Authorial Intent

For the purposes of this discussion, I suppose I will define Authorial Intent as the idea that the author of a work (let’s say a novel) writes with intentionality and that intent can be found within and as part of the text.

For a while now, critical theorists have argued that "the author’s intent is irrelevant to understanding a piece of literature." (that’s from Wikipedia, because I am lazy; also, I am not an academic and my understanding of critical theory is, shall we say, sparse; so if you have knowledge of this subject, feel free to correct me, or disagree with me, or else just play along with the definition given here)

Over the years, I’ve seen many discussions dealing with potential differences between the author’s view of his/her own work, and the reader’s reading of it.

In other words, for the purposes of discussion, who is right about how the text ought to be interpreted and what subtexts are engaged within the story: the reader or the author?

To which my answer is:


Here’s my definitive (that is, personal to me) statement on Authorial Intent:

I am the authority on my experience of writing the novel and what my intentions were during the writing process.

I am not the authority on how a reader reads and interprets the text.

Every reader will have his or her unique experience of reading and thereby interacting with the text. If I hear that experience described, I may believe it profound and sophisticated, or I may believe it wrong-headed and simplistic, or something in between, but I’m not in control of the reading experience.

Beyond actual factual errors, I can’t "correct" a reading experience, nor would I want to. A book, like a child, has its own life once it leaves my hands. For me, that’s one of the great charms of writing: that people interact with my novels unmediated by me, and they have the most interesting reactions, some positive, some negative, some mixed, at times provocative and even irritating or bizarre, and often thoughtful and enlightening.

However, I remain the authority about *my* experience of writing the novel.

Let me give you an example.

When my first novel A Passage of Stars came out in 1990, the Publishers Weekly reviewer finished his/her review with this sentence:

The story inches forward without momentum, largely because Rasmussen simply withholds information from her characters in a vain attempt to sustain plot tension.

Baird Searles in whatever magazine he reviewed for addressed the same issue, but a bit differently:

. . . a lot happens . . . but much of it is pretty opaque, and even when I knew what the characters were doing, I was often mystified as to why they were doing it. The author seems so intent on getting on with the action that she lets exposition that would helpt the reader make sense of what’s happening go by the board.. Sometimes it’s filled in eventually, sometime it’s simply left hanging.

Guess what? The PW reviewer was wrong, wrong, wrong. Do you know why I withheld information? To try to get across how someone like Lily would actually experience being thrown into a situation whose ramifications were far larger than she had, as of yet, any way of measuring. I was trying to show how a young woman from an isolated "backwoods" "mining planet” would be confused and struggling to make sense of being tossed into the deep and complex politics of a worlds-spanning agenda. She wouldn’t know what was going on.

Baird Searles, though, I think was right: I didn’t yet have the writing chops to make it work. I might now. And it’s okay that I didn’t then. I did my best. I quite like his review. It’s not glowing, but I think it is fair. He deploys the word "seems" carefully to make it clear he is only speculating, and like a good critic he describes the problems that arise because of the imperfection of the craft. In other words, he never imputes motive where he can’t actually know.

And trust me, few things irritate me as much as people who blithely feel they have the right to impute motive, especially when, as it so often does, it goes along with an attitude of mocking cleverness and/or snide superiority.

Yes, you are saying, that’s all very well and you are certainly right about those motive imputers, but what about subtext? What about readers discovering things within the story that the author doesn’t know are there, or can’t admit to, or has ignored?

That is certainly a far more complex subject. Were I in a bad mood, I might even say it was one fraught with land-mines.

But, you know, I am as riddled with unchallenged assumptions and unexamined defaults as the next person. I’m not ashamed of this, nor am I proud of it; I’m *aware* of it, and engaged in a constant effort to keep that awareness open and acting at all times.

I work to a great degree by letting my unconscious churn beneath the conscious action of writing, which means stuff accretes and boils up without me necessarily sitting and deliberately “thinking” it into being (although I do that, too). That being the case, stuff must be coming up that I’m not entirely in control of and not entirely conscious of.

Let me give you an example.

A beta reader for my upcoming novel Cold Magic made a passing comment about *redacted for spoilers.* "That is really subtle and great how you did that," she said. To which I replied, "Whoa. I had no idea I had done that, but you’re totally right that it looks as if I did it on purpose. How clever of me!"

A reader in this case picked up on something I hadn’t consciously realized I was doing. And if one thing, why not others?

Another beta reader for an early draft of Cold Magic commented on the use of the word "class" in a world that, while borrowing many staple literary elements from Regency and Victorian England, is set in a different Earth, with magic, in which England does not exist. After consideration--much of which involved me beating my head against the proverbial wall as I wailed about how difficult it is to shake the dirt of embedded assumptions and defaults from one’s boots--I decided she was right to flag the word because it carries with it an entire fleet of assumptions and expectations, many of which I carry myself and which remain embedded in the text whatever my attempts to wrestle free of them and a number of which I did not actually want in the story (although others I did want in the story). So rather than fighting a battle I could not win (have I mixed enough metaphors yet?), I decided to use instead words like status and rank, and the terms patrician and plebeian, all of which indicate a stratified society without class’s more current historical baggage.

But I must admit I have also at times read descriptions of books or interpretations of books by readers that seem *to me* to have little to do with the book and more to do with the filter the individual reader is reading through. This does not mean that the reader cannot or should not find such interpretations in a text; I think texts are mutable things within the framework of reading. But that doesn’t mean that any given reader is always more right than the writer, or more right than another reader who sees something different in the text. Just as writers may bring unexamined assumptions and defaults to a text, so may readers. It also doesn’t mean the reader is wrong.

Let me give a generalized example from my own experience as a reader.

I cannot count the number of times I have read novels, usually by men, in which the female characters are either nonexistent, silent, or not really people but rather a collection of a few attributes that, to the writer, evidently passes as a person. Often these attributes boil down to them being an object of sexual interest for the male lead(s) or, more rarely, a mother, sister, daughter, or caregiver to the male lead(s). When these are the only roles open to females in a book (or film), that is, when the female roles are solely predicated on their relationship to the male lead(s), I tend to read this as sexism, whether conscious or unconscious, examined or unexamined. Another reader might find such portrayals perfectly believable. Another reader may think I feel obliged to tug my cranky feminist agenda banner over every damn thing and can’t I just enjoy it for what it is? I try not to make too many assumptions, but I very much recognize that it is difficult to stop one’s mind from raking over the possibilities.

But at the same time, we have also the Dumbledore Question. If Rowling says he is gay, then he is gay. To me, there’s no argument.

If I say X was my intent in writing Y, then X was my intent. If the reader doesn’t see X, or sees Z instead, that doesn’t change my intent, although it may call into question my craft, that is, my ability to bring across to readers what my intentions were. It might also reveal how my unexamined assumptions have shaped the narrative.

But what if Reader 1 sees X while Reader 2 sees Z? Is one reader right, and the other wrong? Who decides?

I don’t have an answer to such questions. I have had readers write me to say they were completely satisfied by an ending I wrote, while other readers wrote to say the ending was quite unsatisfactory. Did I write the wrong ending, or the right one?

For me as an author, I must pursue my vision, not one mediated through the reactions of others.

Yet, at the same time, I have to be able to hear and to listen to voices that challenge my understanding of received wisdom. I feel I must continually work to be aware of the assumptions and defaults that shape and distort and illuminate my ways of thinking. My goal, in the end, is to bring, as much as possible, as clear and extensive and undistorted a view as I can to the story I want to tell.

Ultimately I consider this to be an impossible task: that is, I don’t think anyone is truly objective, by which I mean that ultimately I think we will always write, and read, through our filters. But in the end (although I would hope people strive to be honest and aware about as much of their subjectivity as they can), I think that’s okay, too. I think that’s human.