Thinking about fiction

A blog about fiction and imagination, from a philosopher


"If one loves stories, then one would naturally love the story of the story" Lorrie Moore

Listening to the dead

Listening to the dead

When it comes to written fiction, I'm an intentionalist about plot. That is, (roughly, with a few extra bits omitted, which I cover in detail elsewhere) I believe that what happens in the plot of a work  - aka its 'fictional truths' or 'fictional content', as philosophers say - is identical to what the author intended readers to imagine, in writing that text. 

In effect, this claim has two commitments (again roughly):

  1.  Whatever the author intended, at the time of writing, his/her readers to imagine, gets to count as part of the plot.
  2. Nothing gets into the plot that wasn't intended by the author to be imagined by readers.

Critics of intentionalism have worries about both commitments, but in this post I'll focus on worries about the first. (For a discussion of worries about the second, see a companion post next week).

Put simply, one main worry about Commitment 1 is that readers can rarely if ever know the intentions of authors as they wrote their works. Dead authors can't tell us what they intended - they're dead. Even live authors are unlikely to remember exactly what they intended, as they wrote, years or even months afterwards. And even when they do tell us, how can we trust them? Commitment 1 seems to entail that stuff can be in the plot of a work without the reader having any means of knowing about it. And that has seemed daft to many.

Along with these sorts of worries tends to go some idea that the text itself is a highly impoverished source of evidence about an author's intentions, so that once an author dies, or goes silent, or forgets, or starts lying, we are left completely in the dark about what their texts ask us to imagine. But this misconception needs to be countered. Texts provide very good sources of evidence about an author's intentions: after all, in writing a text, an author deliberately chose those very words, usually in full knowledge of the words' conventional meanings and connotations, in order to communicate certain thoughts to readers who share the right linguistic background. This is not to say that authors must stick to the conventional meanings of words - far from it (remember Burgess's A Clockwork Orange?) - but even where they deviate from them, they do so in ways that allow readers to get the jist eventually.

Someone might still worry: couldn't an author write a sentence or paragraph "intending" it to mean something completely different from the conventional meanings of the words, in a way that no reader could ever detect? For instance, could William Golding have written Lord of the Flies, his famous tale of savagery amongst boys on a desert island, "intending" readers to imagine a girls' school on a picnic as a result?* Well, no: the inverted commas on "intending" are well placed here. You can't seriously intend what you believe to be impossible: you can't intend others to imagine certain things as a result of your words, if you think they have no way of working out what you intend them to do. This looks like a requirement on the concept of an intention.

Of course, texts are not the only sources of evidence about an author's intentions. Where available, we can also advert to: holograph drafts; information about the author's other works and the characteristic preoccupations therein;  interviews with the author; biographical information about what the author was reading or thinking or doing at the time, or earlier; and more generally, reasonable hypotheses about what the author was trying to do in writing this work. Was she trying to explore a given theme? To try out a new style? To write a populist work which would sell? To write a touching romance, or a horror? To explore an aspect of her own past? To extend the limits of the novel itself? To explore a 'what if' scenario? Information about these presumed purposes will help us fine-tune our interpretations of plot in particular cases, in conjunction (of course) with our prior understanding of the words and sentences the author has chosen.

A concrete example might help clarify. In Muriel Spark's Memento Mori, the ageing cast of characters each receive anonymous phone calls reminding them that they must die. Available interpretations here include: that the phone calls are from a mischievous prankster; that the phone calls are from Death Himself; and that there is no fact of the matter, in the plot, about who the phone calls are from - it is simply indeterminate. Spark does not say explicitly in the work. But it is tempting, at least, to bring to bear evidence from Spark's own life here: her Catholicism and belief in the afterlife, as well as her well publicised interest in the thought of the author as some sort of deity controlling fictional characters' destinies. It is even more tempting to bring in other works of hers as relevant, where there are often supernatural interventions (for instance, in The Comforters and The Ballad of Peckham Rye). And then there is her pronouncement to Artforum magazine in 1997: 'I have always tried to make the supernatural into part of natural history'.

Of course, most of the time we know straight away what the plot of a story is - we just read the sentences and understand them, more or less. But here too we are working out what we are intended to imagine, using the words as a guide. In other cases, as in the Spark example just now, we need to do a bit more digging, and may call upon "extra-textual" evidence to help us, of the kinds I've just mentioned.

All of this is not to deny that there won't be cases where we really don't know quite what an author wanted us to imagine, in writing a particular passage, and so in that case we won't know some aspect of the plot. But I feel relaxed about that possibility, and so should you. If stories are acts of communication, sometimes the message will get lost, just as it does sometimes in other forms of communication. This is not a reason to deny intentionalism about plot. And any theory which tries to factor out, in advance, possible cases of 'hidden' or 'lost' plot elements does so at a great cost, in my view: for if it isn't possible, in principle, to get a text wrong, then equally it looks impossible to get it right, in any valuable way - and the point of literary interpretation then looks diminished.

*Addendum: since I wrote this, it's coincidentally been announced that an all female film version of Lord of the Flies is being made (just call me Nostradamus). Golding would not have approved, as the quotes in this article make clear.


Image credit: Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. "Six characters in search of an author. [1963]" The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Is Jane Eyre a racist?

Is Jane Eyre a racist?

Acting gay

Acting gay