Over at Vox, my friend Todd VanDerWerff has a good primer on the critical concept of authorial intent, the idea that what a creator of a work thinks about what they have put out into the world ought to guide our interpretation of it. The piece is inspired by two developments: first, the idea that “The Sopranos” creator David Chase has finally clarified the famously ambiguous ending of the show, and second an announcement about the identity of the cartoon character Hello Kitty.
These two cultural kerfuffles, though, are only the most recent pop perturbations that are about the gap between what authors say (or do not say — Chase has said his supposed statement about the end of “The Sopranos” was taken out of context) and what audiences feel like they have seen, read or heard. In a pop culture environment where creators are available on Twitter and the stages of fan conventions, audiences can demand statements of authorial intent more easily than ever before. And where it is routine for artists to dissect their work after it has aired on television or hit movie theaters, statements of authorial intent are everywhere.
So how are we supposed to deal with authorial intent? The answer is a particularly important one for this moment, when authorial intent is easier to discern than ever before and when cultural affinities and interpretations have become so important as to constitute identity categories.
I am all for respecting the basic facts of stories as they appear in the text. If J.K. Rowling writes a scene of Albus Dumbledore’s death, another of his funeral and a third that addresses her characters’ hopes that Dumbledore might still be alive and gives the same answer as before, it seems neither necessary nor interesting to try to prove her wrong.
But I think there is something odd about the demand that creators give their imprimatur to fans’ feelings, as if those reactions are not valid on their own, or if they will make dissenters go away. Even if David Chase really did definitively say that Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) did not die in the immediate aftermath of the final scene of “The Sopranos,” that would not shut up people who will believe the mobster got iced, nor should it. If Shonda Rhimes were to proclaim — as some fans seem to wish she would — that Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn), the adulterous couple at the heart of her political drama “Scandal,” were meant for each other, that would not override the evidence that she seems to be putting on screen week after week.
Rather than trying to resolve the unresolvable and aligning creators’ intentions with our own feelings, I think we ought to try to do something different: learn to live with ambiguous stories, and to embrace conflicts between authorial intent and our own interpretation.
The critic and cultural historian Jeet Heer took to Twitter last night to point readers to Northrop Frye’s “Anatomy of Criticism,” which lays out what Heer thinks is a good standard for how to regard authorial intent.
“The poet may of course have some critical ability of his own, and so be able to talk about his own work. But the Dante who writes a commentary on the first canto of the Paradiso is merely one more of Dante’s critics,” Frye wrote. “What he says has a peculiar interest, but not a peculiar authority.”
To flesh this out a bit, I think authorial intent is interesting precisely because it sets up a particular space for inquiry. The gap between what an author believes he or she has communicated and what audiences take away from a work can be a way to measure how clearly or effectively a creator executed on his or her intentions. Even if we are not using authorial intent to measure whether a work is good or bad, it can be a fascinating test of what creators think constitutes a well-developed female character, a searing look into the misogynist mind or even a sexual assault.
For example, this spring an episode of “Game of Thrones” included a scene where a woman repeatedly said “no,” even as her brother forced himself on her sexually. The director of the episode, Alex Graves, said of the scene, “It becomes consensual by the end, because anything for them ultimately results in a turn-on, especially a power struggle.” I, and a whole lot of other people, do not think that Graves actually communicated that transition in the scene.
One way to read the gap between his understanding and ours is that he failed in his job as someone who is supposed to capture complex emotions on screen. Another is that some people think that saying “no” does not mean that a woman is refusing consent to sex. Both of these things are valuable to know.
Similarly, there is something fascinating about “True Detective” creator Nic Pizzolatto’s ongoing tantrum about critics who found themselves bored by the first season’s marginal, stereotypical treatment of women.
“The first season, he argues, was conceived as a close point-of-view show, wholly told through the eyes and experiences of the two male characters,” wrote Lacey Rose in the Hollywood Reporter. ” ‘You can either accept that about the show or not, but it’s not a phony excuse,’ he says, unable to hide his frustration.”
There is a third option, though. It is entirely possible to think that the first season of “True Detective” was meant to be about the perspectives of these two men and still be bored or frustrated by the ways in which those perspectives felt duplicative of previous efforts, or the squishy spiritual revelation at which those men eventually arrived. If Pizzolatto thinks he produced a searing portrait of limited men, that is interesting because it tells us what he thinks counts as sophisticated insight and analysis, but nobody is required to agree with his interpretation.
Tony Soprano can be Schrodinger’s mobster, alive and dead at the same time. Alex Graves can think he shot a kinky sex scene at the same time that I thought I saw a rape. This state of interpretation is unnerving. But it is true to the way we live, and not only in the realm of culture.