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Reaction to an author's essay leads to some thoughts about intention in writing.

Intentions: Good and Otherwise

A week ago I wrote an essay, "A Most Modest Proposal," that I intended to be (note the allusion in the title) satire, and I thought when I had finished that it actually was satire, in fact very good satire indeed. The article suggested that one good solution to the brouhaha over same-sex marriage would be to get rid of the word marriage: that the problem was simply a question of semantics and could be easily solved linguistically.

The editor's response when he looked at it was that he felt the proposal was indeed modest and perhaps even serious. Moreover, he didn't find the piece particularly funny. Leaving aside the problem of whether there is some necessary relationship between humor and satire, as well as the question of who finds what funny, I decided that although I may have intended to write satire, if my reader didn't see satire, there was a problem. In the end, I decided to change my "satire" to "opinion" and let readers decide what they were reading.

The article was published and elicited several comments. One commenter questioned the allusion in the title, after another commenter had (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) suggested that the proposal might well have been a good idea. I responded — perhaps inconsistently given the point I am going to try to make in what follows — that I in fact had intended satire, but had acceded to an editorial suggestion. Then the other day another commenter wanted to know what it was I had intended to satirize. Clearly, if this reader couldn't tell where the satire was directed, there was a problem, and I should have kept my big mouth shut.

However, since some tricks are never learned by old dogs, once more into the breach:

Back in the middle of the last century, when the dominant critical stance informing the study of literature was something called New Criticism, it was fashionable to assert that the only thing that should concern the critic as well as the reader of a work of literature, indeed any piece of writing, was the work itself. This was in reaction to a lengthy period in which criticism was concerned with such things as the time in which the work was written, the impressions the readers reaped form the work, and indeed, most important to the present discussion, everything one could gather about the author of the work, his life, his psychological make-up, and all of the other things he'd written. The New Critics pointed out that none of these concerns, although they may have been interesting topics of investigation in and of themselves, was really relevant to understanding the work of literature or making judgments about it. The only relevant concern was the analysis of the work itself.

One of the classic and most influential essays of this period was William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley's "The Intentional Fallacy." Essentially, the thesis of the essay is that despite what an author may have intended in a given piece of writing, the only important thing is what he did. A writer may well have intended one thing but actually accomplished something quite different. A lack of skill may have subverted his intention. I may intend to paint a horse, but, given my drawing abilities, it is not likely that anyone would recognize anything I could draw as anything remotely resembling Citation. He may have intended to do one thing and done other things as well. Henry James said of The Turn of the Screw that he was trying to write the best ghost story ever written; many readers have found that while he may well have done that, he also managed to do something else, something perhaps even more important and more interesting.

A writer's subconscious may affect what he produces. Again an example from art: Norman Mailer in his book on Picasso quotes the artist as saying: "The picture comes to me from far away. Who can say how far away? I have guessed it, seen it, done it, and yet the next day I myself cannot see what I've done. How can one…grasp what I may have put in in spite of my own will." Robert Browning said that "only God and I knew what it meant when I wrote it, now only God knows."

In effect, Wimsatt and Beardsley make a very convincing case for the idea that while the writer may well be the best judge of what he intended to do, he is not necessarily the best judge of what he has actually done. After all, knowing what he meant to do may well color significantly what he sees in the final product. People do tend to see what they want to see. The writer is not in any sense the most objective of observers.

In the end, it is the work, the New Critics conclude, that must speak for itself; the text on the page is the author's intention made manifest. It must speak for itself; the author cannot speak for it. And though modern literary theory has gone in new directions, and the New Critics are no longer held in the highest repute, to those of us geezers who studied back in the dark ages they still have their appeal. So then, back to my "satire" on same-sex marriage: while I know full well what I intended, the comments of those who took the trouble to read it suggest that I may not have had the foggiest notion of what I produced.

About Jack Goodstein

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