Wrestling my biases: Authorial Intent

As a teacher and a reader, I have pretty roundly rejected “Authorial Intent.”  For me it is always about the text, and I have trouble accepting that much else matters.  I do not concern myself much with a writer’s biography, and don’t teach author biography (snippets occasionally come up).  I am concerned with an author’s ideas, but only those ideas which are evident, or are being wrestled with, in the text itself.  I may read what an author says about writing or his/her own work, but I don’t much let that affect my reading of his/her fiction, drama, or poetry.

It is not that a writer’s biography, or a writer’s ideas about literature or writing or life or God or whatever, can’t provide insights to a text.  It is that if something in the text only makes sense if you know such extra-textual material, then there may be a failing on the author’s part.  If the author is attempting to convey something, it should be in the text.

Yet what is “extra-textual material”?  You have to know the language to understand a text.  Quite often knowledge of the setting (place and time) contributes to understanding a text.  Historical and social contexts, events, and trends provide understanding to a text.  Writers make allusions to real life figures and to other works of literature, allusions that only make sense with extra-textual knowledge.  We are bringing something to what we read as a necessity, always, and often specific knowledge contributes to a reading of the text.  One can read “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” without knowing a thing about Hawthorne, but some knowledge of the history of the United States revolutionary period (“history” encompassing what happened and how it is interpreted and given significance) will contribute to a reading of the story.  Furthermore, where a text fits in literary history–how it follows or expands on or diverges from the literary forms and themes that preceded it–contribute to a reading.

You cannot read without bringing extra-textual knowledge to a text, and often it is very specific, necessary material which gives text meaning.  Sometimes this extra-textual knowledge is called upon explicitly by a text, and often it is implicitly called for.  So am I justified in ignoring authorial intent and reading like a New Critic?

I think so.  Reading with focus intently, closely, and “mostly” exclusively on the text is, I feel, a good thing.  Concern with the author can distract or distort from that.  But knowing that extra-textual knowledge is necessary and directly and indirectly called for whenever reading, it also seems wrong to dismiss somebody else’s reading that relies on authorial intent (wherever knowledge of that intent may come from).  It’s not how I will read, but I’ll acknowledge the insights another reader, who reads differently than me, can bring to and from the text.

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