Why Author Intent Matters
Anyone who has sat through a literary theory class has likely heard the phrase “death of the author” or has heard it muttered by a weird English major.
The phrase refers to the idea that writing and creator are unrelated and that intentions and context don’t matter. So whatever the intent of the author and what they meant to convey is thrown out in favor of a reader’s own interpretation.
To kill an author
For example, if we were to examine James Cameron’s Avatar, we would throw out the message of imperialism and the importance of conservation and environmentalism, even though it’s obvious that’s what Cameron wanted to convey.
Instead, we would apply our own interpretation that is in no way intended by the author. We could easily apply Marxist theory by saying that Jake waking up in his Avatar body is symbolic of waking up from his false consciousness, and that the war between the humans and Na’vi represent the struggle between the capitalists and working class. The oppression from the humans and the destruction of Na’vi resources for their own benefit is representative of the elites oppression of the working class that eventually leads to revolt. Marx believed that the intellectuals would lead the working class in revolution, and in the case of Avatar, the Na’vi are led by the Jake in his Na’vi body, who has the knowledge of the humans to lead them to victory.
I could go on with a few more examples, but that’s the gist of it. Taking a work and applying an analysis that the author didn’t intend.
It’s fun to break down media and give a unique meaning to it. That’s how we end up with fun theories like Darth Jar Jar Binks and Marxist interpretations of Avatar.
That’s not what I meant!
In learning English, the lion’s share is decided by educational materials. In addition to traditional printed textbooks, ca
But disregarding an author’s intention can become problematic in some cases. Take the Crooked Man by Charles Beaumont for example, a short story that appeared in Playboy Magazine in 1955.
The short story tells the tale of a dystopian world much like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. But in The Crooked Man, heterosexuality is persecuted in the same way that homosexuality was, and anti-straight mobs march around the city. The story ends with the straight protagonist being hauled away to undergo conversion therapy.
It’s very bizarre. And can easily be read as a homophobic and hateful product of its time.
But here’s the thing. That’s not what the author intended. Charles Beaumont and editor Hugh Hefner were proponents of gay rights.
Beaumont intended for the story to humanize homosexuality by presenting it in an unconventional way: by turning the tables and putting straight people in the shoes of the oppressed. If it’s terrifying to imagine hiding who you are and being persecuted for who you love, then how do you think gay people feel living in that reality?
The story stirred controversy and letters poured into Playboy, calling the story offensive for its portrayal of sexuality.
Magazine owner Hugh Hefner defended Beaumont and his story, stating “If it was wrong to persecute heterosexuals in a homosexual society, then the reverse was wrong, too.”
But without that context in mind, would its gay rights message be obvious? I tested it out and told some friends the premise of The Crooked Man and said it was published in the 50’s, but didn’t give them the author’s intent. They reacted with disgust, assuming it was written out of homophobia, but then saw how the story shows the opposite once I told them Beaumont’s intent.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t interrupt media ourselves and provide our own analysis. Just don’t jump the gun without considering what the creator intended.
The old cliche rings true. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover. And while we’re at it, don’t judge a story on the surface.