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May, 2004 : Essay:

What Mr. Maillet Really Meant to Tell Me

The gap between authorial intent and reader experience

Years before I achieved any maturity as a writer whatsoever—for I continue to be a late bloomer—I can distinctly remember sitting in a high school English classroom while Mr. Maillet rambled on about Faulkner's intentions in a passage of As I Lay Dying (1). "Clearly, he is using Addie Bundren to illustrate the condition of the American family..."

No, I thought, doodling Yoknapatawpha starships in my Big Chief tablet, he wasn't doing any such thing. He was telling a damned story.

Fast forward a couple of decades. I recently had the pleasure of writing an extended analysis on Ray Vukcevich's "The Wages of Syntax," which appeared here in the March, 2004 edition of The Internet Review of Science Fiction. Ray, who was kind enough to cooperate significantly in the research and development of that piece, read it when it the issue was posted, then emailed me to say, "Yeah. I meant to do that."

About two weeks later Matthew Cheney at the Mumpsimus posted an extended analysis of a recent story of mine, "The Redundant Order of the Night," which had run in the March edition of Revolution SF by the kindness of editor Jayme Blaschke. I went and read Cheney's review, experiencing a reaction which could be summarized as, "Huh?" Would that I were half as smart and erudite as the Jay Lake that Matthew had found behind the story text.

Or to quote Ray Vukcevich: "Yeah. I mean to do that."

In very short order, I had found myself on both sides of the gap between authorial intent and reader experience—an issue which has fascinated me since I was a kid.

Why is this question science fictional?

Because in science fiction, and more broadly speculative fiction, authorial intent is critical across far more axes of story telling than in most forms of literature. When John Updike tells us "Rabbit is rich" (2), readers of naturalistic fiction don't have to wonder what species Rabbit is, whether rich applies to his suitability as a menu item or his fuel-air mixture. All the same assumptions and cultural experiences which propel us through our daily lives propel us through naturalistic fiction, literary fiction, historical fiction and most non-fiction. We read these for the differences they illustrate between our experience and what the author describes, or for the joy of learning. How many readers have attained a grasp of nineteenth century military history and combat tactics from George MacDonald Fraser's excellent Flashman (3) series, or Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin books? (4)

But in speculative fiction, everything is up for grabs. Certainly there are reading protocols, conventions of (sub)genre, other signposts that provide the experienced reader with their own grab bag of assumptions. But while Updike can assume that anyone who reads his books knows what a football hero is, no writer of speculative can assume that. The writer may decide to act as if the reader were fully informed, for story-telling or stylistic reasons, but that's a conscious decision.

All of which generates a potentially vast gap between authorial intent and reader experience.

One of my own key interests as both a consumer and a producer of speculative fiction is the loose agglutination of writers, styles and trends around slipstream, a/k/a New Weird, a/k/a Style Monkeyism, a/k/a interstitialism, an alleged movement largely characterized by its near-absolute refusal to be characterized as a movement. (5) In this non-aligned space we find an intersection between speculative fiction's multiple axes of authorial intent and naturalistic fiction's sometime dedication to style. All of this driven by a near-obsession with story-telling.

I took a question to some of the rising stars and established masters of this field: "What is your experience of the gap between authorial intent and reader experience?" Here's what some of those authors were kind enough to say to me:

Jeffrey Ford, recent Nebula winner(6), World Fantasy Award winner, and numerous other honors, as well as author of what I consider to be one of the most perfect short stories ever written, "Creation,"(7) has this to say:

"I've often wondered if the reader is experiencing the story in a completely different way than I've intended. This is possible, but in too many instances, in speaking to readers, when they've enjoyed a story, I've gotten the sense that my vision had made it intact from my mind to the page to their mind. Another of the great mysteries of writing. This process seems so intricate and fraught with possible failure, I'm surprised it ever works. When you really think about it, there are so many miraculous things that happen in the reading and writing processes. These are some of the things that make writing continuously interesting to me."

Bruce Holland Rogers, winner of the Nebula Award, the Pushcart Prize and numerous other honors, master of the short-short form(8) , and one of my greatest mentors in this field:

"All writing is a collaborative operation. A good writer doesn't aspire to write the whole story, but rather tries to write enough of the story to enable the reader to successfully create the rest of the story. A writer who strives to be the absolute master of the reader's experience will have to provide too much detail. When we talk about a piece of writing that is belabored or over-written, what we usually mean is that the writer tried to do both the writer's work and the reader's."

Jeff VanderMeer, multiple winner of the World Fantasy Award and a stunning fictionalist at numerous levels(9):

"...one reason my stories work, when they work, is that I myself don't always fully realize the implications inherent in them. For example, an image I might have used on a conscious level just to advance the plot or expand on characterization may turn out to be much more charged and symbolic to a reader. So while I used to think that authorial intent was supreme, I now do see a synergy between authorial intent and reader experience. Does this mean that I, as the author, am incompetent or just stumble into things, in a sense? No. It just means that when you prime your imagination properly, and practice hard enough re technique so that writing comes naturally to you, all sorts of things tumble out that add depth to the story. And sometimes readers see this before you do.
"In much of the best fiction, there is a space left by the author for the reader to fill. "

And finally, the incomparable Ray Vukcevich:

"I think often writers don't know what they're trying to do. If you ask them hey, what the heck are you doing here, the answer you get will be way down near the bottom of the list of interesting things about the text."

What I take from this is an understanding that I was right back in high school. The author is telling a story.(10) That's where fiction starts, and that's where fiction ends. The interesting things happen where the author isn't considering what they're doing. The reader experience is a combination of their own protocols, reading experience, even mood the day they met the story.

What does this mean for us as producers or consumers of speculative fiction? In the end, perhaps nothing but a little sound and fury, without great significance. Though it might shed light on our reading protocols.

I for one have multiple protocols depending the purpose of my reading—acquisitions editing, review, critique, self-editing, sheer pleasure. Certainly everyone else has their equivalents. It is perhaps within the development or refinement of those protocols that the sense of the gap between authorial intent and reader experience becomes most important. As an anthologist, I am very interested in reader experience of a work. As a reviewer, the balance shifts heavily toward authorial intent. As a pleasure reader (unfortunately all too rare these days) my interest finds its own balance point based on the challenges and rewards of each individual text.

But as a writer, where my core interest and highest goals lie, it is comforting to know that Ford sees miracles, Rogers sees collaboration, VanderMeer trusts readers and Vukcevich wonders what any of us are trying to do. And they're all just telling stories in the end.

You know what? I'm pretty sure Mr. Maillet knew that back in 1980. He was just trying to get me to see it.

Hey, teach: I finally got the message.

Footnotes

  • As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner, Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith, 1930. [Back]
  • Rabbit Is Rich, John Updike, Knopf, 1981. [Back]
  • Flashman, from the Flashman papers, 1839-1842, George MacDonald Fraser, Jenkins, 1969, and following. The Flashman books are highly enjoyable exercises in world-building, character development and plain old fashioned swashbuckling fun. [Back]
  • Master And Commander, Patrick O'Brian, Lipincott, 1969, and following. Like Harry Flashman's adventures, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin lead the reader to places more exotic than any Star Trek episode, all the stranger for their concrete historical reality. [Back]
  • See Jeff VanderMeer's excellent essay, "The Romantic Underground," a study in avoidance of this topic in the upcoming Nebula Awards anthology edited by Jack Dann. [Back]
  • 2004 Nebula Award for Best Novelette, "The Empire of Ice Cream," Sci Fiction, February 26th, 2003. [Back]
  • "Creation," Jeffrey Ford, F&SF, May, 2002 [Back]
  • See shortshortshort.com for his regular online short fiction series. [Back]
  • See City of Saints and Madmen, Jeff VanderMeer, Cosmos Books, May 2002, (and the later Prime re-issue), as well as my review of that book in order to get a view of his work as a metafictionalist. [Back]
  • J.R.R. Tolkien is probably the only major figure in our field that I am willing to credit with deliberately constructing his deep themes—that way lies madness, or at a minimum dreadful prose. (Both of which can be argued for in Tolkien's corpus of work, admittedly.) [Back]

Copyright © 2004, Joseph E. Lake, Jr.. All Rights Reserved.

About Jay Lake

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at jaylake.livejournal.com or his Web site at www.jlake.com.

COMMENTS!

May 21, 15:49 by John Frost
Comments on Jay's essay.
May 21, 18:05 by Mike Brotherton
While I had generally pretty positive reviews of my first novel Star Dragon (Tor, 2003), some reviewers really did seem to get what I was trying to do thematically with the book (particularly reviews in the New York Review of Science Fiction, scifi.com, Strange Horizons/Locus). Maybe I'm not all that subtle, and I am a scientist by trade, so perhaps what's in the book are things I intentionally put in the book. I also got a couple of reviews that were basically feminist deconstructions that I found bizzare, blowing certain minor things way out of proportion. I suppose when your starship's AI is patterned on Ernest Hemingway, you should expect that kind of lighting rod to attract some spikes.

It was a tale of two books though in regard to some points. Star Dragon features both "a sexy prose style" and "utilitarian prose"; "simple characterization" and "well-drawn characters."

It isn't just subtext that comes across differently to different readers, but just about everything I suspect!
May 22, 12:02 by David Bratman
Mr. Maillet rambled on about Faulkner's intentions in a passage of As I Lay Dying. "Clearly, he is using Addie Bundren to illustrate the condition of the American family..." No, I thought ... he wasn't doing any such thing. He was telling a damned story.

No kidding, Sherlock. Boy, do I ever find that sort of anti-intellectual conceit annoying. It begs the question. What story was he telling, what was he telling with it? That's what Mr. Maillet was addressing. These questions are left intact by Lake's snappy non-comeback. And the fact that, by the end of the essay, Lake concedes that Mr. Maillet had something worth saying doesn't change the annoyance of the original stance.
May 22, 12:32 by Jay Lake
Hey, dbratman. Wow, I'm not sure I've ever been accused of being anti-intellectual before. That might have to go in my blurb file.

However, I think you've rather missed my point, which is that most likely Faulkner was in fact telling a story, not crafting a trenchant criticism of American life. The criticism comes later in what readers perceive in the work, which in turn is based on their own intellectual and critical stance, and the reading protocol they choose to employ in approaching the work. Which is what Mr. Maillet really meant, of course, though I was too shallow to understand that at the time.

Best,

Jay
May 22, 12:43 by Mike Brotherton
I don't altogether agree that "He was telling a damned story" is an anti-intellectual conceit. It's a truism that doesn't try to pass off speculation as fact. There are writers who aren't trying to convey any message at all, at least not consciously, who simply do write stories. It's anti-intellectual to believe that you know for certain everything a writer is trying to do! I think that's the young Jay Lake's objection to the lecture. Plenty of academics have gotten degrees on the basis of pure bluff and BS, commenting on what certain dead writers meant.

I think high school teachers pushing lit crit on teenagers turns them off to reading. You can't enjoy a story for the sake of the story, or even what it means to you personally. You must figure out what the teacher thinks the writer intends, in sort of a double psychic reading. Sometimes it does seem the point is clear. Sometimes the teachers are pretty stupid and the work is complex and it's a big guessing game. As I said, I think the experience, if bad enough (and it can be), can turn young people against reading, the opposite of what you hope an English class would do.

I'd much rather see this sort of thing approached the way Jay Lake discusses it in this essay. Discuss how writers put words on a page, and then stories happen inside the readers' heads, and what each reader brings to the work creates, in effect, different stories and possibly different meanings -- and that's one of the wonderful things about literature. This isn't so much an issue of reading comprehension (teachers can and should help with this, particularly helping students understand period pieces for instance), but one of discrediting a student's own reaction to a piece, or sounding so arrogant as to cut off dicussion about something worth discussing.

About ten years ago I read a Time magazine review of the movie Interview with a Vampire. The reviewer went on about how the story was a thinly-veiled AIDS allegory, given the themes of homoeroticism and tainted blood, apparently oblivious to the fact that the book was written years before AIDS hit. If Mr. Maillet rambled on about how, clearly, Rice intended her book to illustrate the condition of AIDS in America, and young Jay Lake thought, no, she's just telling a story, who would be closer to the truth there? Who would be "anti-intellectual?" Now, this review was Time magazine, very high profile, with highly paid writers and editors...what are the chances that your average high school teacher will err less often?

(And actually, I think Interview with a Vampire can be discussed in an interesting way in light of AIDS, but it's just plain wrong to say that's what Rice was doing.)
May 22, 17:42 by Mike Brotherton
Note that I'm not against literary criticism or I wouldn't be reading this website. I enjoy reading essays that deepen my understanding of, and appreciation for, stories and books. I'm really just taking the opportunity to speak out against BAD criticism and the concern that what happens in some high school English classes may be bad for our field (not even going into the issue that many schools don't discuss sf at all, ever).
May 23, 10:25 by David Bratman
If mbrother wants to argue that a particular interpretation of a story is or is not what the author meant, or is or is not a meaningful reading (regardless of whether the author meant it or not), that's fine. I absolutely agree that there's a lot of interpretive BS out there. But there's also a lot of great interpretation that can really bring a story much more alive.

But the point that both mbrother and Jay seem to have missed is that you can tell a story and have it mean something at the same time. In fact it's rather difficult to write a story which means nothing, and if you try, it won't be the kind of story read in English class.

To refuse to think about what a story means to you, or what the author might have meant by telling that story as opposed to some other story, is to deny the legitimacy of critical thought. And that's an anti-intellectual conceit, whether Jay has ever been told that before or not.
May 23, 12:53 by Mike Brotherton
dbratman, read Jay's article more carefully again. I don't think he'd disagree with what you're saying -- not at all (he writes thoughtful criticism after all). And I think you're reading a bit more into his opening than he intended. ;-)

My personal objection is to sloppy criticism, especially in classrooms, when somehow with certainty someone claims to know exactly what an author intended. That's BS most of the time, in my opinion. That's my point. That's not disagreeing with what you suggest: thinking about what a story means to me, or what the author MIGHT have meant, are worthwhile activities. I'd just as soon let a story stand on its own, however, or as part of a movement or body of work, than insist on knowing an author's intentions. A good author with a successful piece and clear intent will probably manage to get that meaning into my head.

It's not just English classes that blow this. In physics, for example, I remember a lot of explanations involving phrases like "now then, the electron wants to behave this way under these circumstances." Electrons don't WANT to do anything, so that's a dishonest explanation. A simple case, true, but annoying to me. Similarly, some scientific work is presented historically, with 20/20 hindsight, and students get a misleading idea about how certain theories were developed (modern physics in particular). A lot of times in history in general, a textbook will pick out a thread and try to simplify a lot of disparate events and build an underlying pattern -- and bad cases of this are blowing smoke and misleading students. The David Sokal hoax is a related issue that straddles science/sociology.

Jay's essay is a nice empirical study where he went and asked authors about their intent (and the degree to which they even had intent) and what readers seemed to get from their work. Some writers do set out to write allegories or polemics. Some sit down and write stories and only after they finish do they go back and realize what they were writing about (and should we then start discussing subconscious intent?). Some set out to write entertainment, but through their keen observation of their place and time, the work greatly transcends entertainment.

And in some meta sense, and I think this is more of what Jay is getting at, a story is a story. A story is not an essay. A good story will provide insight, but that insight and meaning occur in the mind of the reader, not usually on the page. You don't know for certain about writer intent unless they come out and say it themselves, and some will never say, and some will lie.

May 23, 12:57 by Mike Brotherton
P.S. My real intent with my last post, by the way, is not to be argmentative for its own sake. It is to procrastinate on my own fiction.
May 23, 22:29 by John Frost
But the point that both mbrother and Jay seem to have missed is that you can tell a story and have it mean something at the same time. In fact it's rather difficult to write a story which means nothing, and if you try, it won't be the kind of story read in English class.


Actually, one of the things that I thought made Jay's essay particularly interesting was his quotes from different authors showing a variety of relationships between authorial intent and reader experience.
May 24, 22:22 by Elizabeth Thomas
I thought this was a very interesting essay. I almost missed it, because I thought "Mr. Maillet" was a character in a book I hadn't read...:)

Of course the meanings of stories are important and are entwined with the stories themselves. I think this essay does an excellent job of pointing out the dilemmas of various people finding different meanings in one story, without ending on a gloomy note.

I totally agree that some people go too heavy-handed on literary criticism in high school. I've always enjoyed doing it, but then again I always knew that there wasn't one "right way" to read the story and enjoyed adding layers of understanding. Even I was angry when we started picking apart Huck Finn in high school, and the teacher said that Mark Twain "didn't really mean it" when he said he didn't want his book to be analyzed and made into a chore.
May 25, 10:30 by Jim Van Pelt
Since I teach high school, I know exactly what Jay was talking about with his initial example. It's the way I felt too!

Remembering my frustration with analysis when I was in high school makes me a better teacher, I hope. I tell the kids as much on the first day of class. We get into the same discussion, though, about meaning/no-meaning for text. They ask, "Why does the story have to mean anything at all? Why can't it just be a story?"

My answer is that if the story had no meaning, they would recognize that immediately by their reaction to the piece, which would be, "What was the point of that?" It would be like coming out of a movie, frustrated because the story didn't add up to anything for them. However, as I tell the kids, most movie experiences aren't like that. They leave the theater satisfied, at least on the "what was the point of that?" level, even if they can't say what the point was.

Part of what a good English class does is to help the students do the kind of thinking that allows them to answer the question for themselves, "what was meaningful about that piece?" and "how did the piece create that meaning?"

When I teach fiction writing to college students or at workshops, at some point we have to start talking about author intent and meaning too. How can the authors revise if they don't know what they were trying to do? and what they were trying to do often is tied into meaning. The story generally has to mean something to the author--there has to be an author's purpose in writing it. I start getting into deep, fiction theory at this point with the students, by saying counter-intuitive things like "plot, suspense, comedy, characterization, in fact all the narrative tools are distractions to hold the readers' attention while you work on getting the meaning across. The plot isn't the point; the point is the point." Which is generally when they get all glassy-eyed with me and I have to back up to a more comprehensible mode.
May 28, 06:19 by Jim Van Pelt
Sheesh! I killed the topic.
May 28, 10:42 by Mike Brotherton
Well Jim, it was kind of like Mr. Maillet had just shown up and the class had to hush up!

Seriously though, it sounds like you're a really good teacher. I would have been thrilled to have an award-winning sf writer when I was in high school. I hope your students appreciate that.
May 30, 13:09 by David Moles
Jim, have you ever thought about teaching Borges' "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote"?
Jun 3, 18:27 by Mike Bailey
an alleged movement largely characterized by its near-absolute refusal to be characterized as a movement.


OK, I'm still laughing at that line. Very funny! Very well placed. I like your voice, Jay.

P.S. My real intent with my last post, by the way, is not to be argmentative for its own sake. It is to procrastinate on my own fiction.


Omigod! LOL... Is this IROSF or a comedy convention? You guys are cracking me up! Good one, mbrother.

Sheesh! I killed the topic.


<sob, choke> from laughing too much...

Seriously though, this was a great article with some excellent discussion on this board afterward. This is what the Internet was MADE for, baby! (Well, this, and so that communications would survive a nuclear attack or something like that).
Jun 6, 15:41 by Jim Van Pelt
There's another level to story/meaning that Jay didn't get to, also, which is that some writers at some point start thinking beyond story/meaning and get involved in language effects.

This is a hard area to tread, so forgive me if I become contradictory or fuzzy.

I think most writers go through an evolution as a story teller. They start with the idea of just wanting to tell a good story. At this point, their attention to language and "sentencing" is minimal. If they have a good ear for the smooth sentence, and they have decent story telling skills (they understand something about pacing, balance, set-up and payoff), then they tell readable stories.

For a lot of new writers, the stuff I mentioned above is where they spend all their time because those are skills that can be improved through practice and study. For many of the writers in the slush pile, it's because of failures in these areas that they aren't selling.

But as writers grow in the basic story-telling skills, and these skills become more second-nature, then they start playing around with language itself. Telling the story is still cool, for most of them, of course, but the possibilities and necessities of language start to become interesting on their own. Can this thought be truncated or split? Can the naked metaphor carry meaning on its own? Can poetry's rhythms sustain a beat subliminally in a prose piece? How much language is too much, and how little isn't enough?

It's hard not to read some writers and see that they have started to play with the medium to see what kind of effects can be wrung out of it. Robert Silverberg, for example, said that he didn't write his short story, "Sundance," because of the SFnal ideas it developed, but because he grew interested in if it was possible to tell a sustained story that switched narrative voice from 1st to 2nd to 3rd person and back without breaking the narrative line.

I'll bet Alfred Bester was playing with language for fun in "Fondly Farenheit," and I've talked to other writers whose main interest has been at the language level.

If they're still selling writers, they've hung onto the basic story-telling skills that make them readable, but there is a level of experimentation and manipulation with language that exists beyond pure story-telling interest.

This is kind of a sidebar to a discussion of story and meaning, but related, I hope.
Jun 8, 08:22 by Eyal Teler
Jim, how about writing some articles yourself? Your comments here and those I sometimes read at the Rumour Mill are thought provoking and a really good read. Have you thought perhaps of collecting such comments and putting them on your website?

Regarding language effects, I think I started with them long before I got other parts of my stories right. (Not meaning to suggest that I've yet to get my stories right. :) I have no idea if that's good or bad. I mean, did Possibilities (my only published story) get published because it was a present tense story with a past tense flashback and a character telling another past tense story in the present, or despite that?

As for meaning, the interesting thing is how it changes with revision. I might start meaning to write a story about something, which leads to certain characters, but once the characters gain more life, the story might start to be more about them than about the idea. Sometimes it's not the characters, but, say, the magic system. Or sometimes I get an idea from the story that I didn't plan putting there in the first place, which then expands into further stories. So it's all quite messy, and the story might end up saying other things than I planned, even to me.
Jun 8, 22:12 by John Frost
Yeah, Jim. How about it?
Jun 9, 17:01 by Jim Van Pelt
Thanks, ET and jf. Actually, I'm working on a book on plotting now which will probably contain some version of just about anything I've ever said about writing somewhere in it.
Jun 24, 17:57 by Robert Cook
I remember my old A-level Eng Lit teacher (20 years ago in England) telling probably apochryphal stories of John Fowles going to public lectures on his books and sitting at the back of the audience to listen to the guest speakers spouting off about the author's intent in certain passages of The French Lieutenant's Woman, and then asking a barrage of awkward but essentially meaningless questions to throw them off before finally saying "I'm John Fowles and everything you just said was a load of bollocks."

In reviews and critiques, I hate being told what the author meant - I'll read an interview with the author if I want to know that. But I love being told what meaning the reviewer or critic found for themselves.

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