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Authorial intent - Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2006-07-19 11:45
Subject: Authorial intent
Security: Public
Tags:process, writing
Minipost now with more to follow, almost certainly. I'm still tugging on that genre device thing, the one I tried to reapproach through the not-so-popular analysis of naturalistic fiction and the conditions of narrative. Authorial intent seems to keep resurfacing in the discussion, mostly by implication. So now I am thinking on this spectrum:

1) Does authorial intent determine the nature of the work?
2) Does authorial intent (legitimately) influence the reader's experience of the work?
3) Is authorial intent even relevant at all to the reader's experience of the work?

In other words, is Rocket Science SF because I said it was, because I suggested it was, or because the reader thought it was?

I am well aware this is a situationalist sandtrap of Saharan proportions, but right now most of the roads of thought seem to lead there.
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mallory_blog: pic#47711025
User: mallory_blog
Date: 2006-07-19 19:02 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Once you are dead and dust - readers will be the sole arbiters of what you meant - because most won't read the 'stuff' you will leave around the work - so, while presently you are contributing to labeling - in the future, that will happen by others who have different ideas of what stuff is.

I think an author can and does INTEND lots of things - this doesn't mean they get it to the page. Intentions are illusions.
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User: marksiegal
Date: 2006-07-19 19:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'd say 2. Authorial intent matters, particularly in the case of intended satire, but it doesn't simply trump the experience of readers.
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User: shsilver
Date: 2006-07-19 19:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Rocket Science is science fiction because it has the word Rocket in the title.

Or perhasp because Damon Knight pointed to it and said, "That's science fiction.

In more seriousness, I think 1 and 2 play a strong role in it. Of course, I've been having an on-going "debate" with someone who thinks The Man Who Sold the Moon is alternate history because the world didn't turn out the way Heinlein described it.
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Elf M. Sternberg
User: elfs
Date: 2006-07-19 19:17 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I don't think authorial intent has much to do with the product. I'm reminded of a wirter who thought he was writing a farce, but ended up in the category "academic fiction" because that's what his publisher and his readers thought it was. I'm also reminded of Charlie Stross's observation that his SF is constantly shelved as "fantasy", his fantasy is shelved under "horror", and his horror gets shelved under "science fiction".

I think the last case is a special one, though. Charlie believes it's horror because in contains the classic horror element of uncanniness, but the inflictor of the same is an AI, not the supernatural. Although the outcome is experientially similar from the protagonists' point of view, I can see how the marketeers and the readers would have a different experience knowing the author does not intend (ah, there's a point) to depict our reality, the one the reader shares with the author, as subject to the whims of an evil force. We have a chance, so the thinking goes, in stopping an AI, it's just a machine (although try telling that to the Hard Liftoff people); we have no such chance against the Devil.
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User: yourbob
Date: 2006-07-19 19:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This morning I was reading Guy Kawasaki's "The Art of the Start" (It's mainly a business book, but it's got lessons applicable to most situations where you want to start something, whatever it is).

He's got a chapter on market positioning. He basically says, you can come up with your position, you can tell your employees where you want the thing positioned, you can yell it from the hilltops and repeat it until you're hoarse and the market will still tell you what your position really is.

It happen I agree with him there.

So I'm going with 3 with a non-overiding but important 2.
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Josh English
User: joshenglish
Date: 2006-07-19 19:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Based on the "writing is telepathy" that Stephen King talks about in On Writing, I'd go with number 3. Unfortuanately, it's impossible to control the reader entirely (wouldn't that be a nice bit of Spec Fic) so I can't claim this is a certainty.

What about books like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro? It wasn't marketed as science fiction, but I think it is science fiction. I don't know what Ishiguro thought of it, even though he wrote a book about clones.

There's also the difference between the business of writing, and the art of writing. The business side said Rocket Science was science fiction. But does the book conform to your (the authors) defintion of science fiction? Or the readers?

Douglas Adams wrote satire, but it's on a spaceship with aliens and robots, so it must be science fiction, right?
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A large duck
User: burger_eater
Date: 2006-07-19 20:14 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
In other words, is Rocket Science SF because I said it was, because I suggested it was, or because the reader thought it was?

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User: bram452
Date: 2006-07-19 20:43 (UTC)
Subject: Authorial intent as context
Context is important to the reader's impression of the work. Authorial intent can be an example of context if the reader is aware of it. So Rocket Science is SF because in the context of our culture "Rocket Science" seems like it belongs to the category "SF". Narnia became "Christian allegory" for me some years after it became "Fantasy" because I didn't get it the first time out.

Likewise, any work by Author X can be sexist crap because Author X goes to cons and badmouths any woman who won't sleep with him. Whether it's in the book or not, context affects the reader's experience. (I've had a couple folks I used to like who I can't read anymore on that kind of contextual basis.)

But I still thing you're running down the wong road here. Put me down for 3. And recall my initial thesis that genre doesn't actually exist; it's an artifact of play behavior and not amenable to any analysis that treats it as concrete or "real".
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2006-07-20 03:07 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Authorial intent as context
But I still thing you're running down the wong road here.

Actually, I kind of think so too. I'm still casting for the scent. I may come back to the genre device idea, with all this input firmly in mind.
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User: diaskeaus
Date: 2006-07-19 22:23 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
1. Yes.
2. Yes.
3. Yes.

It is very important. Not necessary, but very important.

(1) Without authorial intent, the piece has very little merit, because it was authorial intent that created it. You can't dismiss the creative force, otherwise there is no foundation to build your own interpretive force.

(2) A reader *can* get another meaning from a work. Dismissing that possibility is silly. But take the following example: "The Hollow is Open: where is the Cat?" A hundred different readers understand it to be different meanings, but all hundred readers understand that there is a "hollow" and it is "open" and there is a "cat." That was authorial intent. Perhaps this statement is too "DUH" but I think it is important. It's impossible to interpret a "hollow" as a sword or a stone (well, perhaps not impossible for some...).

(3) Yes, but not to a large extent. People will take what they want. After all, they are reading for self-benefit.
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Sherwood Smith
User: sartorias
Date: 2006-07-19 22:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think authorial intent discussions a waste of time, except in the context of critiquing.

Reader perception in your context.

I've seen way too many "What I meant was" authorial defenses, while thinking (or reading from others) "Phew, that is soooo not the book I read."
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2006-07-19 23:29 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think authorial intent discussions a waste of time, except in the context of critiquing.

Ya, that's kind of my instinct, too, but when I look at some of the other definitional paths I've been sniffing at lately, I keep getting pointed back to intent, pretty much against my own better judgment.

I'm not sure these questions have good answers (in fact, I'm pretty sure they don't), but I still find asking them to be valuable. And I love the comment threads of late.
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miki garrison
User: mikigarrison
Date: 2006-07-19 23:17 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
My two cents.

For me as a reader, my sense of a story's 'genre' is triggered by how it is written -- but I know that what triggers that sense can differ across readers. Once my inborn little genre-detector has locked onto something, though, it definitely affects my reading experience. If the first few pages have lit SF lights in my head, I'm going to respond to the material in the next chapter differently than I would if the first few pages hit some other genre for me. Even though the material is the same, my expectations are different, so the reading experience is different.

So if I pick up a book that says ROCKET SCIENCE on the cover, and has a skiffy looking cover design, and is in the SF section, and is written by someone I think of as a SF/F writer, then my expectations going into the book are affected by that. For me, though, my experience in reading those first few pages can completely overwhelm all of that -- and for me, I really wasn't thinking of ROCKET SCIENCE as SF by about the 2nd chapter in.

So from my perspective, authorial intent has some impact as far as genre and experience go, but only to the extent that it influences how the author writes out the story -- and even that impact is going to differ depending on the reader.
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Rose Fox
User: rosefox
Date: 2006-07-20 04:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
What is this "the nature of the work" you speak of, as though there were only one? *)
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User: hal_duncan
Date: 2006-07-20 16:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It depends if you're treating SF as a market category or an aesthetic form. If SF is just a label slapped on a book to position it in the marketplace then I'd say that ROCKET SCIENCE is SF because the publisher has decided it is. Authorial intent and reader experience are factors in their decision, but ultimately what matters most is whether more units will shift if you put it in the SF section. Actually the booksellers may be the ultimate arbiter here. Any bookshop that puts Orwell's 1984 in the SF section is stomping over authorial intent and (a huge proportion of non-genre) reader experience, and saying, fuck it, I can sell this as SF so it is SF.

But the latter idea -- SF as an aesthetic form -- seems to be more what you're pushing for in these recent threads. The question then becomes whether ROCKET SCIENCE being SF is a matter of conformity or consensus -- i.e. is that aesthetic form defined in terms of unchanging requirements (like, we can only really call a text a sonnet if it has 14 lines and a volte, because those characteristics are not up for discussion) or in terms of malleable conventions (like, we can call pretty much any text a poem, because we expect a poem to display certain characteristics, but those expectations are constantly redefined by the texts which are presented as poetry).

In the consensual/conventional model of genre, ROCKET SCIENCE is SF (for now) because those who participate in the decision-making -- the readers, writers and publishers -- are in agreement. It's only where the consensus breaks down that you have to decide who has the final say, author or reader. Would ROCKET SCIENCE not be SF if you didn't see it as SF, if you presented it as other-than-SF, or if the readers didn't see it as SF? Well, it's kinda just a matter of who wins the argument at the end of the day, and until the argument is won any statement is a decision rather than an description.

Imagine you take some chunk of prose and chop it into lines and declare it a poem. Some readers accept that this is a poem but other readers argue. This doesn't rhyme, they say. Poetry doesn't have to rhyme, you say. Yes, it does, they say. Other poets decide they agree with you and start doing similar non-rhyming poems. After a decade or so, the naysayers have no choice but to grudgingly accept that this non-rhyming stuff is still poetry.

The same with SF. Some New Wave writer comes along and does some weird-ass shit riffing off sociology rather than physics, calls it SF. The argument kicks off and when the dust finally settles you have a new consensus. Problem is, I think, this consensual/conventional model of genre is completely bollocksed up. There is no consensus. Instead we have a bunch of camps, let's call them scientistic fiction, scientific fancy, soul fiction, speculative fabulation, symbolic formulation... or whatever. Within each of these there's a consensus, but these camps are often deeply opposed to each other's definitions. Authorial intent and reader experience is often divided amongst these camps, so a reader of scientistic fiction, for example, might reject the authorial intent of a writer of scientific fancy. That's not Science Fiction, they say, it's Fantasy... and by their definition this is true. But the readers of scientific fancy may beg to differ. The end result? The Gordian Knot of SF considered as an aesthetic form is simply cut by the publishers and booksellers, who side-step the argument entirely and just impose their own notion of SF as a marketing label.
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User: hal_duncan
Date: 2006-07-20 16:41 (UTC)
Subject: ... contd.
So... I sense that you're looking for formal characteristics that are more objective, like the striuctural requirements of the sonnet-form rather than the shifting conventions of poetry, right? If these exist (and I think they do, and that you're looking in the right place), then authorial intent and reader experience are not terribly relevant. It doesn't matter if you meant to write a sonnet, if the poem is in that form then it's a sonnet. It doesn't matter if a reader has never heard of sonnets, doesn't know he's reading one, and simply thinks of it as a "poem"; it's still a sonnet. Hell, even if the writer has never heard of sonnets and doesn't know he's writing one, if it has fourteen lines and a volte, if it fits the aesthetic form, then it's a sonnet.
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catsparx: hula
User: catsparx
Date: 2006-07-26 12:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I reckon Rocket Science is SF because it has an alien space ship in it. You can label it anything you like -- the space ship is still gonna be there.
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