Tony Christini observes of John Updike's first rule of reviewing ("Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt") that
Understanding what the author wished to do is necessary, of course, but just as enlightening is evaluating (not “blaming for”) the nature, quality, and context of the “wish,” and also evaluating the achievement and lack thereof. Updike would have reviewers close their eyes and zip their lips, where they should be keen of sight and articulate in illuminating the book and its context. . . .
By and large, I think Updike's rule is sound, although he mistakenly states it as a matter regarding what the author "intended," rather than as one involving what the work at hand actually does, what kind of text it finally is. The author may have intended this or may have intended that, but ulimately the critic can only report on the text itself, as it presents itself.
Tony magnifies Updike's misconception by agreeing that "Understanding what the author wished to do is necessary, of course." It isn't at all necessary to understand "what the author wished to do," unless this means simply the "intention" that can be gleaned from a careful reading of the text. ("The author clearly wished to challenge the conventions of plot by keeping all the important action offstage.") Tony suggests, however, that he doesn't intend "intention" to be confined to the implicit intentions revealed by the text when he notes further that evaluating the "wish" involves evaluating its "achievement." This makes it seem the author's "wish" is something stated prior to the "achievement" of the text (or at least made known at some point, through some kind of declaration), and the critic's task involves evaluating both the wish and its embodiment in the work under scrutiny.
I have no problem with the idea that criticism involves, at least in part, assessing a work of fiction or poetry for the way it carries out its inherent aesthetic intention. I have big problems with the idea that it involves bypassing the text and instead focusing on the "nature, quality, and context of the 'wish'" when that means identifying the author's ideas and beliefs as manifested in some direct statement of intent. (This could also amount to the critic him/herself taking the inherent "intention" and formulating it as an assertion of what the author clearly "meant to say.") I have especially big problems with this approach to criticism when it is devoted specifically to highlighting the political deficiencies of the "wish," which I assume, because of his straighforwardly announced commitment to political criticism, is the method of "illuminating the book and its context" Tony Christini has most in mind. At the very least, it is necessary from this perspective to be able to posit such a thing as the author's "intention," since otherwise only the most obviously polemical or otherwise inept fiction can be reduced to its putative political message.
A work of fiction either succeeds as a work of fiction, aesthetically compelling and free to insinuate "meaning" the author didn't intend but readers find apparent nevertheless, or it isn't. Appealing to the author's externally articulated "intention" can neither rescue a failed fiction from its flaws nor doom an otherwise rewarding work to the prison-house of the author's alleged ideological derelictions. Critics who refuse to "close their eyes and zip their lips" when it comes to such derelictions may or may not be advancing worthwhile political objectives, but they're not contributing anything of value to literature or to literary criticism. In most cases they're not even engaged in literary criticism. So I would amend Updike's rule: Try to perceive what the author's book has accomplished. Do not misperceive it as an artifact of the author's "intent." Judge it according to standards appropriate to the sort of thing it is, not to the sort of thing you'd like it to be.