“What did the author mean?” my teachers always asked me.
I always hated that question. Year after year, there I was in my English class either enjoying or hating a story or novel that I was forced to read by the orders of the state of California, and my teacher wanted me to take a stab in the dark about what the author meant. I never cared about what the author meant. (I’m sorry!) The story was either interesting or it wasn’t. Pure and simple. Sometimes, I think it’s a miracle that I ended up liking English at all, because discussing the reasoning for the use of color, light and shadow, or other symbolism ad nauseam was not my idea of fun. I understand that they’re trying to develop a student’s critical thinking skills, but to me, someone who believes that author intent is irrelevant, it was nothing but an exercise in futility and tedium. This “attitude” of mine has never been popular with any of my English teachers, except for one who was amused by my pluck, but it usually resulted in a lot of angry phone calls to my mother. But regardless of the number of times that I was lectured on the importance of author intent, I’ve never believed that it was as significant they make it out to be, because meaning is dependent on the reader.
When I write, I do so with the purpose to communicate something to you, the reader, and it comes with a certain amount of responsibility. It is the author’s job to anticipate to the best of his or her ability how the words are going to be received. This can be difficult to do, especially because even the meaning of the words themselves cannot be determined by the author alone. Language is arbitrary, and words only have the meaning that is collectively agreed upon. The author can intend for there to be meaning, but he or she cannot dictate it. If the reader doesn’t understand, it doesn’t matter. For example, if I were to suddenly start writing in German and say, “Ich mag lange Spaziergänge am Strand gehen” to someone who doesn’t speak German, it communicates nothing. If I say, “chibber chibber asschabs finger hwah!” that REALLY communicates nothing. However, if I say, “I like to take long walks on the beach”, suddenly, it becomes clear. If I tell you that all three of those mean the same thing, are you going to suddenly write “chibber chibber asschabs finger hwah!” on your internet dating profile? Obviously not. It’s a shared experience.
As a reader, everything the author has put onto the page is open to my own interpretation of it. It’s also open to the interpretation of my friend, Lindsey, her friend, Jen, and anyone else whose eyes hit that page. It’s personal. My interpretation is very rarely going to perfectly match someone else’s. The author has surrendered these words into my hands, and they’re now being given meaning by me based on what I believe. (Side note: this is why most people like the book better than the movie based off of a book, because the movie is an interpretation. So then, your views of that movie are an interpretation of an interpretation.) This not only includes the definition of a word, but the connotation of the word, how I feel about that word. So, if I put my author hat back on again and wrote, “Daniel was listless”. The word “listless” could imply laziness, depression, lethargy, or any number of other words meant to evaluate Daniel’s disposition. The question is, did I imply those things by telling you that Daniel was listless? It still doesn’t matter, because if you, the reader, believe that I did when you read it, that is your prescribed meaning.
However, I believe nothing illustrates my point better than this lesson I learned at the age of nine. I used to read The American Girl books by Valerie Tripp. In one of the Felicity books, there’s an old proverb which states, “Think ‘ere you speak, for words once flown, once uttered, are no more your own.” This proverb changed my entire outlook on life, because it was true. I realized that no matter what my intentions were when I said something, the message didn’t belong to me anymore. It belonged to them. The effect of my words was still the same whether it was what I meant or not. As an awkward kid who always said the wrong thing, that effect was usually tears (oops), and I was dragged over by my elbows to apologize.
I understand that one day this article may come back to bite me due to an interpretation of what I wrote, and therefore, I can’t disregard the significance of author intent completely. But you can be sure that I don’t expect anyone to dissect my novels for extra special symbolism unless they really want to.