-military, flag-waving, interventionist anthem, whereas that stupid Toby Keith song is. The Sistine Chapel painting The Creation of Adam is not about gay sex between an old man and a younger one. The Crucible is not about the evils of dark magic and how we should appreciate the witch-burning zealotry of our ancestors who made this country so great. There are right and wrong interpretations of works of art, and it is stupid, arrogant delusion to pretend otherwise. The right interpretation(s) is the one the author explicitly communicates or implicitly endorses. This is because it is the author’s work, not yours, and the author’s message, not yours.

The author’s intent determines the right and wrong interpretations because the message doesn’t just exist out there in some abstract realm of human thought; the words on the pages didn’t just come into being on their own, and the stories they tell and characters they draw don’t just exist in our imaginations. They were written by a real person with specific intentions. To ignore the origin of the message and its actual content (if known) is identical to saying you are equally as right as a speaker if they say one thing and you hear another.

The wrong interpretation doesn’t mean wrong in the real world or useless to anyone’s life; it just means you interpreted the author’s message wrong. This fact stems from the dual nature of a literary message mentioned above, that it takes one person to send the message and the other to listen. Literary interpretation doesn’t exactly have numerous right answers, but it has two different kinds of answers. That is, we can separate the literary validity of a critical interpretation of a work of art (which is judged against the author’s intent) from the sociological, philosophical, or political value of the critic’s conclusions (which is judged against everyone else’s sensibilities and worldviews). In this context, we can say that we don’t necessarily have to choose between comparing a critic’s interpretation to the author’s intent and avoiding this comparison; we can compare the interpretation of a work to the author’s intent in order to judge the literary correctness of the interpretation in question, and we can also ignore the author’s intent when evaluating the critic’s analysis as it applies to human society. We can even ignore the author’s intent and say, “Oh, yeah, I do prefer that interpretation of the author’s message; therefore, I’m going to assume this is what the author meant and live my life accordingly.” That might make an interpretation valuable, but it doesn’t make it accurate.

To the extent that commentators on literature and literary criticism/analysis/interpretation acknowledge this fact, they can judge the critic’s interpretation on its own merits all they want. But to consider only how well a critic makes his arguments and how applicable his conclusions seem to be to the real world ignores the author’s intent, which is to say, the message itself, thereby abrogating half of the point of analyzing literature in the first place.

Some people will repeat that literature, like any art form, is open to interpretation. That’s fine. Interpret it how you want, draw the conclusions you want, and modify your worldview accordingly. Hopefully your life will be better for it. Maybe your life will be even better than if your interpretation had agreed with the author’s from the beginning. However, being “open to interpretation” does not mean “however I interpret the work of literature is equally as correct as the meaning the author intended”. To make such an outlandish, bizarre, bewildering statement would be like saying, “I liked the TV or movie adaptation of the book more than the book itself, so the author must really have have preferred that people see his story on the big screen rather than read it in a book.” Such delusions are so ludicrous and incoherent as to be indicative of far worse problems than literary misinterpretation.

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5 Responses to The author’s intent does matter

  1. Pingback: Authorial Intent Matters Pt 2 | Christian VagabondChristian Vagabond

  2. Evan Dawson-Baglien says:

    I mostly agree with this, but I do have one question? What if the author actually changes their mind later and announces the story is about something else? Should the varying intents of the author at all points in time be equally valid, or should we give extra weight to the intent the author had at the time of writing?

    I strongly suspect that Bradbury intended Fahrenheit 451 to be about censorship at the time of writing, and that his statements that it’s really about television were something he made up later because he was angry at television. And I think that TimeOfWritingBradbury’s intent matter most.

  3. John says:

    Evan,

    Thank you for the comment. In the highly unlikely event that you return here to see my response, I first want to apologize for noticing your comment 18 days after you submitted it. Clearly, I don’t keep up with this web page diligently enough or log in often enough. In my defense, I have been extremely busy with personal/family matters and then school starting on Jan. 12, and the computer on which I normally have Thunderbird logged in to my jpetrie.net email address to receive notifications about comments has been on the fritz. Maybe I should transfer the blog-comment-watching responsibilities to my working computer. But again, I’m sorry for waiting so long.

    To anyone who does happen to see Evan’s comment and my reply, my reply is that, well, it’s really impossible to make any proclamation with any certainty, or even with any objectivity. I do recognize that the interpretation of works of art is mostly subjective, and most authors don’t even proclaim any one “right” interpretation but rather welcome alternative explanations and interpretations if that makes the audience feel good. (But not Bradbury, apparently.) I also recognize that there’s some leeway or wiggle room with any work of art, regardless. For example, you read a novel and you come away with an interpretation, a moral, a lesson, a theme that the author never intended, but maybe the author hears about it and says, “Oh, yeah, that’s a great point and a wonderful interpretation/moral/etc. to be gained from my work. I endorse.” They didn’t think of it at the time, but they have no problem with someone “creating” that interpretation on their own. I suspect many if not most authors would be very amenable to certain alternative interpretations of their works.

    So along those lines, if the author can’t even make up his own mind about the true meaning or lesson of his work, then I think the author is on much weaker ground to say someone else’s interpretation is wrong. Here I could re-emphasize a point that I hope I made clearly multiple times in my post: I have no problem with a reader making their own alternative interpretation and drawing certain conclusions or lessons about life, the universe, and humanity from that interpretation, especially if that interpretation leads them to improve their own life or the lives of others in some way; I just have a problem with people claiming it is equally as right as others if the author has declared a preferred interpretation. The author (or those quoting him) is really the only one who can declare someone’s interpretation “wrong” except in rare circumstances, so if the author can’t even make up his own mind, then in my view he has no grounds to declare anyone else “wrong” about it, and therefore neither do we.

    Regarding Fahrenheit 451 specifically, I don’t know…I’m inclined to think Bradbury intended the book to have the lessons he claimed it had and didn’t change his mind at any point after publishing it.

  4. Brandon says:

    Hey there John,

    I’ve come to notice this article five years since it was written, and I very much enjoyed your thoughts. Unfortunately, while I think you are right on the subject, it’s difficult to defend in a systematic way. There is no system here. There are simply the postmodernists on the one hand who realized some time ago, “Hey, the reader matters,” and eventually got to, “Only the reader matters.”

    There’s your reasonable voice on the other hand saying, “Hey, why shouldn’t the author matter as well?” But while this is indeed quite reasonable, postmodernists will likely challenge you by asserting that the text is simply an artifact that exists, and once it exists, it no longer has a connection to the author. His or her opinion matters, but it only matters to the same extent as anyone else’s. If the author cannot argue his/her opinion better than a reader’s, the reader’s interpretation is a better one.

    A literary professor once proudly told me, “I know the meaning of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writing better than he did – I’ve spent my whole life studying it.”

    I’ve worked on a systematic response over the years that I believe bolsters your own view, and answers Evan’s question pretty well. Here it is:

    A text, like any form of communication, is /about/ something. And as with any form of communication, it is about the thing it was intended to be about. So for instance, if I say “Red”, you might think I meant the color “red”, but perhaps I really meant “Communist”. In that case, we would say you misunderstood me. Obviously, the word “red” in that context was not about the color; it was about communists, even though the word /could/ mean both.

    The important thing is, the meaning of the text isn’t /staked/ in the intention. The intention only defines (or selects) what mental object the meaning of the text is actually staked in. The meaning of the text is staked in whatever concept the intention referred to when it was written.

    So, if J.K Rowling has a character in her mind – Dumbledore – the word ‘Dumbledore’ cannot refer to anything in the universe except for the idea currently in her mind. If it does not refer to the idea currently in her mind, it does not refer to anything. Otherwise, It’s mumbo-jumbo. It’s a made up word without connection to anything whatsoever.

    Once the word is on the page, we have a causal chain. Aristotle called this the “Chain of representation”, which is exactly where I got this idea from. The letters on a page represent a word (‘Dumbledore’). In turn, the word is properly staked in whatever concept J.K Rowling had when she wrote the word.

    Now suppose J.K Rowling claims Dumbledore is gay. Is she right, or not? That depends on what the word ‘Dumbledore’ means. We’ve said it means whatever she thought it meant when she wrote it.

    So the legitimacy of the claim is not staked in what she /later says/ about Dumbledore. Perhaps, when she wrote Dumbledore, he was actually heterosexual. And therefore, the word ‘Dumbledore’ as it is forever preserved in the pages of her book refers to a specific concept that lacks the property ‘gay’. Consequently, if she thought he was gay at the time she wrote the work, he is gay, and always will be.

    In summary: A work of fiction represents a conceptual reality which the author perceives, and dictates as it unfolds. The correct meaning of the work is defined by conformance to the conceptual reality dictated by the author. The author can certainly contradict themselves, and we will not be in any trouble; the author’s words alone do not define the text. The author’s intentions alone do not define the text. Only the conceptual reality does, and the author can clarify what that conceptual reality was like after the fact.

  5. John says:

    Brandon,

    Thanks for your comment. There’s a lot of good thoughts there.

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