What did the author mean?

reflects on the issues surrounding the age old question; “What did the author mean?”

photocredit: memegenerator.net

photocredit: memegenerator.net

In Literature lessons across the world teachers ask again and again the immortal question: “What did the author mean?” As favoured as that question is, it proves problematic to the very process it attempts to facilitate.

In an interview with The Guardian, Ian McEwan recalled how strange it was when his son studied his novel, Enduring Love and confessed to helping him with an assignment. This essay then got a particularly poor mark, his teacher disagreeing with his interpretation despite his father, the author, supporting those very ideas.

Not all of us are fortunate enough to have parents who wrote the books we study, and most of us aren’t skilled in reading minds or performing séances to communicate with dead writers.

Before anyone rushes to defend the age-old question by arguing that it merely operates as a guide to ensure relevance when interpreting symbols or other such techniques in literature, art and film, there is a more pressing issue at hand. Aside from the danger of viewing subjective fields as having a metaphorical checklist of right answers such that anything not on the list is immediately wrong, the restrictive perception of ‘relevant’ answers poses a more serious problem.

Justifying the use of intentionality to facilitate idea generation may avoid definite ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers, but it still assumes that the canonical type of answer is one that is passably ‘intentional’.


Internet memes mock the gross disparity between ‘what the author meant’ and ‘what your English teacher thinks the author meant’, laughing at how teachers see symbols like a schizophrenic sees murderers out to get them. But the interpretation that blue curtains represent ‘immense depression and… lack of will to carry on’ seems less extravagant when you remove the pressure of holding it against what the author intended.

The huge difference between the way Literature, Art and Film are being taught at A-Levels or GCSEs and universities should already act as warning signs. “What do you think the author meant?” is a question wrongly asked, especially when academia in these fields is predicated on original interpretation. Shakespeare might have nightmares if he knew Freud’s Dream Theory was used to analyse his work (bad pun intended), but he would never know. With the academic world being highly competitive, fresh perspectives on work that has been analysed to the death are critical and a preoccupation with intentionality does little to yield such perspectives.

In 1963, 16 year-old Bruce McAllister, disenfranchised and disillusioned after analysing symbol after symbol, sent a four-question survey to 150 authors, asking whether they had intended the symbolism in their novels. One particular question asked if readers had ever inferred symbols where the writers did not intend to be and what their reactions to this misinterpretation were. Most, if not all the authors responded with a resounding ‘yes’, but Ray Bradbury’s answer probably gives us reason to rethink the way intentionality is used to provoke thought in Literature:

“… each story is a Rorschach Test… and if people find beasties and bedbugs in my ink splotches, I cannot prevent it.”

McAllister later went on to become an English professor who probably never asked his students what the author meant.

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