Why Literature Professors Turned Against Authors — Or Did They?

The intentions of authors still matter, no matter what the critics say.

Why Literature Professors Turned Against Authors — Or Did They?

SINCE THE 1940s among professors of literature, attributing significance to authors’ intentions has been taboo and déclassé. The phrase literary work, which implies a worker, has been replaced in scholarly practice — and in the classroom — by the clean, crisp syllable text, referring to nothing more than simple words on the page. Since these are all we have access to, the argument goes, speculations about what the author meant can only be a distraction. Thus, texts replaced authors as the privileged objects of scholarly knowledge, and the performance of critical operations on texts became essential to the scholar’s identity. In 1967, the French critic Roland Barthes tried to cement this arrangement by declaring once and for all the “Death of the Author,” adding literary creators to the long list of artifacts that have been dissolved in modernity’s skeptical acids. Authors, Barthes argued, have followed God, the heliocentric universe, and (he hoped) the middle class into oblivion. Michel Foucault soon added the category of “the human” to the list of soon-to-be-extinct species.

Barthes also saw a bright side in the death of the author: it signaled the “birth of the reader,” a new source of meaning for the text, which readers would provide themselves. But the inventive readers who could replace the author’s ingenuity with their own never actually materialized. Instead, scholarly readers, deprived of the author as the traditional source of meaning, adopted a battery of new theories to make sense of the orphaned text. So what Barthes’s clever slogan really fixed in place was the reign in literary studies of Theory-with-a-capital-T. Armed with various theoretical instruments — structuralism, psychoanalysis, Marxism, to name just a few — critics could now pierce the verbal surface of the text to find hidden meanings and purposes unknown to those who created them.

But authorship and authorial intention have proven not so easy to dispose of. The most superficial survey of literary studies will show that authors remain a constant point of reference. The texts upon which theoretically informed readers perform their operations continue for the most part to be edited with the authors’ intentions in mind, and scholars continue to have recourse to background information about authors’ artistic intentions, as revealed in public pronouncements, private papers, and letters, though they do so with ritual apologies for committing the “intentional fallacy.” Politically minded critics, of which there are many, cannot avoid authors and their intended projects. And this is just a hint of the author’s continuing presence. All the while, it goes without saying, scholars continue to insist on their own authorial privileges, highlighting the originality of their insights while duly recording their debts to others. They take the clarity and stability of meaning in their own works as desirable achievements while, in the works created by their subjects, these qualities are presumed to be threats to the freedom of the reader.

Fortunately or unfortunately, it is impossible to get rid of authors entirely because the signs that constitute language are arbitrarily chosen and have no significance apart from their use. The dictionary meanings of words are only potentially meaningful until they are actually employed in a context defined by the relation between author and audience. So how did it happen that professors of literature came to renounce authors and their intentions in favor of a way of thinking — or at least a way of talking — that is without historical precedent, has scant philosophical support, and is to most ordinary readers not only counterintuitive but practically incomprehensible?

The question would take a volume to answer, but any sketch, like the one I offer here, would have to begin by admitting that authors certainly had it coming. In modern culture — specifically, since the late 18th century — authors acquired a status and importance that was entirely new. For the most part, authors of the past, like other artists, relied for the content of their works upon familiar stories and publicly accepted truths. In the European West, that meant the truths of the Christian religion and of classical, aristocratic culture. Literature was always a servant, never a master. Its messages and meanings were not in doubt and did not depend upon the author alone, though many authors — Dante and Milton come especially to mind — approached inherited truths with the boldness of personal insight. Their grand vernacular works signaled a growing rupture in the Christian consensus.

It was, of course, traditional for religious authors to invoke divine inspiration, but this only marked the author’s secondary role as the mere vehicle of higher intentions. When the consensus about those intentions gradually dissolved between the 16th and 18th centuries, authors were cast adrift from their higher authorities, but they benefited from the very forces that signaled the change — individualism in all its manifestations, the rise of Lockean empiricism, which privileged immediate experience over metaphysical insight or tradition, and the emergence of a middle-class audience of literate consumers. Freed from the encumbrances of church and patron, authors could address a general audience directly in print. Authorship became a profession, and authors became the beneficiaries and privileged observers of the new freedom of modern life, while inventing a great literary form, the novel, to express it. Poets were slower to react to the new conditions, but eventually they found an untapped source of moral authority and wisdom in Nature, to which their poetry could give vibrant expression.

Once the natural world and the life of individuals in society replaced traditional truth as the source of literary meaning, novelists and poets found themselves in a remarkably elevated position. It became the very definition of the artist to be closer to the key elements of experience — Nature and Life. Divine faculties like creativity, vision, inspiration, and the power to create living symbols now became the possessions of individual writers. In America, Ralph Waldo Emerson took this doctrine to its extreme. When the poet, he writes, takes up the

great public power on which he can draw, by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors, and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him: then is he caught up into the life of the Universe, his speech is thunder, his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible as the plants and animals.

The elevation of the literary author as the great purveyor of experience had profound effects. Now the past history of literature could be read as the production of superior souls speaking from their own experience. In the minds of Victorian readers, for example, understanding the works of Shakespeare involved following the poet’s personal spiritual and psychological journey, beginning with the bravery of the early histories and the wit of the early comedies, turning in mid-career to the visceral disgust with life evinced in the great tragedies, and arriving, finally, at the high plane of detachment and acceptance that comes into view in the late romances. Not the cause of Hamlet’s suicidal musings but the cause of Shakespeare’s own disillusionment — that was the question that troubled the 19th century. This obsession with Shakespeare’s great soul was wonderfully mocked by James Joyce in the library chapter of Ulysses.

It was not only literary history that could be reinterpreted in the heroic manner. For the boldest advocates of Romantic imagination, all of history became comprehensible now through the biographies of the great men who made it. Poets like Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Milton were no longer spokesmen for their cultures but its creators; as Percy Shelley famously put it, poets were the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” To be a Romantic poet was to enroll in this prophetic company, which included spiritual giants like Buddha, Socrates, and Jesus, the imaginative men who set the vocabulary and meaning for the rest of us. Emerson and Nietzsche brilliantly embroidered the theme; a Freudian variant of it was still being championed in recent decades by Harold Bloom.

Unfortunately, the role of legislator, increasingly acknowledged and increasingly demanding, was a tall one for authors to live up to. Even Life and Nature as sources of experience turned out to be limited resources for the artist because experience, in order to be interesting, demands novelty. The traditional accounts of truth offered by religion and philosophy made severe demands on the reader; they were inherently inexhaustible and subject to endless repetition. Modern accounts of experience, on the other hand, are simply consumed and thereby exhausted. This consumption thus requires endless new products, new horizons. So modern literary authors found themselves in competition with each other for novelties of experience. By the late 19th century, they were reaching for more and more extreme sources of inspiration — insanity, perversity, intoxication — and moving into the less explored regions of the world — the colonies — in search of variety and adventure.

With the increasing pessimism and skepticism of the late 19th century, the most scrupulous authors were struggling to impose meaningful shape on experience; as a result, they felt compelled to make the very problem of storytelling a central concern. Another artistic strategy was to leave the rendering of Life to more popular authors while pursuing artistic experiments that would appeal to a literary elite. The French Symbolists took refuge in the eccentricity of private or mystic symbolism, while the practitioners of “art for art’s sake” stressed style and form as substitutes for meaning. “Life imitates Art more than Art imitates Life,” Oscar Wilde decreed, giving a last salute to the legislator-poet while pulling the rug out with the caveat that “Art expresses nothing but itself.”

So, to return to the “Death of the Author,” not only did authors have it coming; they largely enacted their own death by making the renunciation of meaning — or even speech — a privileged literary maneuver. They set themselves above the vulgar garrulity of traditional forms to pursue subtle but evanescent sensations in an almost priestly atmosphere. Not all artists, of course, took this path. At the same time that Gustave Flaubert was downgrading the subject matter of literature to the status of a mere excuse for style, Fyodor Dostoyevsky was developing the realistic novel to its fullest polemical potential. But the avant-garde of the future would see itself in Flaubert and the Symbolists more than in the realistic works of Dostoyevsky, Dickens, or Zola, and it was the former conception of literature that would hold weight for literary critics in the 20th century. This was especially true of poetry critics, the most influential being T. S. Eliot.

Eliot took his turn at deflating the legislator-poet. “Poetry,” he wrote, “is a superior amusement.” At the same time, he offered a new and grand image of the poet as participating in the creation of an “ideal order” of masterpieces, a “tradition” held together not by a common doctrine but by a certain rightness of feeling achieved by the suppression of self. The poet’s job, according to Eliot, was not to express his own personality but to find in words an “objective correlative” for the feelings demanded by the work. Poetry is not an expression of but an “escape from personality.” Its quality is due not to the intensity of the poet’s emotions but to the intensity of the artistic process. What moves us in poetry is not ideas, not meanings, but words properly chosen for an artistic end. In Eliot’s formulation, the great soul of the Romantic legislator-poet is replaced by an impersonal craftsmanship of verbal impressions.

The poetic form in which Eliot expressed his impersonality set a further challenge to the familiar stance of the author. In the dense collage of The Waste Land, he broke the authorial “I” into multiple voices floating unsteadily among borrowed words. It was as if the broken fragments of Eliot’s tradition were speaking all at once. Beneath this texture of suggestion, of course, the myth of the Grail Quest loomed as a structuring metaphor. Meaning was by no means banished, but it had become elusive, with an epicenter buried deep underground. Here the story takes an interesting turn because the implantation of a mythic substrate under the surface of The Waste Land — a method borrowed from Ulysses — was itself indebted to psychoanalysis, the glamorous new psychology of the time.

Psychoanalysis gave a new lease to authorial biography and provided a new stance toward authors. Instead of viewing artistic works in the Romantic manner, as the exhalations of great souls, psychoanalysis claimed to uncover in them an array of incestuous and aggressive fantasies, the disguised symptoms of neurosis and childhood trauma. It should not be forgotten that Freud originally introduced his theory of the Oedipus complex in an act of literary criticism directed at Hamlet — the quintessential great soul — whose problem turned out to be not that he was too good for this world, as Romantic readers believed, but that he was struggling with hidden incestuous desires. Psychoanalysis thus offered a way of continuing the modern obsession with biography while inverting its stance from hero-worshipping to unmasking. No wonder the great modernists like Joyce, Eliot, and Lawrence were so hostile toward it. From now on the critic, instead of genuflecting to the genius-author, would take the upper hand, uncovering the hidden and embarrassing sources of a decidedly non-divine creativity. Joyce called this critical process “blackmail.” It is one of the puzzles of recent criticism that scholars insist on the inaccessibility and irrelevance of authors’ conscious intentions while exhibiting such confidence in the discovery of unconscious ones, even long after Freudian “science” has been thoroughly debunked.

So the author’s role in the creation of literary meaning suffered a long decline, partly because that role had been inflated and personalized beyond what was sustainable, partly because authors found value in the panache of renouncing it, and partly because critics welcomed the new sources of authority offered by Freudian, Marxist, and other modes of suspicious decoding. Up to this point, the dethroning of the author centered entirely on the relation between authorial psychology and the creation and value of literary works; it did not question that the author’s intentions played an important role in determining a work’s actual meaning. That step was taken in a famous article called “The Intentional Fallacy” by the distinguished literary critic William Wimsatt and the philosopher of aesthetics Monroe Beardsley. Wimsatt and Beardsley argued that authors’ intentions are “neither available nor desirable” in understanding or judging a literary work, that all the critic needs is a dictionary and whatever historical information is necessary to comprehend the words and allusions in the text. Biographical information, under which they placed authorial intention, was completely irrelevant. Since that time, the phrase “intentional fallacy” has become a watchword for the taboo on intentions that protects the sacred autonomy of the text.

On one level, the “Intentional Fallacy” offered a beneficial corrective to biographical reductionism, one that should have applied to unconscious as well as conscious intentions. Wimsatt and Beardsley were right to say that an author’s personal associations with her subject matter are irrelevant to the public meaning of her work: an author’s private papers, however interesting in themselves, need not be authoritative for critical understanding. They were also right to say that our standards for judging a literary work need not be the same as the author’s. Unfortunately, however, Wimsatt and Beardsley made a crucial mistake when they missed the distinction between an author’s artistic and her communicative intentions. For the most part, literary works aim to achieve artistic effects by saying something — telling a story, describing a scene, expressing a thought. When we interpret literary works, we are trying to understand which among the possible meanings of the verbal text are the ones actually being transmitted. Such communicative intentions succeed simply if the audience recognizes what they are. Transparency of meaning is enough. Wimsatt and Beardsley got this right regarding what they call “practical messages,” but they denied that this method applies to literary works because, in their view, literary works do not actually say anything and because their authors’ minds are inaccessible outside of the text.

They were, in effect, conforming to the Wildean maxim that “Art expresses nothing but itself.” What they missed is that texts, like other verbal utterances, are composed with the understanding that the reader will be able to infer what the author means; the text cannot be considered a free-standing avatar of meaning. As Paul Grice later explained, it is the knowledge that the speaker has chosen the utterance with the intention to be understood on a particular occasion that enables the audience to infer a determinate meaning. It is only because you know I have chosen these words to mean something definite that you bother to figure out what it may be. Few sentences in natural languages have only one possible interpretation regardless of context, and the possibilities for interpretation increase as sentences are joined together. So the collaborative, mutually anticipatory efforts of authors and readers cannot be eliminated.

Only by grasping what a work is saying do we access what a work is actually doing. The distinction between communicative and artistic levels of intention, between saying and doing, is easy to grasp in the case of an oral genre like the joke. Jokes fail on the communicative level if we don’t get them, if we are unable to determine what the joker means to say or even that she is making a joke. But the joke can succeed on this level and still fail as a joke if the audience, while getting the meaning, does not find it funny. Being funny requires more than communicating the intention to be funny by saying a certain thing; the intended meaning has to satisfy an aesthetic requirement — that it be, in fact, worth laughing at. But that will never happen if the intended meaning doesn’t get across in the first place. Seven decades of critical confusion could have been avoided if Wimsatt and Beardsley had recognized the distinction.

Authors’ intentions are of special interest to critics because critics want to know which among the text’s possible meanings were intended by the author and which were not. To determine this, they need the most sensitive possible grasp of the author’s context and expected audience. The author’s larger artistic designs do also have an undeniable interest, but recognizing what they are is not crucial to deciphering the work in the same way that communicative intentions are. Wimsatt and Beardsley were right: poems and novels, like jokes, have to do more than communicate. They have to work. But in order for them to work, we have to grasp what they are in the first place.

Just as the Symbolists and decadents of the fin-de-siècle sought to purify their writings from the vulgarity of didactic meaning in pursuit of a certain decadent spirituality, so there was a tinge of religious asceticism among the motives of major literary theorists during this period. Their aim was to marginalize both authorial intention and literary statement in favor of something higher. For C. S. Lewis, the most openly Christian among them, leaving behind authorial intention allowed an escape “from the vulgarity of confession to the disinfected and severer world of lyric poetry.” There was also a positive aspect to this process, since the claim that literature does not make statements — that it works by dramatic tension and internal irony rather than by offering a view of the world — provided a new defense of literature. Indeed, it provided a new literary ideology, which came to be known as the New Criticism, the key claims of which were that literary language is too complex and ambiguous to be reduced to a simple statement and that such irreducible complexity and ambiguity are not drawbacks but give literary language its special value. To state the meaning of a poem or a novel would be to deflate its tensions though the “heresy of paraphrase”; the critic’s job is to discover the poem’s internal riches — its ironies, ambiguities, and tensions — not to resolve but to rehearse them in a somewhat ritual fashion.

Unlike the languages of science and practical life, literary language teaches us to hold opposing positions in mind, to avoid easy conclusions and simple solutions. One of its rules, promulgated by Wimsatt and Beardsley, was that “even a short lyric poem is dramatic, the response of a speaker (no matter how abstractly conceived) to a situation (no matter how universalized).” This rule is upheld in literature classrooms to this day. Poets can never be said to speak in their own voices. There is always a “speaker,” a character internal to the situation of the poem. Some years later, Wayne Booth invented the novelistic equivalent of the poetic speaker in the “implied author,” an apparent authorial presence that is actually a function of the text itself.

Many poems, naturally, do have speakers recognizably different from the author, and many novels do have narrators who are also characters in the story. Other poems and novels do not, and readers have to figure out, on a case-by-case basis, which is which. But the New Critics suppressed such distinctions. For them, all literature became dramatic, voiced by dramatic speakers and therefore subject to the same method of interpretation — the teasing out of multiple ironies and ambiguities. The ability of the New Critics to provide a single, clearly delineated procedure was one of the chief reasons for their success. That method depended especially upon “close reading,” focusing minutely on linguistic texture to the exclusion of history, biography, and intellectual controversy. New Criticism thus came as a relief from Cold War ideological tensions, and it launched a grand project — the irony-oriented reinterpretation of all previous literature, which in the United States furnished a neatly streamlined task to a professoriate rapidly expanding under the G. I. Bill. However esoteric the conception behind the New Criticism, its effects were strikingly democratic.

It is interesting to note that the figure of the poet marginalized in the New Criticism was not necessarily a generic practitioner from the distant past. Since the 1930s, poetry criticism in American periodicals and academic journals had been dominated by a distinguished cadre of poet-critics, some of them offering their own brands of close reading — figures like John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Yvor Winters, William Empson, Marianne Moore, Randall Jarrell, Robert Penn Warren, R. P. Blackmur, and W. H. Auden. The label “New Criticism,” invented by Ransom, originally referred to this trend toward close reading, but once “The Intentional Fallacy” established that it was not poets but poetic speakers who speak in poetry, non-poet-critics were no longer at a disadvantage. Poets would henceforth be debarred from their legislative office even in the realm of poetry.

New Criticism offered a standardized method for everyone — poets, students, and critics alike. Eliot called it the “lemon-squeezer school” of criticism. His grand, impersonal stance, which governed the tastes of a generation, had undoubtedly done a great deal to shape the detached attitude of criticism that emerged in the wake of “The Intentional Fallacy,” but his influence as a poet-legislator was also one of that article’s targets. Not only were Eliot’s critical judgments the expression of an unmistakably personal sensibility, but he had inadvertently stirred up trouble by adding his own notes to The Waste Land, the poem that otherwise offered the ideal object for New Critical decipherment. In order to short-circuit the poet’s attempt to control the reading of his own work, Wimsatt and Beardsley argued that the notes to The Waste Land should not be read as an independent source of insight into the author’s intention; instead, they should be judged like any other part of the composition — which amounts to transferring them, implicitly, from the purview of the literary author to that of the poetic speaker. Thus, rather than providing an undesirable clarification of its meaning, the notes were to be judged in terms of the internal drama of the poem itself. Few scholars of Eliot took this advice, showing once again the difficulty of abiding by the intentional taboo.

The marginalizing of authorial intention in favor of the empirically concrete text was part of a wider mid-20th-century intellectual trend — the suspicion of mind itself. Since the 1920s, philosophical critics like John Dewey and I. A. Richards had been looking for ways to explain art, including poetry, in vaguely evolutionary terms, as a homeostatic mechanism for maintaining the balance of the psyche. In the United States, the 1930s and ’40s were dominated by scientistic philosophies — logical positivism, pragmatism, and behaviorism — which sought not just to explain mental processes but to explain them away. Not till the late 1950s, with Noam Chomsky’s attack on behaviorism and the development of Grice’s account of intentionality in conversation, followed by the rise of Speech-Act Theory and cognitive science in the 1960s, would the concept of mind make a comeback.

In literary studies, however, the return of mind and the study of language as a communicative medium were largely thwarted, first by the delayed arrival of structuralism and then by deconstruction as instigated by Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man. Deconstructionists, in a spirit akin to the New Critics, discovered necessarily elusive and paradoxical qualities not just in literary language but in all language — often accompanied, in canonical texts, by a knowingness about language’s essentially figurative and myth-making qualities. Deconstruction thus provided another author-marginalizing way of decoding literary and philosophical works. Though Derrida’s own attitude toward authorial intentional was complicated, professors of literature leaned heavily on his saying, “There is nothing outside the text”: both authorial intention and reference to the extra-textual world were short-circuited by an analysis of linguistic function.

In hindsight we can see that the long-term result of the trend Barthes called the “Death of the Author” was that meaning emigrated in all directions — to mere texts, to functions of texts like poetic speakers and implied authors, to the structures of language itself apart from speakers, to class and gender ideologies, to the unconscious, and to combinations of all of these, bypassing authors and their intentions. While following these various flights, critics have nonetheless continued to rely upon authorial intention in the editing and reading of texts, in the use of background materials, in the advocacy of political agendas, in the establishing of their own intellectual property, and in many other ways. The persistence of the author has been vividly in evidence during the last year, for example, in the bicentennial discussions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Not only have Shelley’s personal politics been a focus of attention, but her personal experiences, especially the experience of motherhood, have played a great part in the reading of her famous work even though they are not among its explicit subjects. This is just the kind of “intentional fallacy” that Wimsatt and Beardsley were determined to squelch.

While they were in the ascendant, both New Criticism and deconstruction had a leveling effect on literary interpretation. All works of literature turned out to be either demonstrations of literary ambiguity or of the referential instability of language itself. These practices have left their mark upon current critical attitudes, but few scholars and teachers are still reading strictly by their lights. So why does it matter at this late date if literary scholars continue to reject the notion of intention in theory, given that they no longer avoid it in practice? Of the many reasons, I will note four.

First, the simple contradiction between theory and practice undermines the intellectual coherence of literary studies as a whole, cutting it off both from practitioners of other disciplines and from ordinary readers, including students in the classroom. In an age when the humanities struggle to justify their existence, this does not make that justification any easier.

Second, the removal of the author from the equation of literature, even if only in theory, facilitates the excessive recourse to hidden sources of meaning — linguistic, social, economic, and psychological. It gives license to habits of thought that resemble paranoia, or what Paul Ricoeur has called “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” Just as the New Critics feared the stability of meaning they associated with the reductive language of science, so critics on the left fear the stability of meaning they associate with the continuing power of metaphysics and tradition. Such paranoia is a poor antidote to naïveté. It puts critics in a position of superiority to their subjects, a position as unequal as the hero-worshipping stance of the 19th century, giving free rein to what E. P. Thompson memorably called “the enormous condescension of posterity.”

Third, the question regarding which kinds of authorial intention are relevant to which critical concerns is still a live and pressing one, as the case of Frankenstein suggests.

Fourth and finally, objectifying literary authors as mere functions of the text, or mere epiphenomena of language, is a radically dehumanizing way to treat them. For a discipline that is rightly concerned with recovering suppressed voices and with the ways in which all manner of people can be objectified, acquiescence to the objectification of authors is a temptation to be resisted. As Hegel pointed out long ago in his famous passage on masters and slaves, to degrade the humanity of others with whom we could be in conversation is to impoverish our own humanity.


John Farrell is Waldo W. Neikirk Professor of Literature at Claremont McKenna College and the author, most recently, of The Varieties of Authorial Intention: Literary Theory Beyond the Intentional Fallacy. His website is www.johnfarrellonline.com.


Banner image by CCAC North Library.

LARB Contributor

John Farrell is professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College and the author, most recently, of The Varieties of Authorial Intention: Literary Theory Beyond the Intentional Fallacy.


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