June 16, 2009

the intentional fallacy

Have you ever heard of the "intentional fallacy"? It's one of the key notions of New Criticism, a movement of literary criticism that rejects the idea that the meaning of a work of literature depends on authorial intent. In other words, it doesn't matter what the author thinks the story is about or what they intended for it to mean. A text can only be judged by a close reading.

When I first encountered New Criticism in an undergraduate literature course, I felt, as an aspiring writer, that the theorists had it all wrong. Of course the author knew what the work meant. They wrote the thing. It meant what they said it did!

But now --- after having shared my work with a number of other writers, mentors, and editors, after having heard and read the reactions of plenty of reviewers and other readers, and after stumbling through my responses to more than one question to do with "what is this story about?" --- I've completely revised my take on the New Critics. They may not have had it all right (what theoretical approach does?), but certainly a text is more (can be more, should be more, please let it be more) than whatever the writer hoped it might be.

I don't think I'm completely blundering blind through the writing, but I have a feeling that with all my focus on individual words and phrases and the rhythms of each and every sentence (although how else does a novel get written except word by word?), I tend to try and let some of the bigger things (themes, symbols) take care of themselves, sometimes without me knowing... explicitly, anyway.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this - it's interesting. I'm a grad student in English and haven't touched fiction for at least a couple of years, often because I've become so hyper-aware of every last theoretical critique that might be levelled at my work: this female character is stereotypcially weak, this reinstantiates a politics of assimilation, this is 'too capitalist' etc etc.

It's good to know that the key to this is to just let it go and focus on the things one wants to and let the other stuff 'come out by itself' or whatever.

Being a grad student, I don't seem to have much time to read things I want to, but I hope to get to your work soon!


saleema said...

Ah, yes, the hyperawareness! I don't think it's easy to do your own creative work in grad school -- though I guess there are some people who are fueled by those kinds of discussions and ideas.

Even as a student, though, I found it hard to look at texts I'm close to with the right kind of critical eye. I studied Mansfield Park in a graduate seminar and I somehow couldn't get the right kind of distance. Everyone kept mentioning how lame Fanny was, and I (bizarrely) kept feeling like it was a personal attack.

Probably there are writers who can bring all their critical know-how to the table and make it work for them, but for me that kind of awareness isn't that much different from worrying about whether people will like it or be offended or say it's the greatest thing since Joyce -- none of which makes it easier to stare at the blank page.

Good luck with your degree! (And with any fiction that comes after..!)