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.

Campus Crusaders Pt 4: Why I Stuck Around

The Breakfast Club movie image

Before I begin the fourth part of installment of my Campus Crusade adventures, I encourage you to peruse my earlier posts for context. In Part 1 I shared  how my unfamiliarity with evangelical culture impacted my attempts to befriend the women in the group. In Part 2, I described the disastrous repercussions from touching a group member’s knee. And in Part 3 I described how Singles Bible Studies in general are dysfunctional by design.

At the end of Part 3 I said that anthropological curiosity was a big motivator in my decision to stick with Campus Crusade. I admit that sounds pompous, so I’ll try to give it some context.

I’ve never identified with a group of any kind. It’s not just that I’ve never been a joiner; I’ve never even identified with societal outcasts. If you ask me which clique I belonged to in High School, I’ll scratch my head and say I have no idea. On some level I was friendly with a few members of each clique, but  I was too chummy with the popular people to be accepted by the lowest castes, and vice versa.

To use The Breakfast Club as an analogy, I had Ally Sheedy’s personality, Anthony Michael Hall’s vocabulary, Emilio Estevez’s fixation on sports, Judd Nelson’s sense of humor, and I got crushes on the Molly Ringwalds of the school.  To answer Anthony Michael Hall’s question at the end of the movie, I’d be the kid all of the members said hi to in the hallways, but I wouldn’t be friends with any of them. I used to think of myself as a satellite roaming around all of the cliques without entering the orbit of any of them.

I knew football better than the jocks did. I could rattle off the names of third string players on NFL teams they never paid attention to and correct their misconceptions about the 46 defense. But I talked about football the same way the geeks parsed Star Wars mythos, and since I didn’t like any other sports and sucked at them, the jocks weren’t eager to bring me in.

By the time I turned 15, my favorite movies were Ordinary People, The Killing Fields, Raging Bull, Terms of Endearment, and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. You try and find a teenager who had even seen heard of those movies, let alone seen them. I liked Star Trek and Godzilla movies, but not enough to hang out with the geeks, and I couldn’t stand Star Wars or other science fiction shows.

My favorite novel was Great Expectations, but I wasn’t crazy about most other classics, so I couldn’t hang out with the bookworms. I loved classic rock, but I didn’t know a single soul who was into it like I was. My favorite album was Pink Floyd’s The Wall, but no one in my school had even heard of Pink Floyd outside of a few people who knew “Money” or “Time.” Imagine how strange it would be to love an album about emotional isolation, knowing that no one else knew the songs. Talk about reinforcing the album’s themes!

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that the Campus Crusade Bible Study was my very first experience joining a group of any kind.

And these people did not like each other. I cannot emphasize that point enough. Our Bible Studies almost always erupted into a debate of some sort, and it wasn’t always the usual controversies. I remember one night when Jolene (not her real name) stated that all Presbyterians were going to hell because their church was led by a committee of elders rather than a single pastor. Rachel was furious. It turned out that her dad was a Presbyterian elder. Jolene said that if she didn’t see what was wrong with that, then Rachel was going to hell, too. Mind you, Rachel herself didn’t identify as a Presbyterian. She bought into the same “mainliners are unsaved” beliefs the others shared. But merely defending her dad raised doubts about Rachel’s salvation.

But that night was just Rachel’s turn at being the outcast. With the exception of Kaitlyn and Dwight, pretty much every member found themselves on the receiving end of the group’s lectures at some point. Given my politics and my interests, I spent a lot of time on the hot seat, but I quickly learned to guard myself.  I think part of the problem was that the Bible Study was leaderless for those first few months. With the couple in charge of it on sabbatical, old resentments came to the forefront more easily.

And the animosity between them wasn’t just my impression. The worst thing you could say to them was to identify any pair of them as friends. As a group they’d give thanks for friendship and fellowship, but outside the confines of the Bible Study they’d take deep offense if you referred to “your friend Kaitlyn’ or “since Dwight is your friend.” A lot of them shared apartments and hung out together, but they didn’t get along.  Don’t get me wrong: they wouldn’t gossip about each other. All I knew was that this person or that person had a long-running disagreement. They’d confess their contempt for one another to me without giving me the backstory. Like High School, my personality made me easy to confess to since they knew I wouldn’t go running to the other person.

So week after week I showed up full of my anthropological curiosity. I had never joined a group before, and I didn’t expect it to be such a volatile environment. Without prior experience, I figured that maybe this was just how groups functioned.  The friendship between Jason and I was growing, and that gave me something to look forward to.

More than anything, the group kept together because they idolized the idea of Christian fellowship. Meeting together was something Christians had to do, and it was supposed to a be delightful experience. When it didn’t work out they tended to blame themselves. And given that many of them roomed together, it was hard for members to defect to other ministries. It also helped that a lot of the members were carrying a flame for someone else in the group, although for a long time no two people shared their longings. Since the meat market mentality was frowned upon, crushes could last unrequited for a long time.

Killing Childrens’ Imagination

Mike Wall has an article  at about the problem (or lack of one) the discovery of extra-terrestrial life would pose for the world’s religions. The gist of his essay is that he doesn’t expect that there would be a significant impact on them, largely because many religious people have already embraced the notion that there is life on other planets.

I think that’s a reasonable assumption, but let me tell you about the other side.

Two years ago I was teaching Sunday School to my fifth grade class.  We were talking about how God created the universe, and I asked the kids if they’ve ever wondered if there is life on other planets. Now I’ve asked this question many times before in different forms to Sunday School kids, elementary kids, and so on. Immediately you expect their faces to light up and think: Star Wars! Star Trek! Men In Black! and so on, and then dive deep into speculating about what life on other planets might be like. Most of the time as a teacher I’d have to manage the discussion so kids won’t talk over each other.

Not this time.

This time when I asked them if they thought there was life on other planets, I got silence. Dead silence. Then slowly, they all shook their heads. And it wasn’t the kind of head-shaking where  they sensed that they were supposed to shake their heads because maybe Mom and Dad wouldn’t approve of them talking about aliens and outer space. It was numb, indifferent head shaking. It was like I had asked them if they knew what the higgs-boson particle was.

I jumped in, my face full of shock. “Haven’t you ever wondered if there are aliens out there? Maybe with green skin or six arms or scales instead of skin?” My voice was bright and joyful to show them that this was something that was fun to think about.

Again, heads shook. “There is no life on other planets,” one of them said with supreme confidence. Others chimed in with similar statements. Their responses weren’t defiant; it was simply a fact to them that earth was alone. They could care less about speculating over something that wasn’t true.

I tried to drill them on movies and  tv shows they had surely seen or read about. None of them had seen any of them. Not even comic books that dabbled in science fiction. I’ve never been a Star Wars fan, but I wanted to whip out that bar scene from one of the earlier movies with all the different aliens hanging out together. Forget science; I wanted to wow their imaginations.

I didn’t need to ask their parents to know what was going on. Some fundamentalists – not many, but some – see astronomy as just as dangerous to faith as biology, if not moreso, since the logistics of explaining distance and time in space makes it much harder to defend a 6,000 year old earth than evolution does. So they shut down any secular ideas about outer space the same way many parents forbid their kids to read Harry Potter. Except usually the kids who aren’t allowed to read Harry Potter know that the series exists and that Harry Potter is “bad” because of witchcraft. These kids (mind you, they were 9 and 10 years old) didn’t even know that Star Wars or Star Trek were things that existed in our universe, pop culture or otherwise.

As a friend of mine put it, those parents should have been arrested for killing their kids’ imaginations.