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I've just come up with a conjecture on what a piece of literature means, but the author has said that they didn't mean for their work to suggest that.

For example, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is often considered an iconic book about censorship, but Bradbury says that he didn't write the book about censorship at all.

Is there a right answer in a case like this, or does it depend on how you analyse the text?

I've read 'How much weight is given to authors' intentions in literary analysis?', but this question approaches the issue from the perspective on an academic, whereas I specifically want to address questions where more casual readers want to check if their theories are 'correct' and how a reader can decide the method of analysis for themselves.

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Deliberately steering clear of academic criticism, since that's what you asked for (granted, not what you answered and therefore presumably not the intended meaning of the question. Badum tish.):

the author has said that they didn't mean for their work to suggest that.

There are various ways you could nevertheless be right:

  • The author might be lying: they did mean for their work to suggest that, but have since changed their mind as to the wisdom of suggesting any such thing. We conclude that authorial statements of meaning must not be blindly accepted.
  • The author's statement might be true but irrelevant. If I write a work that unintentionally suggests (by my mention of various details) that I'm a serial killer, and as a result you (a detective) catch me, then it really doesn't matter whether or not I meant for my work to suggest that. Objectively, it did suggest that to you, the reader, and you were correct to persist with your theory. We conclude that texts convey information other than that intended by the author (not to say whether or not this information qualifies as "meaning"). Furthermore, a text can say more about the author's views than the author is willing to admit.
  • The author might be confessing to an error. If they consistently confuse the words "flaunt" and "flout", and wrote that somebody "flaunted the rules", then the text does state, to any reader in possession of a dictionary, that the person in question was showy in their display of the rules. That the author intended to say that the person disdainfully broke the rules is a matter to be corrected in the second edition, and presumably will be now we've pointed it out. So you are correct in your reading of the first edition text, but not in a terribly interesting way. Still we conclude that for purely mechanical reasons, right down to typos, a text can mean something different from what the author hoped it would mean. Furthermore, we sometimes choose to analyse the text as the author intended, not as the text exists.
  • The author may have been dimly aware of "that" without truly realising it, and although they believe that their work couldn't possibly be an expression of "that", in fact it was. This may or may not be possible to prove, but sometimes it is. There have been cases of unintentional plagiarism, never mind unintentional expression of an idea. We conclude that the author is not an absolute authority even on the context of the writing of the text.
  • The author may be pleading for context to be properly taken into account, not actually disagreeing with you. Perhaps The Simpsons writers did not intend literally to predict that Donald Trump would become President. And yet certainly there's an episode which says exactly that, long before Trump even proposed running, and President he is. So your theory that, to a modern audience knowing what we know now, this joke plays rather differently from how it played to the audience at the time, knowing only what its author knew then might well be correct. Modern readers see an unintended allusion to actual events, which may have some impact on their experience of the text, despite knowing perfectly well the author's statement is also correct that this new interpretation of the joke was never intended. We conclude that the context of the reader informs meaning, that a text's meaning to a reader can change by time or by circumstance, and that reading a text in general has purpose beyond a mere attempt to determine the intent of the author.

On the other hand, the reader cannot claim any absolute objective authority any more than the author can. If you somehow misread the word "Transylvania" as "Transsiberia", then it's going to subtly alter your genuine experience of the opening passage of Bram Stoker's Dracula, but there's not much mileage in writing your English class report on the basis that the Count is Russian. Similarly if it turns out I have an alibi for all those murders, then you're not looking so smart after all, regardless of what my text implies.

Line these conclusions up as supporting or opposing genuine techniques of criticism, or not, as you please!

Informally, though, if you read Fahrenheit 451 and conclude that Bradbury was trying to make readers think disapprovingly of government censorship, then you're making a statement about Bradbury and you're probably wrong (since I doubt he was lying). If you read Fahrenheit 451 and conclude that it will in fact make readers think disapprovingly of government censorship, then you're making a statement about readers and you're probably right at least as often as not. If you wanted for some reason to make statements "purely about the text" then you must avoid both traps.

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    Actually, this is one of those times where it seems like the author is lying. After years of saying that it was about censorship, he changed his tune to say that it was about TVs. – Shane Mar 10 '17 at 17:25
  • @Shane That reeks of performance art, censoring himself – 11684 2 days ago
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(I previously posted this as an answer to this question, but Hamlet wanted to focus on actual textual analysis rather than discussing the intent issue, so I've separated this out into a new Q&A)

It's easy, even for people familiar with literary analysis, to conflate asking "Did the author mean this?" with "Does the work mean this?".

As you'd expect with an issue like this, there's no objectively true answer about who's correct here—asking if the author is right doesn't make a lot of sense, because there's no scale to measure right against. Instead, I'll introduce some of the common schools of thought on the issue of authorial intent (how you should interpret what the author wanted to say).

Author

Some people would argue that the author—the person who created and crafted the piece of literature—is the one who knows most intimately what they intended to convey through their work. This view was favoured by the majority of literature critics until around the 20th century, when New Criticism and the intentional fallacy became more accepted.

Biographical criticism is one of the schools of literature which favours the author's intent and meaning as opposed to examining the text alone:

Biographical criticism is a form of Literary criticism which analyzes a writer's biography to show the relationship between the author's life and their works of literature. Biographical criticism is often associated with Historical-Biographical criticism, a critical method that "sees a literary work chiefly, if not exclusively, as a reflection of its author's life and times".

This longstanding critical method dates back at least to the Renaissance period, and was employed extensively by Samuel Johnson in his Lives of the Poets (1779–81).

By using context of the author's life, views and experiences, biographical criticism tries to uncover meaning through what the author may have intended to convey. Historically, this tended to be applied rather literally—the author's word was taken to be generally true without debate. This is not necessarily true in more modern analysis, though, where a balance is achieved between accepting the author's word and the other factors.

Text

New Criticism is the form of literary criticism that comes to mind when considering the text as the primary source of meaning. New Criticism emphasises close reading (for context, see 'What is close reading?'), and tries to find meaning through the author's choice of words rather than their experiences and historical context.

It is debated whether New Criticism's method of almost entirely excluding historical context is effective. In The New Criticism: Pro and Contra, René Wellek outlines the major issues with New Criticism:

Four accusations are made more frequently. First, the New Criticism is an "esoteric aestheticism," a revival of art for art's sake, uninterested in the human meaning, the social function and effect of literature. [...] Second, the New Criticism, we are told, is unhistorical. It isolates the work of art from its past and its context. Third, the New Criticism is supposed to aim at making criticism scientific, or at least "bringing literary study to a condition rivaling that of science" [...]. Finally the New Criticism is being dismissed as a mere pedagogical device, a version of the French explication de texte, useful at most for American college students who must learn to read and to read poetry in particular.

It is worth noting, for context, that René Wellek was not criticising New Criticism himself—he was merely outlining the common flaws pointed out by others.

Reader

There is another prominent group of literature critics who eschew both of the above approaches, instead favouring you as the main decider of a piece's meaning—reader-response criticism.

What reader-response criticism tries to say is that a piece of work does not have one objective meaning that can be determined through careful analysis. The linked Wikipedia article phrases it well:

Reader-response theory recognizes the reader as an active agent who imparts "real existence" to the work and completes its meaning through interpretation. Reader-response criticism argues that literature should be viewed as a performing art in which each reader creates their own, possibly unique, text-related performance. It stands in total opposition to the theories of formalism and the New Criticism, in which the reader's role in re-creating literary works is ignored.

While writing this, I've reflected on the issue a little, and reader-response criticism starts to make a lot of sense. Critics in the past have read pieces and tried to find a way to interpret works and find meaning, as if it is an inherent property of a work, but, as shown by the many schools of literary criticism, each reader does find a different meaning.

Notice that I've written this without any reference at all to any specific book (like Fahrenheit 451, as I stated in the question). That's because I'm almost certain you would be able to switch the book title and have the exact same argument without gaining any real knowledge—any answer will either have to interpret Fahrenheit 451 from each possible view point, or simply state one opinion. Instead, I hope that I've started to share the tools to find out the answer on your own, or at least recognise how many literature critics would approach the problem.

In brief answer to the specific question: "Is Bradbury right?"—it depends who you ask, and what they think about literary criticism. A biographical critic would say "yes, of course he's right—he wrote the book!"; a New Critic would ask for the textual evidence to prove it and reader-response critic would ask what you believed the text meant!


When trying to prove if your conjecture is 'right' (if such a statement makes sense), you should consider how you want to prove it—close reading and analysis of text is often quite sound proof, but you may miss some of the context and nuance without considering the author's life and context. For example, in Of Mice and Men, racism is a major theme, but by not knowing the context of the novel in 1930s America, the meaning is very much lost.

In works of fantasy or science fiction where there is little historical context, close reading or reader-response may be a better choice, because historical context may be less clear, and possibly harder to justify than in a work that is clearly set in a historical period. Nevertheless, as Hamlet points out, fantasy and sci-fi works do tend to have some link to reality, so dismissing the point completely (as I had originally done) is probably not valid.

In summary:

  • You can analyse literature from many different perspectives, but the predominant methods are author intention, text meaning and reader interpretation.

  • Confusing intention, meaning and interpretation can cause many issues when analysing texts, and, as pedantic as it may be, framing a question in a different way can drastically change its answer.

  • Asking who's 'right' or 'wrong' doesn't make a lot of sense in subjective analysis of literature—ask whether something can be 'proved' or 'disproved' instead for best results!

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    I would say that half of this answer is correct, and half of this answer is incorrect. For example, I strongly disagree with the sentence "In works of fantasy or science fiction where there is little historical context, close reading or reader-response may be a better choice, because there isn't any historical context to analyse!" Fantasy and Science Fiction are set in fictional universes, but these fictional universes almost always have something in common with the real world. – user111 Mar 9 '17 at 19:16
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    I'm also think that you're confusing biographical criticism as it was practiced with how biographical criticism is used today. The type of biographical criticism that you're describing is rarely used anymore. Critics today don't practice biographical criticism by taking what an author says about a text as the word of god. Instead, they tend to make more sophisticated arguments, such as arguing that a text is reflective of events that happened in the author's past. – user111 Mar 9 '17 at 19:23
  • @Hamlet I've edited in an attempt to address the inaccuracies you pointed out. Do let me know if there's anything else you spot, and thanks for pointing it out. – Aurora0001 Mar 9 '17 at 19:34
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    I don't think the bibliographical criticism stuff will be fixed until this answer gets a rewrite. But I think there is a lot of valuable stuff in this answer, so I'm glad you posted it. – user111 Mar 9 '17 at 20:45
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    Maybe worth a slight clarification, "Bradbury says that he didn't write the book about censorship at all" could be interpreted even by New Critics as a true statement by Bradbury about himself, even if they decide the meaning of the work is different from the intended meaning. And even a Biographical critic could perhaps decide that when Bradbury says "it's not a response to McCarthy", this is also a statement about Bradbury, and might perhaps decide on close examination of the context of the novel's composition, that the author is mistaken. Both might be frustrating for the author himself... – Steve Jessop Mar 9 '17 at 22:42
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Another way to approach this type of question is to take the view that works of art don't have meaning. An essay has meaning. A work of art creates an experience.

A reader reading Olivier Twist might have that experience and say to themselves, "workhouses are bad". This is a conclusion based on an experience. Is it the meaning of the work that provided the experience? Not really. Another reader of a different mindset might have the same experience and come away thinking "workhouses are great", just as two people may try the same flavor of ice cream and one may conclude that putting chocolate chips in ice cream is a good thing and the other that is is a bad thing. Neither of these conclusions constitute the meaning of ice cream.

Of course, we can be pretty sure that Dickens wanted readers who had the experience of reading Oliver Twist to draw the conclusion that workhouses are bad. In that sense, he would disagree with the reader who came away from the experience thinking workhouses were great. But that is a disagreement with a conclusion based on an experience, not really a disagreement about the meaning of a work.

This way of looking at the matter is reinforced by the fact that we still read Oliver Twist today. This cannot be because we feel passionately about whether workhouses should be abolished. They were abolished long ago. But the experience of reading Oliver Twist is still an enjoyable one today, even if any conclusions that Dickens may have wanted us to draw from it are moot.

So, Bradbury created an experience in 451. Many people reading it came away from the experience thinking "government censorship is bad". Bradbury clearly hoped that they would come away from it thinking "television is bad". Most didn't, perhaps because most of them already thought government censorship was bad (and that television was good) and we tend to look for evidence that confirms our existing opinions and discount that which disputes them. (Confirmation bias.)

But since Fahrenheit 451 is still considered a good book, independent of whether people reach the same conclusion from the experience of reading it as Bradbury intended, indicates that, like the experience of reading Oliver Twist, the experience of reading 451 is pleasant independent of any conclusions we might draw about censorship or television.

If Bradbury had written an essay arguing the television is bad, there would be no doubt that he meant that television is bad. But he wrote a novel and the novel contains an experience, not a meaning. We can reach different conclusions after having had that experience, just as we can reach different conclusions after having any other kind of experience. These conclusions are not the meaning of the experience. A blizzard or a good meal are experiences. They don't have meaning. But having had those experiences we may draw conclusions about the wisdom of warm clothing or the appropriate uses of garlic.

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It is interesting to hear an author's analysis. It is interesting to hear an academic's analysis. It's interesting to develop YOUR analysis. There can't be any general rule regarding which is 'correct'. And always be aware that an opinion is tacitly prefaced by 'this is one way of looking at it, today, in the context of this class/publication'. It is the pleasure, the duty even, of an artist to be inconsistent. Is that a quote from someone far more learned than me? If not, it ought to be!

Bradbury (if Wikipedia is to be believed) offered at least two interpretations:

"In a 1956 radio interview, Bradbury stated that he wrote Fahrenheit 451 because of his concerns at the time (during the McCarthy era) about the threat of book burning in the United States. In later years, he described the book as a commentary on how mass media reduces interest in reading literature."

The two are not mutually exclusive. Moby Dick is about obsession, class, religion, good and evil - and it's also a ripping yarn.

I think we can assume that in both these cases, the author was consciously writing a multifaceted story, even if he came to change opinion on which facet was dominant (does one HAVE to be dominant?) We could compare the fervour with which some modern college courses analyse works to find sexist, racist and other unacceptable undertones, which may indicate the author's cultural background but are most unlikely to reveal his intent. Doubtless they're currently dissecting 'Little Women' for gender-identity issues.

  • Hi, Welcome to Lit:SE. It looks like this answer does not answer the question regarding whether authors works are more important than critics. He used Bradbury as an example, not as the focus for his question. – Matrim Cauthon Mar 10 '17 at 12:50
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    And what fool WOULD attempt a definitive answer? I've edited my reply to make this even more clear! Wouldn't it be ridiculous to only allow 'answer' status to a closed-mind response? – Laurence Payne Mar 10 '17 at 13:02
  • Ok, I see what you were trying to get at. Well done. – Matrim Cauthon Mar 10 '17 at 14:22
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An author just wrote a book. I ask the author what the book is about, and she says, "it's about how anyone, if they work hard enough, can lead a fulfilling life". There's nothing left to talk about; the author explained the meaning and the case is closed.

However, let's ask the author a different question: "in your book, how do you communicate the message that anyone can lead a fulfilling life." And the author responds: "I communicate this message by writing about several characters who, although they all come from different backgrounds, all manage to lead fulfilling lives."

Do you see the different between the first and second answers? The first answer is a statement. The second answer is an argument. If we assume that everything the author says is correct, then we see the author's first answer and automatically accept it as valid. But when we ask the second question, we see that the first answer is really the conclusion of the argument presented in the second answer. The author is reading her own work and making arguments about its meaning. The author is no different from any other reader when it comes to interpreting her work.

This has two implications. First, authors can be wrong when it comes to interpreting their own work. But secondly, and more importantly, asking about authors' intentions is a different, and less important, question than asking about texts' meaning.

This doesn't mean that intentionality doesn't have a place in modern scholarship. For example, there's a branch of scholarship called "textual genetics" which studies how texts are created by looking at revisions and drafts of final works, which often leads to questions about intentionality. (Here's a free online journal of textual genetic criticism of James Joyce's writings if you want to see what this criticism looks like.)

But it's important to realize that while asking about an author's intentions can be an interesting question, and can lead to insights into the meaning of a text, intentions and meaning are completely different things.


Appendix: for your amusement, here is a list of statements where the author makes very incorrect statements about their works:

  1. This interview from Bob Dylan cracks me up (thank you BESW)

    "What are your songs about Bob?"

    "Oh, some are about four minutes, some about five and some, believe it or not, are about eleven or twelve", he replied

  2. This reddit thread is one of the funniest things I've ever read.

If you think of any others, let me know in the comments!

  • This originally was an answer to the question How much weight is given to authors' intentions in literary analysis?, but I've decided to move it because that question is more academic than this question. – user111 Mar 9 '17 at 20:17
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    "An author just wrote a book. I ask the author what the book is about, and she says, "it's about how anyone, if they work hard enough, can lead a fulfilling life". There's nothing left to talk about; the author explained the meaning and the case is closed." Rubbish! The author has offered a general over-view. Let's hope the book is 'about' plenty more besides. It would be a pretty boring book otherwise! – Laurence Payne Mar 10 '17 at 17:20
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Adding to the earlier replies:

The author is the creator of the book. Usually the author makes his viewpoint clear in the preface / introduction. If the author fails to do so, then it is open to the reader to interpret the novel.

In jurisprudence (law courts) there is a law for interpreting statutes - (1) read the law and understand it as it stands on a plain reading i.e. the normal understanding of the word. For e.g. if at some place the word 'he' is used one cannot interpret it to apply to men and women unless the same is clarified somewhere : all statutes define 'he' to apply to both men and women.

(2) if the plain reading results in nonsense, try the background material.

(3) if still ambiguous refer to marginal notes and, if required to the Parliamentary debates.

The above paragraph should answer the question - it is the author knows what he has written. If his writings are ambiguous give the interpretation on plain reading - do not go by the books review - the critic or his employer may have an axe to grind. If the author says that the book is about something, then it is about that and nothing else.

However if the plain reading results in a nonsensical interpretation then the reader has to look elsewhere. One should not forget that reviewers too are human beings. They have their own prejudices and biases and this often reflects in their reviews. So the reviews should be taken with a pinch of salt.

The reader should try to come to his own conclusions after reading books where the plain reading either results in an ambiguity or leads to a conclusion different from what the author intended.

Books are relevant to the environment in which they are written and most of us tend to interpret it in the present context.

Charles Dickens wrote 'Oliver Twist' the story of an orphan's life in an orphanage and his subsequent escape therefrom only to fall into the grip of criminals, etc. In Victorian type that was the state of orphanages - the government hardly cared. Today's Governments cannot ignore the state of orphanages, they regulate them. So if I feel that 'Oliver Twist' describes situations that are more fantasy than reality, I would be as far from truth as possible. But that is what we, the readers, tend to do generally.

Specifically with regard to Fahrenheit 451 (I have not read the book) I think one should accept what the author says unless your reading leads you to the conclusion that the book is about censorship - Ray Bradbury's explanation notwithstanding.

Ultimately it is the reader, not the reviewer, who has to decide, because it is he who buys the book paying for it, from which the author earns his royalty.

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If an author has an intention, and other people are interpreting it differently, then perhaps the author deserves to lose control of the meaning of the work, because they've failed at their mission ... or perhaps inadvertently explored their subconscious more than they realized.

I can't think of a literary example, the best overall I can think of would be Apocalypse Now, which was written by a warmonger right-winger, and is perceived by most on both sides of the aisle to be the exact opposite of what he embodied. I believe rightfully so.

I do believe there are exceptions to that. Nabokov never deserved to lose control of the meaning of Lolita because the people condemning it were reactionary philistines who didn't bother to read it. The libertarians perceiving Hunger Games to be anti-government propaganda are over-eagerly projecting their desires.

So I'm not saying that the meaning of a book is completely fungible, but if the bulk of the audience that a work is aimed at is interpreting it in a certain way that differs from the author, then there are good reasons, and the author lost.

You know that type of person who'll just insult someone, and then everyone goes silent, and then that person laughs and says 'It was a joke! Why's everyone being such a stick in the mud!' You don't keep getting the benefit of the doubt, if you're bad at communicating meaning to others then you (rightfully) lose the power to tell other people how to feel about what you're producing.

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    You don't think Hunger Games has an anti-government message?! – Rand al'Thor Mar 10 '17 at 23:16
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    Re "bad at communicating": Socrates' contemporary critics might have agreed with such reasoning, when they selected a silencing beverage. Aesop wisely avoided being overly good at communicating meaning to others. – agc Apr 4 '17 at 6:13

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