Authorial Intent Matters Pt 2

Will5Yesterday I spent a few minutes combing through the fan responses the latest episode of Breaking Bad. I wish I hadn’t. If you follow the show closely, you’ll hear creator Vince Gilligan emphasize that Walter White is an evil guy, and at this stage of the game you’re not supposed to be rooting for him. But the Facebook conversation was overwhelmed by fans angry over [SPOILER ALERT] Jesse’s decision to talk to Hank. I have no problem with people having different takes on the show (to a degree), but the venom spewed forth about wanting Jessie to die for his lack of loyalty bothered me. It was a glimpse at the misplaced rage actress Anna Gunn has had to deal with for years. In both cases, the problem is a fanbase that has stuck with a narrative that still sees Walter White as a heroic figure. Gilligan has said that this interpretation is incorrect, and his opinion matters more than anyone else’s.

Notice that I did not say “I think” Gilligan’s opinion matters the most. It does matter the most. To the point where, if you’re in disagreement with Gilligan, you’re just plain wrong.

Then I came across Dianna Anderson’s most recent blog post. While her thoughts on literary theory are intended as a set up for her main topic, I think they warrant further analysis:

One of the theories we were introduced to was “Reader Response.” The main takeaway of this theory is that once the text exists as an independent thing, the author’s intent matters very little. You can read historical context and discuss the theory of what he was trying to say, but you have to give primacy to how it is received by the reader – you – and what you’ve brought to the text. How a reader responds to a piece minimizes the intent the author had in promulgating the piece in the first place.

There are parts of this theory I’m uncomfortable with – I do think intent is important when misinterpretation of the work happens – but I agree with the idea that the influence of authorial intent can only take us so far. Because of all the different things readers bring to table, we as writers need to be intensely aware of the ongoing conversation to which we contribute before we spout off thoughts. And we need to remember that once a reader has our words, our intent matters very little. [Emphasis hers]

I understand where she’s coming from, and at face value reader response has a certain allure. In theory it can keep literature alive by allowing future generations to project their own meaning into the text. But I think it’s a misguided approach.

As my first post about authorial intent indicated, my feelings about authorial intent shifted when I changed mediums. As an artist I was a zealot for it. But when I switched my focus to writing, I realized how crucial authorial intent was.

Like Dianna, I had some literature professors who subscribed to reader response theory. But here’s a secret: a big reason why they’re into it is because they want the lowest rungs of the class (i.e. the grumbling engineers who are taking the class as an elective) to be engaged in the class discussions and (in theory at least) actually read the books.

I’m not saying that reader response theory is a hoax. Of course most modern literary schools subscribe to some form of it. But it functions primarily as a teaching strategy.

One of the luxuries of attending college when you’re the same age as your professors is that they will confide in you outside of class. And while some professors were true believers in reader response theory, most saw it as a desperate way to keep students engaged in the humanities. They weren’t concerned about the book lovers, though. There will always be those. They were concerned about the “on the bubble” students who would choose a literature elective on a whim. By de-emphasizing the author and appealing to to each student’s ego, they hoped to create new readers, even if they did so at the cost of a book’s artistic integrity.

Nothing illustrates my point about artistic integrity better than this article about reader response theory. The writer uses Yeat’s “The Second Coming” as an example. I cringe when I see the poem dissected this way, because it’s teaching readers to read poetry line by line rather than as a coherent whole. All one has to do is look at a site like songmeanings to see how disastrously that approach can go. But the reality is that they’re dissecting the poem this way because they don’t have faith that readers will “get” it if they try to take it on as a whole. The poet’s intentions go out the window because teachers have convinced themselves that students will only appreciate poems if they think it’s all about their feelings and experiences.

John Petrie has written a wonderful essay on reader response theory that deserves to be read in full:

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.

He goes on to cite a classic example of what happens when readers schooled under reader response theory are faced with an author they’ve studied:

[Ray] 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…[Bradbury] 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.

I believe that reader response theory is effective in the short term for the same reason I appreciated it when I discussed my artwork with viewers. I knew that I couldn’t be there to explain or correct viewers (nor did I want to sully their viewing experience), so allowing for individual interpretations seemed reasonable. But logistical inconvenience doesn’t therefore mean we surrender authorial intent. Dianna says that writers need to be intensely aware of the ongoing conversation they contribute to. I think thats a great approach, but ultimately reader response theory dictates that we will all reach a point where all of our caution will get lost in history or cast aside to make room for more questions about how the text makes students feel.

2 thoughts on “Authorial Intent Matters Pt 2

  1. Hey, I’m the person you linked to regarding the Yeats poem. First, thanks for the link and I like your thoughts. There is a lot of discussion on the arts online, but not enough of it is intelligent or well-reasoned. I don’t keep up with my blog as well as I should, so I just saw your link.

    I actually think reader-response is the weakest form of literary criticism. I agree that (good) texts have objective meanings and that they should be evident, depending on the closeness of the read. The examples about Bradbury, Gilligan, and others are spot on; we would be fools to not consider authorial intention.

    That being said, I disagree with you on the weight it deserves. I think the work ultimately looms the largest. We should definitely consider authorial intention when looking at a work, giving it priority when analyzing, but it shouldn’t override everything. That would render the complexity, even the reason for the work, moot.

    Let’s take Vince Gilligan for an example: he says Walter is an evil guy, and we shouldn’t root for him. Considering this and only this opinion, calling it the Word of God ( and ending the argument belittles the amazing complexity of Breaking Bad. For five seasons, we start out rooting for WW only to watch him make debatably reasonable choices that turn him into a monster. All while he occupies the place of the protagonist, a role typically filled by the heroes we root for. To say “Vince says x, so it’s x” destroys discussion of a complex work.

    Going back to the Bradbury example, him saying something to the effect of “TV dumbs down people and makes them interested only in superficial, useless little ‘factoids’ presented on TV screens” is the theme of Fahrenheit 451 should be considered when reading F451, but it shouldn’t be everything. F451 is a complex and interesting work, and if the above quote where sufficient in describing its themes, the work itself would not be necessary.

    There’s way too much about authorial intention for this comment, but I appreciate the discussion. Once again, great article, and thanks for the link back, and sorry for making you cringe :)

    One last thing, and this is in no way meant to be antagonistic or a challenge, but I honestly want to know what you think: how should we read poetry, if not line-by-line? Heck, some people read poetry sound-by-sound, using that to inform their analysis. I am a poetry nerd, and it pains me to see what it’s turned into. I definitely don’t think reader response criticism is the best or even a good way to read poetry, but I think most serious poets would cringe if you asked them what their poetry means. That would indicate they didn’t do their job.

    • Thanks for your reply, Jason.

      I appreciate your thoughts, and I agree that I probably came off too dogmatic in defense of authorial intent. Great works of art deserve to viewed in all of their complexity, and I probably shortchanged the value of complexity in my post.

      I didn’t mean to imply that your particular take on reader response was problematic. You were attempting to explain the concept, and it’s hard to do so without examples.

      As for how we should read poetry, generally what I like to do is read the entire poem as an unbroken whole a few times. A wise friend of mine told me a long time ago to always read poems out loud, because as you point out, a lot of poetry depends on sounds and rhythm, and that can get lost in the verse-by-verse approach.

      Then, if i want to go deeper, I might break it down stanza by stanza, but I try not to break it down into smaller units.

      While it’s technically not a poem, the example that immediately comes to mind is the Police’s song “Every Breath You Take.” If you take any individual line of that song on its own, it sounds romantic. But taken as a whole, it’s clear that it’s meant to be interpreted as the thoughts of unhealthy obsessive, perhaps even a stalker.

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