Why I Don’t Care About Authorial Intent

When we study books in English, we’re often sent on a treasure hunt in which the text provides clues to the ultimate goal, the true meaning of the text. By and large, kids hate it. “The author couldn’t really have meant to put in all these symbols.” “Is this what is actually means?” And I think that’s a really bad way to read literature. There aren’t actually objective truths to be found here; there isn’t anything called “the right way to read books” out there in the world. I just think there’s more meaning to be found when we relinquish our death grip on the value of authorial intent.

Authors create texts which they try to imbue with meaning and significance through their choices of characters, settings, metaphors and symbols. But because they are human, they cannot help but also employ tropes and make connections that are a result of the societies in which they live. They write stories which make sense to them in a certain way, and though they try, they simply cannot imagine what it will mean to all their readers. Once the text is in the hands of the reader, it is entirely up to them and their brains how the interpretive process will go. They will interpret it through the light of their own experiences and understandings, and there is nothing illegitimate about that interpretation. Stories are not indulgent acts of self-gratification; they are written for others, and if the author’s intended message is lost, that is the fault of the author, not the reader. And if an alternative message is found, then the text has served a purpose; it has formed a relationship with the mind of the reader to produce meaning. So what if the author meant something else? The text must be able to stand on its own.

John Green likes to say that his books “belong to their readers now, which is a great thing–because the books are more powerful in the hands of my readers than they could ever be in my hands.”

That’s why fan fiction and fan art are so wonderful. Because fans can take a story in a direction the author never even considered. They could even write something better than the author could. That’s why Love and Time Travel is so awesome, especially without the author’s authoritative statement on the meaning of the video. Because the video is beautiful and complex enough to be imagined in so many ways one person could never have intended them all. The hundreds and thousands of ways in which humans understand and appreciate art should not be collapsed into the singular wavefunction of the author’s initial conception. It does a disservice both to the author and the readers. Let meanings flourish, and may they ever be enriched.

After all, the Copenhagen Interpretation is wrong.

This has been Post the Eighteenth of Blogathon

2 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Care About Authorial Intent

  1. Peter Borah says:

    I like this!

    I would like to be a little more perverse, though, and say that looking for authorial intent is itself a perfectly valid way to approach the text as a reader. It shouldn’t be the only way of reading a text, but it can be complex and interesting and meaningful.

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