In "Questions of Intent," from his recent book Where the Southern Cross the Yellow Dog, Louis Rubin asserts:
It is all very well, when disputes about an author's intentions arise, to insist that it is the written-down story that should command our attention as readers, and that questions about what the author may have intended to do, what his literary models may have been, or what may have been going on in his personal life or that of his community at the time ought not make the least difference to us.
Why, however, go to hear novelists give readings and talk about their work? Why do they wish to know what kind of person it is who wrote the fiction? What can account for their interest in the creative process that produced it? Why are literary biographies written and published, and why do readers buy and read them? Is no more than idle curiosity involved?
I think not. Certainly the story itself is where everything begins (and, ultimately, ends) for the reader. What happens, however, is that readers of fiction, caught up in the telling of a tale, are drawn into the imaginative orbit of the teller. They become interested in how and why the author wrote what they have been reading. Assuredly the reader of a good novel is no purist. The literary theorist, like the passionate trout fisherman discoursing upon the presentation of artificial flies, may hold forth on what is and is not the proper way to go about reading a novel, yet the very nature of the fictional imagination itself invites complicated response. For just that reason, authorial intentions become of interest to us.
I am generally an admirer of Louis Rubin (especially for his book The Comic Imagination in American Literature and for his efforts as founding publisher of Algonquin Books), but this passage proceeds upon so many false assumptions and reaches so many flawed conclusions (in addition to raising many of the questions with which this blog has been especially preoccupied) that it's all but impossible for me to resist commenting on them. In the process, perhaps I will additionally clarify the underlying assumptions about literature that inform many of my own posts here at The Reading Experience.
First of all, I have never really understood why it is that "disputes about an author's intentions arise" in the first place. In some instances such disputes can indeed be easily resolved (ask the author, or read what he/she had to say on the subject), but no doubt Rubin has in mind those that can't be--the author is long dead and made no comments about intent in particular cases. Yet, in neither situation does it seem to me important to know the author's intentions, beyond knowing that he/she considered this compostion to be a poem, that one a work of fiction, etc. Once the work has gone out into the world as a poem, a novel, a play, how it is to be understood or interpreted is out of the author's hands, and that is a good thing, both for readers and, ultimately, for the work itself. It may be of interest to know that a writer hoped to accomplish a certain goal in composing this work, to treat an especially urgent theme or explore a specific idea, but if subsequent readers' interpretations are to be constrained by these intentions, held to account by their fidelity to them, the work in question no longer really invites close reading: Just tell me what the writer meant to say and save me the time and effort required to read it.
Rubin's phrasing is in addition rather peculiar: "It is all very well. . .to insist that it is the written-down story that should command our attention as readers". Written-down story? This seems to me a rather awkward attempt at minimizing the differences between literary texts and orally-related stories and thus to secure for the former some of the authority that does indeed belong to the oral storyteller. Because the latter remains present, and is able to exploit the resources of tone and gesture, he/she does have a firmer claim on "intention," while the writer has to settle for his disembodied words becoming fixed to the page. But precisely because they are disembodied, the writer's words are inevitably subject to the interpretive efforts of readers who do not regard themselves as the passive vessels of the author's intent, especially since that intent is usually only obscurely apparent in the first place. Writing down stories is what brings readers into existence, so why negate the significance of this act by dwelling on authorial intent?
In enumerating the possible areas of inquiry one might pursue "outside the text," Rubin unfortunately confuses some perfectly good ones with others that are of extremely dubious value. What a writer's "literary models may have been" is a potentially very useful thing to know, since this may have a very direct bearing on the text at hand, influencing both its form and its statement of theme, while "wondering what may have been going on in his personal life" takes us away from the text and focuses our attention instead on gossip, just as an "interest in the creative process" might enrich our appreciation of particular strategies or techniques as they manifest themselves in the work, while wishing "to know what kind of person it is who wrote the fiction" diverts us into hearsay and frivolous speculation that has more to do with tabloid journalism than with literature. Sometimes literary biographies are written by people with a genuine interest in such things as literary models and the creative process, who produce books that offer valuable insights into the literary work of the writers featured, but I'm afraid that most readers buy and read biographies as a way of avoiding deeper enagement with that work, at worst as a way of indulging our taste for gossip.
Rubin is half right when he claims that "readers of fiction, caught up in the telling of a tale, are drawn into the imaginative orbit of the teller." Surely we are caught up in what could be called an "imaginative orbit," a fictional world evoked by the writer, but if by "teller" Rubin means the biographical author him/herself, then I think he is encouraging an inattentive and oversimplified view of what reading fiction is like. The "teller" (in a 3rd person narrative--1st person narration makes Rubin's account seem only more inadequate) in a work of fiction is just as much a character--just as much a fiction--as any of the more obviously identified kind. It is a construct the author has created to get the story told, although more precisely it is a character evoked by the habits of language the author has given it. It is not the author. How could it be, since, again, a work of fiction is a text, an artificial arrangement of words on a page, not a recitation by an actual person fully present to his/her listeners? And, speaking for myself at least, I may ultimately become interested in "how and why the author wrote what [I] have been reading" (if by "how" is meant how the work itself is structured or how its story is related), but not while I am reading a work for the first time or if "why" means digging around into the author's purely personal circumstances.
It may indeed be true that most readers are not "purists" (and that I probably am), and it is certainly true that "the very nature of the fictional imagination itself invites complicated responses." But I would argue that many readers might find their enjoyment of fiction actually enhanced if they allowed the complexities of "the fictional imagination itself" to play themselves out as part of a reading experience more attuned to the more "pure" possibilities of fiction as an aesthetic medium rather than closing off those possibilities in favor of biographical or sociological speculation. The latter does not so much "complicate" our response as readers as divert our attention away from the exigencies of reading. Since Rubin himself goes on in this essay to warn against taking the author's projected image too seriously (in particular using Hemingway as an example), it is difficult to understand why he would lend respectability to a reading practice that continues to direct our attention to that image in the first place.
NOTE: Jonathan Mayhew has just posted on this subject as well, concluding that "the process of creating any work of art is too complex, involving too many levels of intentionalilty and the surrender of intentionality, for it to be meaningful to talk about the intention of a work as a single entity."