Why It’s Important to Discover Your Authorial Intent
Most writers tend to have particular set of ideas in mind that they want to put across before they put pen to paper, or at least you’d like to hope so. Whether this translates into something which connects with their readers is another matter, of course, but what cannot be denied is that an author must have a specific intent at the heart of what they do. Otherwise there would be no point in them writing in the first place.
So, what is authorial intent? Put simply, it is how a writer intends their story to be interpreted by their readers. It’s basically a writer’s own preferred interpretation of their work. Perhaps this is why so many writers agonise over finding the right words for so long, through countless re-drafts and all; because in the end, writers do care about expressing themselves in a way which captures the essence of who they are, how they feel and what they think.
Traditionally, literary criticism tended to respect this concept – it was commonly accepted that a piece of written work had one discernible meaning and that it could only be the author, ultimately, who put it there. However, ever since the 1946 publication of W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley’s thesis ‘The International Fallacy,’ the whole notion of ‘authorial intent’ has been turned on its head. ‘The design or intention of the author,’ Wimsatt and Beardsley wrote, ‘is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a literary work of art.’
Since then, an era of post-structuralism has been ushered into literary criticism and the reader is now regarded as the sole beneficiary of any written work. The writer doesn’t matter anymore. There could be any number of multiple interpretations a piece of writing can yield from this point, and all of them – thanks to our daft postmodern cultural consensus – are seen as valid. It is the reader (no matter how stupid some of them may be) who decides what a writer’s work means, and what the writer actually intended ceases to be important.
This is one of the most tragic developments in modern literature – this whole idea of Roland Barthes’ death of the author, written about here by L R Griff – yet there is admittedly little writers can do to fight back against it. It’s probably this sorry state of affairs which has led to Fifty Shades of Grey becoming a best-seller, after all. The only way to swim against the tide of reader-initiated appraisals is for writers to stick fast to our artistic visions, and a logical solution is to be more fervent in our embrace of authorial intent, but also more forceful in our defence of it.
But how important is authorial intent? Well, if anything, it’s more vital now than ever, because if readers (many of whom may not write themselves) are championed as the judge, jury and executioner of good taste, then it risks breeding disrespect for the creative act of writing itself. Nowadays, readers feel more important than the writers, and that’s wrong. Is it fair for the proactive creators of written work to be deemed dispensable under the scrutiny of a fickle public? This is hard to swallow given how much time and effort it takes for a writer to learn their craft and create something of value. You’d like to hope readers would be just as rigorous and attentive in how they read your work as writers are in writing it, wouldn’t you? I doubt they do, if EL James’s bank balance is anything to go by.
For too long, writers seem to have been blasé about the role authorial intent plays in the creation of their art. In the last fifty years, it’s been the reader who a writer entrusts with the sole responsibility of interpreting their work – no matter how they choose to do so – but maybe the time has come to challenge this. To do so, writers must make their authorial intent more explicit in their writing and leave less room for readers to attach false meanings to it. After all, a wrong interpretation will always be a wrong interpretation, so a writer owes it to themselves (and their readers) to point it out as such. No, reader, you’re wrong. This is how it is.
In the internet age, however, it would be virtually impossible to do this one-by-one (can you imagine answering every Amazon book reviewer?!). Trouble is, by placing trust and responsibility to a passive majority who may know little about what good creativity actually is, we’ve devalued the role of the author in modern society. Maybe that’s how the world has got into the current political mess we’re in. If we started valuing the creators more, the people who create work of real substance and true meaning, then there’s a chance it might stop the lunatics from taking over the asylum and getting the wrong end of the stick. Well, if that’s how you want to interpret it, of course. It’s up to you.
© 2017 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Poet, humorous fiction writer and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.