Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Creator Intention: Does It Matter?

School is in full swing, my new job (I'm venturing into the brave new world of math tutoring) starts tomorrow, and I have a speech I need to write that's due in two days. Clearly, it's time to blog. Anyway, you all seem to enjoy these editorials I write (at least, more than you do the reviews I write, according to my dashboard), so I decided to dust off a topic I've wanted to write about since last spring: Creator intention, and how much it matters.

"Uh... ... ..."

     My English Professor for my first two semesters of college is a great guy. I probably learned more about writing, literature, and art in general from him than I did in all of elementary, middle, and high school combined. I've actually quoted (or rather, paraphrased) him a number of times on my blog, and I've always put a lot of value into his words. But there was one idea of his that I could never quite fully get behind for some reason. The idea (paraphrasing again here) is basically, "Author intention doesn't matter. Stories are all about what we can get out of them, so if you say a story means one thing and the author says it means another, the author can go screw themselves."

     Now, my English professor was by no means biased against authors. Heck, he's a published short story writer himself. It just seems like such a scandalous idea, doesn't it? The author doesn't matter. It's like, who the heck would even think that? But I suppose it's not such a radical idea when you consider it. I mean, if works are limited only to what the author intended them to be, that radically changes the ideas we have about quality, right? Any given version of Solitaire you've played on the computer would be a masterpiece, because it's probably exactly what the creator wanted it to be - an electronic adaption of a card game. Similarly, that means with literature any cheap dime romance novel that makes a lonely woman (or man, I suppose) swoon or Warhammer 40K graphic novel (ugh) that satiates us nerds' need for MOAR WARHAMMER!!!! might as well be awarded Pulitzer prizes here and now. And ecchi anime that turns adolescent teens on would be...well, I don't really want to finish that thought, but you get the idea.

You called?
     So, that's one side of the issue. But at the same time, it just feels so wrong. The author of a work is trying to communicate something to us (at least, a good work). Doesn't just ignoring that and coming up our own conclusions feel like it's missing the whole point of the work? I mean, if an entire show is devoted to giving you one message, but you go off in a different direction with it, then don't you kind of have to ask yourself what the point was? Ignoring the author's intentions made you miss out on the whole purpose of the show. And heck, even if it's not important, isn't that just...kinda sad?

     The thing is, there's no real compromise. There's your interpretation, and the author's. Whose matters more? Either yours does, or the author's does. There's no real "they both matter a little bit." It's basically a dichotomy. I guess the closest thing to a compromise would be "the author's matters up to a certain point," but even then, that definition feels kind of incomplete since then we would be stuck in a tug of war with what point.

     I guess in the end I'm mostly on my professor's side of things. I think most bloggers are actually gonna be with me on this. I mean, heck, this is what we do! We make our own interpretations of things, and blog them. Don't get me wrong; there isn't an infinitely large (or even infinitely small) number of right interpretations. Just because it's your "answer" to a story doesn't mean it's a good one. I could say that Queen's Blade: Rebellion is a feminist masterpiece about the revolt and subsequent cleansing of the evil male gender...and I'd be right, of course. *coughs* I could also say, however, that the Hagure Yuusha/Queen's Blade crossover episode is a deep, meaningful short about the psychology of the human race, and I'd be totally wrong. On the other side of things, if we can find an interpretation that is, you know, actually supported by the work itself, then I see that interpretation as being "good." Whether it's what the author wanted or not, if it's something the story could (reasonably) be about, than I'm inclined to accept it, or at least to not judge it offhand for not being what the creator wanted.

     What do you think? Are the creator's intentions for his or her work key, or do the audiences' interpretations matter more? Is there a compromise after all that I'm just not seeing?

EDIT: Somewhat Mystia has weighed in on the subject as well, if you're looking for further reading.


  1. There is a very, very fine line between 'interpretation' and 'stretching like Reed Richards to make a point.'

    If you really, REALLY wanted to, you could interpret any work as any political stance, philosophical ideology, or religious analogy. Or, y'know, anything else in the world.

    I'm ALL for crazy interpretations, but there's a limit. The author's intent definitely matters, though, because... Let me get back to you on that when I'm /not/ half-dead. I've got my thoughts, I just can't phrase them how I'd like. Y'know what? I'll respond via a post on GP someday today.

    1. Well, yeah. Like I said, there are plenty of (wrong) interpretations out there. Few things are easier than putting meaning into something.

      It's sounds like you're on to that mythical compromise here, so I look forward to that response! Also...it sounds like you should eat something or sleep or...something. Can't have you dying on me now.

    2. Sleep is for the weak!

      or rather for guys who have class at 9 am and live a half-hour away

    3. Sleep is for the people who *skip* class at 9 am and stay in bed.

  2. I'm usually a very persistant person when it comes to 'what the author wanted to say'. I need clarity on this part. This is a reason I can't take seriously Haibane Renmei, for example... you've probably read this post of mine. On the other hand there are times, especially when it comes to pairings and hints that I'll do as haven't ever heard of the author's opinion, because I like mine better :P

    What your professor describes is known as the 'author's death'. Pontifus has written something on this topic based on Hyouka's mystery movie arc, if you are interested.

    1. I think that might be the worst case of regarding the creator intention as too important. If we get trapped in the rut of "what are *they* trying to say," we sometimes can't get out, and I think that's a bad thing. That said, I definitely understand that line of thought, having followed it several times myself! (And yes, I have read that post. :) You know me well.)

      One thing I find particularly interesting about that last suggestion there is that my professor said that analyzing a story and figuring out what it's "really" about can bring said story to life. Combine it with the idea of the author's death and what causes it, and you get the phrase: "The author's death brings the story to life." Now there's a statement to think about if ever there was one.

    2. The thing with Haibane Renmei was that since I alone couldn't make sense of it and the author said he wrote it totally carefree with no intention, I was frustrated about what the point of the story was. Not to mention that the possible inconsistencies I detected wrote "the work's death" to my eyes... World-building is a very important part of making a story enjoyable. If this world doesn't make sense...

      In order for the claim "the author's death brings the story to life" to be valid, I believe that there's a limit of open-ended questions an author can write into its work.

    3. From your story, Haibane Renmei seems to be a story that is very much about coming up with your own interpretations, but the problem (as far as I can tell) is that it doesn't seem to be particularly *supportive* of certain ones. I believe that there are and should be multiple interpretations to a work, but there *is* some overall style, mood, aesthetic, or atmosphere that it conveys - that's just an attribute that automatically exists in a work! This style, in turn, generally leads you to the most supported, likely, reasonable, whatever you want to call it interpretation. In other words, there should be some sort of "guide" for a work. Haibane Renmei seems to lack this guide, and I feel like that's the problem with it. If a series can support any number of interpretations, then it likely lacks an overall direction, leading to a rather dull, "gray" kind of show (a term I seem to recall you using in your review, and I thought it fit nicely).

  3. Your teacher’s opinion is a strange one. I finished my English Lit course a couple of months ago and my teacher always taught me that author intention is incredibly important, without it Tess of the D’Urbervilles would simply be Victorian dorama, no criticism of Victorian double standards in regards to the sexual adventures of men and women at all, and likewise, The Importance of Being Earnest would simply be a light-hearted comedy with lots of cucumber sandwiches, not a scathing play mocking the Victorian upper classes. Of course author intention matters.

    Of course, it is possible to enjoy a book or a show or anything else without taking author intention into account, therefore, it’s not imperative, but I believe it would only be a very basic appreciation and surely, as bloggers, that’s something we want to avoid, writing about shows with only a basic level of appreciation or understanding?

    1. Keep in mind the question is not whose matters at all, but whose matters *more*. I believe a really good work will lead the audience to the "right" (can't put enough quotation marks around that) answer, or at least point them in the right direction. So those stories would not necessarily have their depth taken away, because the audience could have those same interpretations. I guess the question should have really been phrased like this: "Is it more important to focus only on trying to figure out what the author intended, or should we "go off the rail" (so to speak) and see what *we* think the story's about?"

      I mean, look at it this way. I assume you've at least heard of the Penguindrum colloquiums on A&V (I haven't read them all myself), so I'll use them because they're a good example. Suppose Ikuhara told us, "No, those are wrong. That isn't what I was trying to say at all. Penguindrum is only about the plot events." Would you believe him outright and forget all the interesting conclusions that gave the series and extra layer of depth? Now, I think that Emily and Vuc were pretty spot on most of the time, so this situation is very unlikely, but since when was there a rule that says the author *can't* be wrong? If you read my answers to my questions in the interrogation game, then you might remember that I said JJ2 had a lot of moments of transcendence. As much as I love the game, a part of me really doubts that they intended it to be anything more than a fun, challenging platformer. But it was for me. Should I deny that because it's not what the creators intended?

      Anyway, reigning in my rant a little, I do definitely agree that author intention matters at all. Understanding it can give us a good springboard to our own understanding of a story, and heck, a lot (even the *majority*) of the time, I prefer the author's interpretation, usually because it's the best one supported by the story. I just don't think the audience is necessarily *less* important because of that.

      I'm also not sure I believe that we would have any kind of *better* understanding of a story, because hey, most of the time it's not like the creator goes and publishes a pamphlet telling you exactly what everything means. It's the reviewers' job to unpackage a story and try to figure out what a story is trying to say. Whether its our own interpretation or the creator's, we have the same starting point. As you say, it would be un-preferable to write about something with only a basic understanding, but it's not like there's a guide we can go to before writing that tells us whether or not we're on the right track.

      All my passionate debating aside, though, I *am* still a little torn on this. As I said, I do feel that the creator's intention is right a lot or even most of the time, so couldn't I broaden that and say that the quantity means it is, in general, the most important? I don't know. The discussion I've gotten here has definitely helped me clarify the subject for myself, though, so...thank you for joining in!