Department header
Bewildering Stories

Challenge 393 Response

The Intentional Fallacy

by Jerry Wright and Don Webb

Hey, Don,

A response to your challenge in re “the intentional fallacy”: The concept was solidified, I guess, by an essay entitled “Death of the Author” written by the French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes. Trying to figure out the author’s intention limits the reader. The author has no clue, anyway.

“A narrator should not supply interpretations of his work; otherwise he would not have written a novel, which is a machine for generating interpretations.” — Umberto Eco, postscript to The Name of the Rose

“The critic on the morning paper said of my first play: ‘Inept.’ The critic on the afternoon paper said: ‘Drivel.’ Both reviews totally misunderstood the play. The critic on the morning paper said of my second play: ‘Pretentious.’ The critic on the afternoon paper said: ‘Abhorrent.’ Both reviews totally misunderstood the play. The critic on the morning paper said of my third play: ‘A Smash Hit!’ The critic on the afternoon paper said: ‘A Triumph!’ Both reviews totally misunderstood the play. They are now misunderstanding to my advantage. In the arts, that’s known as success.” — Jules Feiffer cartoon.

“Death of the Author” is a concept from the field of literary criticism which holds that an author’s intentions and biographical facts (politics, religion, etc) should hold no weight when coming to an interpretation of his or her writing; that is, that a writer’s interpretation of his own work is no more valid than the interpretations of any of the readers.

Now, I disagree with the thought that the author’s intentions should “hold no weight” when it comes to interpreting his work. On the other hand, there is no doubt that often an author has no conscious clue about some of the deeper meanings of his work.

In the collection In Search of Wonder, Damon Knight discusses the James Blish story “Common Time” and argues that the story is a symbolic representation of fertilization of an ovum by a sperm, and that the protagonist Garrard is the sperm. The Earth represents the testes; Alpha Centauri is the uterus; and the Beademung is the ovum. Furthermore, Knight argues, the first part of the story, which contains all the intercourse symbolism, is told backwards. Even the title, Knight argues, is an unintentional pun for “come on time.”

James Blish (quoted by Damon Knight about his, Knight’s, interpretation of his story):

“The reference to the Alpha Centauri stars as ‘the twin radioceles’ obviously comes from varicocele, a common form of hernia involving the testicles, and I think now that the whole thing was suggested by the Earth-Moon balls on the cover (Science Fiction Quarterly, August 1953) around which I wrote the story. The main Alpha Centauri star and Proxima Centauri stand in about the same relationship as the Earth and the Moon, and both pairs might be described as one-hung-low. Also, the story is about love and death; it says it is. But I’m just now beginning to believe it. Writing frightens me.”

Me too...

Jerry Wright

Copyright © 2010 by Jerry Wright

The intentional fallacy has its roots in 19th-century positivism and its decidedly deterministic bent. I’ve heard it summed up in the spoof: “How can you understand Faust unless you know what Goethe had for breakfast on May 23, 1802?” But that’s not even intent: it’s merely a naïve view of cause and effect.

The valuation of intent is actually an expression of reverence for a hierarchical authority, where the author has the last, supreme word on the meaning of his or her work.

Well, okay, let’s take it at face value. What if we don’t know who the author is: must we postulate a disembodied intention? What if the author says nothing about the work: are we left high and dry, wondering what to make of it all? What if the author dishes out patent balderdash: are we supposed to swallow it? An intention-based reader must answer yes to all three questions.

But critics are not so easily trapped: they substitute their own intention for the author’s. I once heard an art historian say: “To understand any work of art, you must always ask yourself what the artist intended to do.” The subject was the cave paintings at Lascaux. I got up and walked out; the professor had no idea what he was talking about. He could fool himself all he wanted to, but even if he dressed up in mammoth fur I wouldn’t feel like witnessing the spectacle.

And what is intention, anyway? Does even an author know? We speak of intention as though it were Goethe’s breakfast, an immutable cause existing at a fixed moment in time. That’s not the way things work. Writing or art is not a construction job done from a blueprint; it grows in dialogue with the artist. Is the intention at the end the same as it was at the beginning? Who knows? And, more importantly, why should anyone care?

James Blish’s and Damon Knight’s tongue-in-cheek exchange notwithstanding, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that “a writer’s interpretation of his own work is no more valid than the interpretations of any of the readers.” Authors — who are their own readers — may have valid insights, just like everybody else.

Or they can fool themselves. You can see it in action, for example, when a book review tells us more about the reviewer than it does about the book, or when it misrepresents the facts. Dan McNeil’s “Collecting Stones from a Beach,” in issue 392, is a delightfully grotesque parody of a fictitious reviewer who tells us very little about the (non-existent) book he’s reviewing while regaling us with facts about himself, each more bizarre than the last.

In the end, all literary criticism answers one or more of four basic questions:

  1. What does the text say?
  2. How does it say it?
  3. What did it mean in its own time?
  4. What might it mean in ours?

And that’s why I’m very fond of your and Danielle L. Parker’s book reviews. You answer — to a reasonable extent — questions 1, 2, and 4 (#3 is for literary historians). And you’re completely honest: you tell us what you think and don’t try to pass it off as something the author might have thought.


Copyright © 2010 by Don Webb

Home Page