How to Dismantle the Wall Between an Author and Their Work

Jonathan McCalmont @ 12-11-2008

This month in Blasphemous Geometries: has the intentional fallacy had its day as a critical tool? Should we roll back the stone from the tomb of The Author?

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

Jonathan McCalmont suggests that genre fiction fan-writers and critics should cautiously embrace biographical criticism, and examine books and other works in the context of their creator’s mindset.


The great Orson Welles once said that while you can do many things to an audience, you cannot piss on them. At first glance, this is a statement of the obvious, but think about it a bit more and it actually makes you consider the rules and taboos that exist between an artist and their audience. You cannot go to the Opera and ‘join in’ with your favourite bits. Nor should you, as Ben Elton and Richard Curtis once pointed out, stand up while at the theatre and shout, “Look behind you, Mister Caesar!” These are things that you cannot do.

But who decides what can and cannot be done? Where do taboos even come from? This month I will consider one of the most enduring taboos in criticism, namely the rule that a text should always be kept isolated from the inner life of the author, whether it is the facts of their lives or their intentions when they wrote the book. I will also argue that our understanding of many of the great works of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror have been greatly improved by critics willing to breach that exact taboo.

Let me make this taboo a touch clearer.

One could argue that the origins of literary criticism can be found not in the emergence of an educated middle class as I suggested in my last column, but rather in the realities of producing multiple copies of a text in an age before printing. Indeed, in order to avoid transcription errors, monks and copyists would have had to think first and foremost about what the original intended meaning of a text would have been. A mislaid comma or a flawed translation could drastically change a text’s meaning and not only dilute the Word of God but also give birth to outright heresies. This approach to reading still exists today in copy-editing and textual criticism.

However, even at the time, there was some resistance to the idea of sticking to the letter of the text and the spirit of the original author. As depicted in Walter M. Miller Jr.’s classic work of post-apocalyptic science fiction A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), sometimes copyists want to make changes to original texts so as to make the original text ‘clearer’ in light of existing thinking. Indeed, one could very well view the concepts of ‘doctrine’, ‘canonicity’ and ‘heresy’ as attempts to account for systemic signal degradation caused by layers of teachers, copyists, priests and preachers each battling with their desire to put their own spin on things. As Karen Armstrong’s A History of God (1994) makes clear, even if there had been an original Word of God, its meaning has long since been lost to centuries of Church politics.

Possibly as a reaction to this desire to preserve intent at all cost, modern literary criticism tends to reject the idea that an author’s intentions have any bearing upon our understanding of a book.

Much genre criticism pays lip service to the intellectual ethics laid down initially by the New Criticism and then reinforced by Postmodern Deconstructivism and the rise of theory. While these two traditions are at odds in many ways, they both stress the importance of moving beyond biographical criticism. The New Critics Wimsatt and Beardsley critiqued the idea of a text having one true meaning by the coining of terms such as ‘the intentional fallacy‘ and ‘the affective fallacy‘. The first of these is a denouncement of the idea that one can ever infer what an author was intending when he wrote something and the second is a rejection of the idea that the effect that a text has on a reader is any kind of basis for thinking about it.

Of course, neither of these are actual fallacies. The term ‘fallacy’ is here deployed as a rhetorical tool, a means of imbuing what are ultimately arbitrary fashion-statements with the authority that comes from logic. There is no ‘logical’ reason why one should not interpret a book in terms of what one knows about the life of the author. Indeed, some philosophers argue that all of human interaction is based upon the same process of inferring intention from what one knows about human nature and the other person’s temperament, a mode of thinking known as folk psychology.

One could argue that if one cannot infer from a book what an author means then one cannot infer from anyone’s words or actions what they are thinking. Indeed, it is no accident that the intellectual tradition founded by thinkers such as Derrida and Barthes (who famously proclaimed the “Death of the Author“) questions not only the idea of an author’s interpretation being the ‘correct’ one, but also the idea of ‘truth’ itself as anything more than a social construct.

While comparatively few of the people who write about science fiction have literary backgrounds, this idea of the writer’s mindset being out of bounds is still quite a popular one. If you cruise by The SF Site or Strange Horizons you will see lots of focus upon the text and very little about the authors themselves.

There are, however, exceptions to this rule.

This month, I have read not one, but two books about the horror author H. P. Lovecraft. Written nearly thirty years apart, both of these works begin their assessment of Lovecraft’s work with a detailed examination of his character and beliefs – in particular, Lovecraft’s infamous racism and his disdain for many of the trappings of the modern world. For example, the fact that many of Lovecraft’s most memorable horrors (such as Cthulhu and the Deep Ones) come from the sea is linked to the fact that Lovecraft felt nauseous whenever he smelt fish. Similarly, Lovecraft’s growing sense of alienation from the great melting pot of 1920s New York is seen as the key inspiration for his story “The Horror at Red Hook” (1925).

However, it is not just Lovecraft whose work is widely subjected to armchair psychoanalysis. An article about Edgar Allan Poe by Maurice Levy begins with the statement that only the daring write about Poe “without evoking his dipsomania, opiomania, cyclothymia, paraphrenia, and sado-necrophilia”. Nor is this willingness to use biographical facts to enlighten a text limited only to authors that are dead. Some critics have taken to exploring the work of Thomas Ligotti through the lens of his alleged Anhedonia, a condition in which one is unable to derive pleasure from traditional sources of enjoyment such as eating, sex or good conversation.

One of the most powerful and counter-cultural pieces of SF criticism ever written is Elaine Radford’s interpretation of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985) as a right-wing apologia – an interpretation that seems all the more germane each time Card sits down at his keyboard in order to denounce homosexuality (as he did recently in his pitiful attempt to defend the Californian ‘Prop 8’ ban on gay marriage on the grounds that a ban is more tolerant than actually allowing gay people to get married).

So, given that the taboo against delving into an author’s brainspace is not a matter of logic but of fashion and given that flouting that very taboo has created many great works of criticism, should every work of criticism draw inferences about the work’s author? Not quite yet.

The reason for Lovecraft and Poe’s work inviting such an approach is because their lives are surprisingly well recorded. Lovecraft was a tireless correspondent who seldom left a letter unanswered while Poe’s eccentricities were mercilessly publicised by a literary executor who bore the man enough of a grudge to include an extended character assassination in reprints of his stories. The works of Lovecraft, Poe and Ligotti invite psychological interpretation and speculation because facts about their psychology are out there in the public domain. Similarly, it does not require much imagination to see Orson Scott Card as an apologist for right-wing thought, because you can easily google a number of non-fiction examples of exactly that kind of writing.

The real reason, one suspects, for the taboo surrounding authorial intentions is that, generally speaking, there is rarely enough psychological data to go on. This is particularly true in science fiction, where biographies of authors are comparatively rare. Julie Philips’s James Tiptree Jr – The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (2006) about the Hugo Award-winning author who turned out to be a woman will fuel a whole new generation of understandings of Tiptree’s work and the same possibilities should be opened up for all authors.

So to authors I say, “be a bit more open about yourselves” and to critics and fan writers I say “be a bit more probing in your interviews”. The inner life of an author before they write a book is as much a part of that book’s meaning as the words on the page.


Jonathan McCalmontJonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.

Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.

[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]

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8 Responses to “How to Dismantle the Wall Between an Author and Their Work”

  1. GLP says:

    Good column – lots to think about there. The rise of blogging and social media is allowing fans much greater access to some authors – whether reading a blog post about their latest piece of work, following their updates on Facebook, or hearing what they’re having for tea on Twitter. To what extent do you think this will demystify the writing process?

  2. Robert Koslover says:

    Shouldn’t that be
    “How to Dismantle the Wall Between an Author and His or Her Work?”
    Alternatively, how about
    “How to Dismantle the Walls Between Authors and Their Works?”

  3. Jonathan M says:

    Glad you liked the column.

    I think there are two distinct issues here. On the one hand, there’s the general demystification of the writing process. I think you’re quite correct that Twitter and blogs do a lot to get across the realities of the lives of writers. Stross has written pieces in the past about the financial realities and most author’s Twitter feeds convey the day to day reality of waiting for inspiration, trying to get stuff done while you’re hot and able to write and paying the bills and so having to work a proper job.

    I think that the writing lifestyle has been demystified in the way you suggest.

    On the other hand, there’s a particular writer’s creative process. By and large these facts tend not to come across that much in blogs and twittering because people tend not to write that much about their inner psychological state or if they do, the noise to signal ratio makes social media a questionable source. Short of an author tweeting “Off to the chemist to pick up my anti-psychotic medication” or “I really hate my mother and yet find her oddly sexually attractive” we’re not likely to get many huge useful insights into a writer’s inner life.

    The other reason why people have latched onto Poe, Lovecraft and Ligotti is because someone else has done the psychological leg work on them. They have psychological issues that are diagnosed and publicly available and so anyone can join up the dots. It may well be that the key to understanding Scalzi is his daughter or his cats but there’s no psychological leg-work there, any critic or fan would have to do a lot of work to tie those elements of his life into his writing.

    This is why I think there’s a real place for proper interviewing. If not for this generation of critics then certainly the next who will have the distance to look back over an author’s life and join up those dots.

  4. Shaun CG says:

    Liz Bear is the best example I can think of of an author who dedicatedly blogs about her writing on a daily basis, including a lot of thinking out loud.

    Great column as usual; there’s plenty to think about here.

  5. Niall says:

    On the other hand, John Scalzi is an example of an author who blogs about his family in enough detail that it’s hard not to see elements of them reflected in his books. (Indeed, he explicitly addresses that point in the afterwords to both The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale.)

  6. Matt Simmons says:

    The problem, though, is: what if I know you’re trying to read my text to figure out about me, and I lie? Is that different or distinguishable from this presumably unconscious haemorrhaging of personal neuroses you’re suggesting? It doesn’t give much credit to (good) authors to suggest that they’re entirely unconscious of how their works will be read.

    It’s a bit disingenuous to say that a writer’s biography is considered ‘out of bounds’ – there’s no rule, it’s not forbidden, as you’ve clearly noted. It’s just often (but not always, and not in all styles of criticism) considered misleading, since it can so easily be subverted by a writer who knows what’s going on, easily subject to the ‘character assassination’ you described (how do we know the historical documents are true, either?), and is in some ways terribly constricting. I might be romantic to believe that Lovecraft was tapping into something deeper than his dislike of fish-smells.

  7. Adam Roberts says:

    ‘If one cannot infer from a book what an author means then one cannot infer from anyone’s words or actions what they are thinking.’ I don’t think this is quite right; neither Derrida nor Wimsatt and Beardsley suggest anything like this. W&B’s famous essay is best read as an intervention into a literary culture that had largely replaced literary criticism—which is to say, the analysis of the literary textual strategies that make books, poems and plays work—with biography. There’s nothing wrong with biography; it’s a perfectly valid business, and many people like reading it. But it is not the same as literary criticism. Reading a work in the light of its author’s ‘intention’ tends to be circular (‘Enders Game is a homophobic book, because attacking homosexuality was Card’s intention in writing the book. How do I know that that was Card’s intention? Well, clearly it was, or the book wouldn’t be so homophobic’). Derrida’s point is much more elegant than you allow: not that you’re not allowed to refer to the author when discussing his/her works, but that when you do so you’re not actually referring to ‘the author’ (as if you had some privileged, telepathic, transcendental acecss to Orson Scott Card’s brain): you’re referring to another text. Il n’y a pas de hors-texte, in the famous Derridean phrase. In the case of this column your appeal to the ‘author’ is actually an appeal to another text written by that author. Card’s opinions on homosexuality seem to me repulsive; but it’s better in a dozen ways to attack his online essay, and the opinions it expresses, than to go ad hominem.

    There is no ‘logical’ reason why one should not interpret a book in terms of what one knows about the life of the author. You can, if you want to: go ahead. Neither Derrida, W&B nor I will try and stop you. But will it result in insightful, illuminating literary criticism, or will it result in a biography? Which is better: a book that intuits Shakespeare’s life from his plays (‘he must have been a sailor, because his plays reveal a deep knowledge of sailing’) or a book that explains why Hamlet and Lear are such stunning plays? Saying ‘Hamlet and Lear are such stunning plays because Shakespeare was a genius’ is, actually, to speak tautologically. I’d rather read something about how the plays themselves actually work.

  8. Nicholas Tam says:

    My complete and far-too-long reply is here, but I’ll try to summarize it:

    First, I’m in agreement with Adam Roberts on this one – the critique of the “intentional fallacy” has nothing to do with prohibiting biographical evidence, nor does it encourage reading the author via the text. As far as authors are concerned, it is wholly disinterested. I think Wimsatt/Beardsley’s very specific use of the word “criticism” adds to the confusion; what they are actually arguing is that it is valid to read a text intrinsically – something that there wasn’t very much of prior to the New Critics.

    The “fallacy” at work is the argument from authority, or the claim that any interpretation of the author’s is inherently superior to that of a reader-critic, or restrictive in any way. This is not the same as denying that biographical data has value. There’s a great deal to be learned from how literature functions on its own. With SF especially, if it isn’t readable apart from its author, one really has to wonder how readable it is at all. Whether we regard books as independent systems or not, there will always be readers who are exposed to the text and only the text, and form their impressions accordingly. Their lack of insight into the author does not make their impressions inherently less valid.

    But if there is a serious deficit of contextual criticism in certain genres, then of course some balance would be nice.