Intentional fallacy

A common post I see on many writers’ blogs is about getting bad reviews for their work. To their credit, these posters nearly always take their licks and acknowledge that sometimes bad reviews happen. But at some point they usually come around to noting that the critic “just didn’t get it” about the meaning of the work. That seems specious to me.

First of all, if the critic didn’t “get” the writer’s point, then could it be that the writer didn’t do a very good job of making the point? Or could it be that the point wasn’t very good to begin with?

What I think is more important, though, is that the writer’s point is hardly any standard by which to judge a piece of fiction, except maybe the most commercial and ephemeral kind.

In the field of literary criticism there is a widely held school of thought that says the writer’s intention is not only not available to the reader but it is not important to the reading. The work becomes free of the author at the moment of publication. The author’s “meaning” for the work is no more important than the meaning you or I give the work because the work has become an individual experience for each person who reads it.

That can mean that I read a novel and find a compelling love story between two credible characters while you read the same novel and identify the parallels with the historical or cultural currents of the age the story is set in. Another reader can find it maudlin and pretentious. And so on. The point is that it hardly matters what the author may have intended; the work become the property of each person who reads it. No one reading of it is “correct” or even “best.”

And so when a writer complains that a critic “just didn’t get it,” I have to ask what the “it” is that the writer thinks is being overlooked and why “it” is the only standard by which to judge the work. The critic has brought his or her own insight and experience to the reading, and for that critic (and perhaps those who give credence to the critic) the story did not stand well on its own merits. If the writer comes chasing after the critic saying “No, no, it’s all about the ennui of the age and the indifference of the universe,” well, that’s just sad and embarrassing.

I would much rather read a work of which I have no pre-conceptions so that I can relish my own understanding of it. (As an aside, I’ve often wondered how many best selling authors could get past agents and editors if they had to submit their works anonymously.) I guess that’s why I’m always trying out new and unfamiliar works. I’ve found some gems that way, but don’t listen to me. That’s merely my experience. Your results may vary.

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