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.

Ending Bad?

1280-breaking-bad-season-5A few months ago, my brother asked me if Breaking Bad was the best show I’d ever seen. I said that it depends how it ends. At the time my main concern was Walter White’s lack of adversaries. Up until season 5, the show has shown Walter matching wits with people scarier and more powerful than he was. But I’m willing to set those concerns aside because thus far, the show has handled its final few episodes very well. Even if it limps to the end, it’s still one of best shows ever. and the online discussions about the show’s place in TV history have illustrated its importance.

But here’s what’s bugging me.

Even the best shows tend to end badly -or at least below our expectations. And a bad ending can sully a great show. The Soprano’s much-loathed fade to black is the most notorious example. How many people have refused to watch (or rewatch) the Sopranos knowing all of the bad press they heard about the ending? Same goes for Lost. Lost still is my favorite show, and I will defend it to the end. But its ending was very flawed (even if I liked it) and the mixed reviews it got mutes future interest. My brother was almost done with Season 3 when Lost ended, and bad press about the final episodes killed his desire to see it through.

More than any show since perhaps Seinfeld (another great show that ended on a bad note), Breaking Bad has been about ethics, and the consequences of our ethical choices. It revels in an ethical gray zone that has gone progressively darker with each season. But no matter how much you rooted for Walt and Jesse early on, you were rooting for two guys who manufacture premium grade poison for the masses. The greatness of the show is that it can take that premise and make it a show where we can debate the merits of these characters.

The problem is that endings to TV shows tend to have finality that the ending to books and even movies don’t share. You can spend a few hundred hours with a show, and like it or not, the ending becomes the lens through which you view your experience. Books allow for more ambiguity and complexity, and movies are shorter, so disappointing endings are easier to forgive. But the ending to a TV show have a way of saying “this is the message of our show.”  In a show based on moral decisions and consequences, the ending is bound to become the lens through which we interpret it, so no matter how it turns out, lots of people are bound to be disappointed.

For example, let’s say that Breaking Bad ends with Walt’s death, and Jesse and Walt’s family survive. A lot of people will be happy with that ending, but could also be interpreted as too much of a “crime doesn’t pay” or “the bad guy gets his comeuppance” kind of ending. Too black and white for a morally gray show.

Now, what if Walt isn’t the only character who bites the dust? I think people are braced for a guns-blazing showdown to the death between Hank and Walt where neither one survives. But if Skyler, Walt Jr,  or Jesse don’t survive to the end, a lot of people are going to be upset. If Jesse winds up betraying Walt, I suspect that even the most anti-Walt fans will lose respect for him.

But what if Walt is the last one standing, and he therefore “gets away with it?” Then you have the opposite problem: too bleak, and evil goes unpunished. There is one scene in “Blood Money” that makes me think this will be the case. Look closely at the 4:14 mark in the episode. In this flash forward, Walt’s face is distorted to monstrous proportions, and for a second or two he has no eyes. What made him an eyeless monster grabbing ricin out of his old graffiti-ridden house? I suspect he’s done something a lot worse than anything we’ve seen him do.

As I see it, the two X Factors are Lydia and Skyler. Lydia is the current reigning Queen of Meth, and she’s shown the willingness to knock off enemies even if she can’t bear to see the carnage. I could see an out-of-left-field surprise where Lydia kills Walt. I also like the “Skysenberg” theory floating around the web, wherein Skyler reaps the benefits of Walt’s deeds and ends up becoming as corrupted as her likely-deceased husband.

No matter what, I’m looking forward to seeing how the show ends. But I hope that it charges hard with whatever direction it chooses to go. The worst thing would be an indecisive ending  that leaves too many questions on the table.