The Limits of Authorial Intent

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A week ago, I posted about J.K. Rowling's views on destiny, taking my starting point from this interview that she gave a few weeks ago. I ended with the thought that Rowling's own interpretation of what was going on wasn't the best interpretation of her actual text. That raises questions, however, about how an author might not interpret her own work correctly. She created it, after all. Does authorial intent have no bearing on these kinds of questions? [As with the previous post and the interview, there may be spoilers in this post, so don't read it if you don't know how the series concludes and want to find out in chronological order as the author intended it.]

So what does authorial intent contribute to the story when the text itself can be interpreted in several ways? Can an author determine that a character is, for example, gay even if the text itself doesn't make that clear? Can an author declare the character's motivations even if the text itself doesn't make them clear? This arises in the interview when it comes to the motivations and moral character of Albus Dumbledore in his various machinations in the war against Lord Voldemort.

I say the author can declare the intent of the character, even if the text doesn't, but I know some people make the text fundamental rather than the author. But even if that's right, it doesn't follow that everything an author says in interviews after the fact are canon. There's a debate over whether Dumbledore is a bit too manipulative. Apparently Rowling herself thinks so, judging by this interview, while many fans don't (or at least think he's less so than she seems to think; I'm one of those fans, by the way).

She can tell us what a character did and what the character's motivations were. She doesn't, however, have the power to determine whether those actions and motivations count as manipulation or whether they are immoral. Whether the word 'manipulation' applies is a matter of linguistic fact, and authors of a fantasy world can't determine by themselves what the word 'manipulation' means in English.

By the same token, whether what Dumbledore does is wrong is a matter of moral truth. Whatever determines morality (and views on that abound), it's certainly not authors of fantasy novels by themselves. I can't just write a novel where killing innocents for fun is morally ok. That can't be part of the stipulation within the novel. I can write a novel in a world where people think that, but I can't as an author make their beliefs true. I can write a novel whose characters speak a language slightly differently from English, where the word 'manipulation' means something different from what it means in English, but that doesn't change what we who speak English mean by the word when we apply it to those characters.

So there's room for debate over whether a character really is manipulative even if the author takes a side on the issue, and the same goes for whether what the character did (whether you call it manipulative or not) was morally wrong.

This leads to another kind of interpretation that the author might do for us that might be questionable. Sometimes an author will declare a certain character to represent something in the real world. For example, J. Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5, has declared President Bush to be a living incarnation of President Clark in that series, a totalitarian figure who is unquestionably evil. Clearly he didn't have Bush in mind when he wrote the character, since the series was over before the 1990s ended, but he's not saying he did that. He's saying the character represents what Bush turns out to be an example of.

We see something similar with the emperor in Star Wars, whose rise to power in Episode III was in some ways compared to things associated with the Bush Administration, and George Lucas said some things that might be taken to support this. (I discussed this case at the time.) A third instance was a three-part episode in the final season of Star Trek: Enterprise that told an excellent story about Romulans trying to lead the planet Vulcan away from their traditional ways and toward the Romulan ways instead, during which the Romulan (pretending to be a Vulcan) in charge of the Vulcan government did some things that I'm sure the writers intended to represent the U.S. and the U.K. relations with Iraq in the run-up to war. Finally, yet another example of this phenomenon is J.K. Rowling's own comparison of the Ministry of Magic in her novels to the Bush and Blair Administrations.

What's questionable about all these cases is not that an author can take an event in a fictional account to represent some real event. All three cases can very easily be seen to be evil in the fictional stories, while the real events are at least much more controversial. There are moral debates about the real events, and those moral debates do not occur as easily in the unambiguous cases the stories tell. Yet the authors in all three cases, as far as I can tell, would not see such a difference between the cases they wrote about and the cases they're comparing them to. This is a philosophical mistake on the part of the author.

I'm not going to tell Rowling, Straczysnski, or the writers of those Star Trek episodes what the events they wrote about represent to them, but I do think they can't tell me how to interpret the fiction with respect to the real world. If I don't think the cases are analogous, telling me that they are counts as a philosophical mistake. Feel free to pretend that they're analogous or to say that you intended them to be analogous. But don't tell me that the Ministry of Magic is the Bush Administration or the Blair Administration unless the analogy is clearly legitimate, and I think that's up to philosophical analysis to decide, not authorial intent. Authorial intent can at most tell us what philosophical status the author thinks the two events have in common, but it can't serve to illustrate a common moral evaluation unless both cases deserve the same moral evaluation. If they do, that will take philosophical argument, not authorial declaration.

(I should add that, for all I know, something like this may be true of the The Golden Compass and its supposed anti-Catholicism. If the fictional entities that supposedly represent the Roman Catholic Church are analogous, and we rightly conclude that what they do is bad, then it's a legitimate criticism of Roman Catholicism. If it's not analogous, then there's room for (a) disapproving of what the fictional entity does while (b) thinking it's fallacious to see that as parallel to what the Roman Catholic Church does. I have no idea what the book contains or whether the movie version will be any different, so I can't draw any conclusions. But it's the same sort of issue, and people are talking about it a lot now, so I thought it was worth saying something about it.)

1 Comments

Jeremy, as a writer I can tell you that I frequently get insights while writing that go beyond or to the left or right of my normal way of thinking about things.

There are many things that influence what a writer puts on the page. In fiction, sometimes the characters take on a life of their own, almost guiding aspects of the story to their own end. This may or may not reflect the underlying beliefs or attitudes of the author.

The creative moment and the reflective moment are two different things. The creative moment can be influenced by many things, some deeply hidden, yet crucial, including God or things not God. Upon reflection, however, the personality, beliefs, and opinions of the author take over. This may have little if any connection to the threads of the creative event.

It is hard to express what I mean here, but I hope you get the drift, whether or not you agree.

Grace and peace.

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