When I graduated with a degree in English, I thought I had left the endless acedemic debates about authorial intent
and reader response theory
behind. The text was the thing, and that seemed overwhelmingly obvious to me. The practical application of that theory served me well in my professional life.
But then I started blogging. Specifically, I started blogging about fat issues, fat activism, and body politics. And, oh, the interpretative tension that emerged!
To be super concise: The theory of authorial intent indicates that the true meaning of a text must take the author's intentions and motivations into account while reader response theory places the burden of interpretation on, as the name suggests, the reader. The principle relationship is between the reader and the text. The author, as Roland Barthes would say, is dead (well, Barthes would probably say a lot more but the tl;dr version is that the meaning of texts can only be seen through the lens of the reader — the birth of The Reader as an entity necessitates the death of The Author as the primary giver of meaning to a text.)
With a published text, like a book or a film, there is no supplemental discussion. George Lucas can give us alternate versions of Star Wars all he wants, but for anyone else? You're lucky to get a revised edition. So you'd better say what you mean and mean what you say, as the saying goes. Readers will engage with that text and you won't be there to give them links or cross things out or explain what you really meant.
But closed, finished texts like TV shows that don't exist anymore or completed works of art occupy a very different narrative place than a living document like a blog.
When I started blogging, my blog entries were more like static texts. But as readers turned into commenters and comments led to discussions, the blog became a very different place. A dialogue is a collaborative effort, after all. And because it is always changing, through more comments, through edits to the original post, through supplemental posts, blogs can be a very challenging text to view as a whole and analyze (should you feel so inclined).
That's when the idea of authorial intent reared its ugly head again for me. It played out every time someone asked for clarification or if I really meant x, y, or z as my main point. Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn't — but there was an opportunity to make it clear, the more fully say what I meant and mean what I said.
I was getting pretty comfortable with this. Living and evolving texts aren't always comfortable places to hang out but that's usually a good thing. There's a lot to learn in that sort of environment. As a writer, I particularly appreciate it — being called on your lazy writing is a bit of free editorial input directly from readers.
But a few months before the book was published, back in January, I started following an internet event called RaceFail09. (There are a couple of summaries here and here that are comprehensive sources for links for this ongoing event.) This whole thing grew out of a discussion of writing craft, out of a professional author forgetting that meaning is determined by readers, thinking her intent was enough to offset criticism. And as I have continued to read — and as the book was published — the tension between authorial intent and reader response theory has ratcheted higher.
You see, this new media/Web 2.0 thing requires a whole new way of negotiating bodies of works. The book that Kate and I wrote? Is a closed text. It exists in a form that is not likely to change (perhaps a 10th anniversary revised edition? *grin*). But our blogs are alive; the content that we provide and that commenters supplement changes every day.
That's where the clash comes in. As a writer, I can't expect readers to treat a closed text the same way they treat the blog. If a blog exists to facilitate discussion, a classroom where we all sit in a circle and speak about a topic, a book exists as a lecture hall where one person (or, you know, two people) speak about that topic while other people take notes. It's two different performative kinds of authority. As more authors become more accessible through blogs and appearances, readers have unprecedented access to conversations with them, which means more opportunities to ask and call to task.
Authors need to keep this in mind. Blogs aren't static texts. Your words will — and should — be challenged if someone has a question. You can't treat a blog discussion the same way you treat an article about your book. I can't forget that the person who picks up my book has only that text, only those words. I can't forget that blogging is a lot more open, a lot more directly connected to the reader. And the book that Kate and I wrote is fair game in these blog discussions.
That can be a difficult pill to swallow, from a writer's personal perspective. To accept our own metaphorical deaths? I mean, where's the fun in that? How do we negotiate that in the face of a closed text while existing as a living writer in a place like a blog? Once a book is published, I don't think the author necessarily knows anything more about the real interpretative meaning of that text than the readers do. How can we balance that with the interactive posts where we share motivations and intent?
I want to say readers bear responsibility in this equation. But I don't know that they actually do, not any more than they have already taken on by reading and speaking to us. That seems like a pretty important role right there. And readers occupy their own difficult places — the accessibility of authors is double-edged. The insight provided by blogs, the chance to get to see more aspects of a writer as a person, can really ruin that author's works from an enjoyment standpoint. Reading an author's blog can be a real risk.
At the end of the day, at the end of this post, I don't know that there is a resolution to this tension. As writers, I think we need to inhabit this uncomfortable place and make it our own. In the immortal words of Tim Gunn, we need to make it work.
The interpretation game isn't limited to finished works anymore. That's really pretty powerful. And awesome.