Friday, July 26, 2019

The fun topic of authorial intent

I do enjoy the thinkers among us. Coming upon a thread by @vulgarweed on Twitter this morning I found some new insights on Conan Doyle and the whole issue of authorial intent, a topic which has bothered me since high school lit class.

I mean, do you remember the first time a teacher tried to tell you that the author wove in this whole under-the-surface theme based on single color or image? The whole "this is what the author was really saying" when it sure seemed like the author was just telling a story of what happened in the story?

Lately I've heard a few folks adamantly asserting that Conan Doyle was obviously a one-man Pride parade of the Victorian era and was pretty plainly bi. It can get a little extreme sometimes, and having spent my own life looking at Doyle sympathetically as a fellow romantic hetero, I will admit that occasionally I start seeing flashes of my old English teacher during those moments and doing a bit of a side-eye. But are they wrong?

@vulgarweed's recent Twiter-thread thoughts on authorial intent gave me some new angles that were much appreciated on the subject. Writing as a writer, @vulgarweed came up with the concept of "authorial surprise," when the writer themselves might not have been completely aware of what they were doing at the time they were doing it, but can see it later on.

That idea really struck a chord with my own Nanowrimo experiences, where jamming a novel out in a single month has you writing without thinking, just letting characters do what they'll do, and occasionally making sharp, veering turns for no reason. (One of my most odd Nanowrimo novels was a romantic comedy where the main character ditched the intended object of his affection for a different minor character midway through the novel -- a complete surprise to me!)  At the end of the month, I usually found that all of the rambling plotting all started to make a certain sense from a sort of aerial view, and that it was easy to bring that plane in for a landing after all.

But did I subconsciously intend for that to happen, or was it just my pattern-recognition skills kicking in once the mass of data was presented to me? We humans are excellent at making patterns out of random elements, as evidenced by the fact I can't stare into the dark without seeing something impossible lurking there every time. (I don't stare into the dark any more than I have to.)

Subconscious planning versus pattern-recognition is practically "nature versus nurture," the sort of debate that it's near-impossible to work out with complete certainty. Even a living, breathing, talking author, whose own brain a work came from, won't claim to understand everything about their own psyche. Surprises come out of our brains all the time. Every night, in fact, unless you're one of those poor souls who can't dream. The only difference between literary analysis and dream analysis is probably that authors have an editing phase to control what goes into the final work, where conscious decisions are definitely made.

Every person gets something different from any given work of art, including the creator. Trying to state what was going on in another person's brain during normal life is hard enough. (Anyone want to theorize about someone else's Starbuck's order?) Trying to do it around a creative moment is nigh impossible. But the attempt must be made, as it teaches us something about ourselves as much as the author.

@vulgarweed concludes with "And very often when an author says 'multiple interpretations are valid' that's not a cop-out, it is the literal truth." Some may have a strong desire to see their own views validated by a creator, but that need for validation is a completely different issue. (Even a creator might be seeking validation for thoughts they put out there.) But art, by its very nature, is something we all approach from our own angle. Accepting that Conan Doyle might have meant a whole lot of things, or maybe even nothing at all, in his creation of Sherlock Holmes, is a part of our Sherlockian journey that's up to each of us to figure out.

Just like whatever your interpretation of this blog post winds up being.

1 comment:

  1. A writer is, after all, only half his book. The other half is the reader and from the reader the writer learns. -P.L. Travers, author (9 Aug 1899-1996)