Authorial intention: essential, or a load of rubbish?

Authorial intention used to be one of the essentials of literary criticism. But since deconstruction, so-called “intentionalist” readings are considered at best dubious, and more usually a mark of deep naivety. Stanley Fish brought the matter to the attention of many readers with “Is there a text in this class? The authority of Interpretive Communities”. Perhaps more interestingly for UK readers, William Golding, in the Hot Gates, discusses his response to the questions he is often asked about the meaning of his own texts, to which (at the time of writing) he had decided that the answer was, more or less, ‘your guess is as good as mine’ (my words, not his).

The problem — from where I’m sitting — with Deconstruction, is that you start off with a feminist interpretation of DH Lawrence, and you finish up with the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and the Da Vinci Code. What I mean by this is that you can begin by uncovering powerful attitudes which colour our response to an established text, which I think is a worthwhile undertaking, and you finish up making streams of unsubstantiated statements for which the only authority is the fictional and romantic need of the critic.

I once had an argument with another student about the meaning of Kate Bush’s song “Breathe“. She was convinced that it was about the dangers of smoking, based on the line “Breathing her nicotine”, whereas I, on the basis of lines about ‘chips of plutonium’, and, more to the point, the long discourse about nuclear weapons at the end, concluded that it was actually about the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. For the record, I was right, but the song is problematic: what does the line “breathing my mother in, breathing my beloved in” actually mean? I would venture to argue (as a song writer) that there’s a fairly good chance that those two lines are in the song because they happened to seem to fit when Kate Bush was writing the original melody, and never got replaced with something more meaningful when she finished the song.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote an extensive (and widely disbelieved) account of how he came to write Kubla Khan as a result of an opium trance, interrupted by a visitor from Porlock. TS Eliot wrote what he later described as a series of bogus notes about the original ‘research’ behind The Waste Land. There are many other examples of authors who have created a bogus history of the creative process — some of them have admitted it later (although, of course, we could speculate that the retraction was bogus, though, either way, there is a bogus history, even if we don’t know which one it is).

Let us return for a moment to William Golding, and then consider the question of authorial intention properly. In the same book of essays, The Hot Gates, Golding gives an account of how he came to get Lord of the Flies published. He describes how, once he had the plot, he knew he had something saleable. The interesting thing here is that, as well as understanding the professional imperative to get something published that pushed Golding forwards, we can also understand something of the intention, because the book is written as a palpable riposte to RM Ballantyne’s 1857 children’s book The Coral Island.

Where does this leave us with authorial intention?

Prior to Deconstruction, and, perhaps, more importantly, Reception Theory, there was a common, albeit unstated, view that a text had one meaning, and that meaning was the author’s intention. Actually, it went rather beyond that. Read FR Leavis The Great Tradition or Ruskin’s On the Pathetic Fallacy, and you see that serious critics believed that literature actually has an underlying purpose, and the greatness of an author depends at least in some part on serving that purpose. It would be hard to find anyone serious these days who would put forward such a notion (except as a joke).

As a professional writer, most of my writing (in common with most other professional writers) has an extremely clear purpose. Before you imagine me in my garret drinking cold tea in darned socks and writing with a scratchy pen before the light fades, I have to disappoint you and say that I write almost exclusively on my laptop (ok, it is an Apple Mac), and most of my writing output in numbers of words is reports and public consultation documents for the NHS. My creative output tends to be the only slightly less prosaic world of health promotion advertisements and press releases. This world of business writing is where most writers earn their money.

However, in my free time i write songs, short stories, even novels. My purpose in writing a novel is probably not very different from William Golding’s — first to actually complete one, and then to get one published. However, the voyage from start to finish in writing a novel is such a demanding and engrossing one that I frequently forget why I am writing (or, at least, the prosaic part of it), and start writing what I want to write without any thought to its publishability. Art takes over from intention. But there is still intention.

There has to be a space between Ruskin’s ‘purpose of art’ and a post-Derrida world of shifting meanings based solely on the interpretation of the reader. I’m fairly sure that there is no really compelling intention in Kubla Khan to tell a story — if there was, Coleridge would have finished it, Porlock or no Porlock. But the attempt to account for its writing and the supposed explanation for its incompleteness demonstrates very clearly an intention of some kind in the mind of the author. In fact, Coleridge’s intention is altogether more transparent than most of Blake. Coleridge is trying to create a poetic reproduction of an opium trance. Whether it is based on a real opium trance or not is entirely irrelevant. With William Blake, it’s often hard to work out whether he is unconsciously echoing himself from one poem to another, or has a scheme of symbolism worked out in some detail.

To what extent does an author write with intention, and to what extent does art take over and drive the process. This surely depends on the author. We have Dickens’s extensive spider diagrams of his plots, and well documented accounts of how he changed the plot in response to his readers. We have Blake’s bizarre but powerful writing, supported by his naive but fascinating illustrations. Was Blake carried away by his art into territories beyond the human, or did he write to a plan and purpose?

Dismissing the discussion of authorial intention as naive is itself naive. Everything we can know about the author, the context, the inspiration is potentially of interest in understanding and criticising literature. But, equally, the discovery of the author’s intention does not unpack a work of literature for us. Ultimately, this is the intentionalist fallacy. An example from music should clarify: we know that Stravinksy wrote the Rite of Spring as a ballet, and we have a well documented account of the complex of relationships and influences which led to its writing. We also know that after its first performance, Stravinsky decided that it was a failure as a ballet, and should be performed only as an orchestral work. But none of that tells us anything about the music itself. Exactly the same intention and circumstances would have led another composer to something utterly different. This is readily apparent in music, because the form of any discussion of intention is necessarily entirely different from the music itself. With literature, however, we use the same kinds of words to discuss intention as the author uses to create the work itself: the temptation is to believe that an account of why the author wrote tells us the most profound secrets about the power of what they wrote.

Quite simply, this is a mistake.

Back to Top