While this isn’t completely normal for this blog, I want to take the space to write about some ideas that have been gnawing away at my brain. I’ve been doing research on authorial intentions in regards to manuscripts, and it has been quite interesting.
As a writer, I come to the defense of my own work quite quickly. When the concept of authorial intentions comes under attack, I had initially felt that I needed to protect my intentions from being disregarded. After all, how could an author’s intentions for writing something not matter when considering the final product? How could I not think about what Suzanne Collins was intending to convey about American politics when writing The Hunger Games.
It seems that the watershed moment in which the literary community at large transitioned into believing authorial intentions held no significance to the final product occurred around the publication of Roland Barthes’s essay, Death of the Author. I rejected this idea upon my initial understanding. It just didn’t make sense. The author and their intentions are intrinsically linked to the production of a manuscript. They cannot be removed from it.
As a writer myself, I wanted my own intentions to be considered when someone read my work. I wanted to believe that I possessed agency in my writing. I thought, surely, that I am some original ideas floating around in my head. The more that I’ve thought about and learned from this, though, I realized that might not be the case.
Sure, I have control over which letters my fingers smack into on the keyboard, and in which order they appear on the page; however, they’re not necessarily unique to me. What and how I write is built upon how I learned the English language. It comes from the books and articles that I read online. I see a sentence or a phrase or a word that I love and I absorb it into my own craft. Of course, I have a unique concoction of read materials floating around in my deep subconscious, but I cannot generate an idea that is completely unique to me.
The primary element of Death of the Author is that the author cannot assign meaning to their work—it’s up to the reader to do so. When I first heard that, it really didn’t make sense to me. How could someone who is creating something, have no power to assign meaning to it?
The more I think about it now, the more I equate an author to a staff member at Build-A-Bear Workshop. They’re the ones that construct the product, but it isn’t up to them to force an emotional connection or response from a child. Sure, their process of bringing the bear to life in front of a child’s eyes certainly helps form an emotional attachment, but it really is up to the kid to find some kind of meaning behind the bear. This is a ridiculous analogy, but I think it holds true. The reader holds the agency in the relationship to glean what they want from the text.
What really drives me to believe that authorial intentions don’t matter is Platonism. Now, I’m not going to go super in-depth into the theory because that would take forever. However, it can be partially summed up as an abstract object is an object that does not exist in space or time. As a writer, that is where ideas exist. My “work” is not concrete; it exists anywhere and everywhere, drawn from thousands of years of cultural and linguistic developments. The product I might someday produce is not necessarily timeless, but the object of my work is.
This is getting theoretical, and that is so much fun!
One of my favorite things that I’ve learned about Shakespeare is that he was not some weird, isolated genius. He stole things form people all the time. That’s what writing during the Renaissance was all about; reading and absorbing other texts and bringing inspiration into a new product. In fact, that practice is still followed today.
Platonic theory argues that an abstract idea, or an author’s work, cannot be fully grasped by a single individual. I may have a concept for a short story swimming about my skull, but I will never be able to perfectly capture it in writing. No one can. There is no perfect representation of a singular “work.”
Since a writer, an author, cannot ever fully articulate or produce a textual representation of a concept in their head, and when they try, they are drawing off of past texts or experiences, they cannot assume authority over a work. The author’s job isn’t designed to assign interpretation to the text—if they’re trying to, they’re wasting time. The job of the writer is to provide the reader with a text that allows them to engage with it and extract their own meaning.
Now, having said all of this, it is still important to acknowledge the author when reading a text. It is dangerous to completely separate an author from their work. Authors can create harmful material, and by removing them from their work entirely, they cannot be held accountable for what was written. So, while the author cannot assign meaning to a text they produced, they are still responsible for making such a text.
If the staff member at Build-A-Bear laced a teddy with poison, they should be held liable (And you thought the analogy couldn’t get any more ridiculous). The same goes for the author. Readers have the right to hold any and all authors/creators responsible for their creation, and to assign meaning to it as they see fit. I’m still trying to grasp all of my thoughts on this subject, thus explains a blog post about it.
As writers, the best thing we can do is produce the work that exists in our brain as faithfully as we can onto the page. As readers, we get to take in the textualized version of that work and turn it into something for ourselves, and that’s special. Just something to think about on a dreary Wednesday afternoon.
Oh, My Word! Jacob sometimes goes off the deep-end in theoretical thinking. What do you think about authorial intentions? Do you have other thoughts or perspectives to lend to this blog post? Put them in the comments!
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