Is The Author Dead In Your Classroom?

When an undergraduate professor assigned Roland Barthes and told me, “The Author Is Dead,”1 I heard with elation the clarion cry of burgeoning self-importance. I was no longer a measly high school student who naively derived literature’s meaning from the author’s personal psychology. No, no, I was a college student now and could refer to The Text as Ding an sich. In fact, by interpreting it, I was basically writing the darn thing! Reborn as a liberated reader, I ultimately heeded the call to become a literary critic myself.

In my first two years as a graduate student teaching at UCLA, I thoroughly enjoyed murdering the author for the benefit of my students (so I thought). I recognized the glow in many faces, which had once beamed from mine. I patted myself on the back for being (dare I say it?) like Wordsworth and Helen Vendler — “What we have loved, Others will love, and we will teach them how.”2 More importantly, the students who appeared most excited by the death of the author were the ones who produced the best papers. You know, papers that actually presented an original argument (not simply regurgitating what I said in lecture) grounded in extended analyses of formal literary devices. On the other end of the spectrum, a species of bad papers that I was particularly loath to receive were ones that Romantically psychologized the author to interpret his or her work. My least favorite: Byron’s personal fear of the dark explains the terror of “Darkness.” Ugh!

To crystallize the “good” practice of interpretation without heeding the author, I insisted students write about “the speaker” rather than the poet, and “the narrator” rather than the novelist. I thought I was training my students in an undisputed convention of our field….

Then I read John Farrell’s The Varieties of Authorial Intention: Literary Theory Beyond the Intentional Fallacy,3 which came out earlier this year. I hated to admit it, but I immediately recognized the need to reassess my teaching practices. 

I highly recommend you peruse The Varieties of Authorial Intention (and I promise you’ll actually enjoy reading the beautifully articulated, logically organized, and blessedly concise prose style). Farrell’s aim is to bring the author back into critical conversations. His main point is straightforward: it is the author’s intention that allows us to recognize a text as a work of art. “[T]o think of a literary work as a mere text,” argues Farrell, “is to neglect its impact and value as a human gesture made in a concrete historical situation toward a potentially identifiable audience.”4 Elegantly weaving between historicism and New Criticism,  Farrell is keen to emphasize “that a text’s need for intentional grounding does not mean that evidence about intentions outside the text of an utterance must play a key epistemic role in literary interpretation.”5 Besides the polemical claim for intentionality, the scintillating close readings of a vast array of texts (my favorites analyze Pride and Prejudice, Through the Looking Glass, and Emily Dickinson’s “Success is counted sweetest”) are the most impressive and delightful characteristic of this book.

Farrell differentiates the monolith of Authorial Intention into three varieties: communicative, artistic, and practical intent.

The author’s communicative intention is what exactly he or she means by the words and sentences in a work: “If the reader can understand the sentences of a literary work in their local context, the symbolic dimensions of the work, and what the point of the whole roughly seems to be, then the author’s communicative intentions have succeeded.”6 So, step one is recognizing that an author intentionally wrote words on a page to communicate something. Step two is understanding the language itself.

Only by comprehending the meaning of the words can we then assess the artistic intention, which refers to “the authors’ attempts to provide a valuable reading experience by creating literary effects—to move, amuse, perplex, inspire, instruct, or infuriate the reader using all means at hand—verbal skill, mastery of structure, imagery, metaphor, narrative forms and genres, or the flouting of any of these.”7 Evaluations of artistic intention, unlike communicative intention, do not succumb to the author’s authority. Even when we grasp the communicative intention, the artistic intention can fail. Think of it in this everyday scenario: someone tells a joke and you understand the words (the communicative intention), but you just don’t find it funny. Although you recognize the joker’s artistic intention to be funny, you’re still not moved to laugh.   

Finally, practical intentions are what motivate the composition of a work: “to impress others, give them pleasure, earn a living, gain status, sexual opportunities, the power to influence opinion, change the world, or keep the world the same.”8 The key point here is that practical intentions do not change the meaning of a work. They might change our attitude toward it, but they do not changed the communicative intention.

I surely can’t do justice to the richly textured debates examined in The Varieties of Authorial Intention. But I hope this post motivates you to reconsider the role of the author in your teaching practice. Perhaps it will impact your research as well, but I think the classroom is where the author is consistently and most egregiously exterminated. How might we guide students to evaluate, or at least consider, the varieties of authorial intention, while still meticulously and incisively analyzing language and form like Farrell does?

Here’s the easy experiment I’m going to try in my own classroom. I’ll select a passage or a chapter from the reading and begin class by asking the students to write for a few minutes: What happened in this selection? Then explain that their responses (which are hopefully all similar) reflect the author’s communicative intention, and I’ll quickly explain what that is in a little more detail. Next, I’ll ask, “Ok, what’s the artistic intention of this selection, and, in your opinion, did the author succeed or fail?” I’ll optimistically envision that this opens up a ripe debate that draws our attention to the literary devices that make the text artistic (keep your fingers crossed for me). Finally, I’d conclude the exercise by giving a micro-lecture explaining the practical intention behind the work (like if we were reading Frankenstein, I would alert them to Mary Shelley’s 1831 preface about the scary story contest on that rainy night at Lake Geneva, in addition to, as Ellen Moers points out in Literary Women, her fraught experiences with childbirth9). Then I would ask, “How does this information affect your attitude toward the novel?” And follow up with, “How has the reception and representation of Frankenstein over the past two centuries impacted your attitude toward the original novel?”

At the very least, I think this practice of differentiating between the varieties of authorial intention in the classroom could reduce those bad biographical papers and help students to more critically analyze their biases towards a text based on its practical intentions and impact over time. Identifying artistic intentions can be the jumping off point for deeper conversations about the most important points of analysis in an undergraduate English class: form, structure, syntax, diction, imagery, metaphor, and all those other wonderful literary devices.

Please share your thoughts! Are you convinced (or, at least, interested) by the intentional argument? Have you tried this in your classroom?

[1] See Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill & Wang, 1977). 

[2] See Helen Vendler, “What We Have Loved, Others Will Love,” in Falling Into Theory, ed. David H. Richter (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000), 31.

[3] John Farrell, The Varieties of Authorial Intention: Literary Theory Beyond the Intentional Fallacy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

[4] Farrell, 10.

[5] Farrell, 31.

[6] Farrell, 37.

[7] Farrell, 39.

[8] Farrell, 38.

[9] See Ellen Moers, Literary Women (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976).

2 thoughts on “Is The Author Dead In Your Classroom?”

  1. Samantha, this is fabulous and for me a deeply important read.

    I’m just interested in hearing a bit more from you on the subject: I’m curious if you feel there are political contingencies (both historically, or perhaps with recourse to the contemporary) that might make authorial intention more or less important for the engagement of specific texts.

    In art history, this has been a matter of great contention, and predominately centered on identity politics. I’m thinking especially of work in feminist 19th-century art history, and that of S. Hollis Clayson.

    For instance, just as the work of women artists was being excavated in 1960s and 1970s in more radical scholarship within the discipline, Barthes came along with the concept of authorial death and to some degree (though largely successfully resisted, we now have Mary Cassatt beside Claude Monet) foreclosed that particularly gendered critical revisionist possibility.

    Do you feel that there’s been a similar or different vector involved in authorial intentionality in English studies?

    1. Jake, I’m glad you found this useful, and I really appreciate how you’ve pointed out the political stakes of this debate. I didn’t realize Barthes’s argument rippled beyond literary criticism into art history; very interesting!

      I specialize in Gothic literature, which, as a field of study, owes a great deal to feminist revisionism. Ellen Moers, for example, who I reference in the article, coined the idea of the “female Gothic” in 1976, which basically refers to any Gothic novel written by a woman. Female vs male Gothic was a mainstay of critical discussions for the next two decades. So, an interest in the author and her intentions has been central to this field; however, Gothic studies have never been perceived as serious as, let’s say, research on Big 6 Romanticism or Victorian high realism. There are many reasons for this (a condescending attitude toward popular literature, for instance), but now I’m thinking the author-interest plays a part in that perception.

      Still, Gothic studies continue to grow and gain traction in literary criticism as a whole. This probably has a lot to do with the growth of historicism, which makes context more important (even though, Farrell points out, it treats the author’s intentions as the elephant in the room).

      I think the most important takeaway from Farrell’s book is that it is crucial to identify the author or artist’s communicative intentions (which is based on her identity and historical context). However, these intentions are not what make the work great, artistically speaking. It is navigating the relationship between historical/practical/ethical significance and aesthetic significance that I find most fascinating.

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