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Brief thought on Authorial Intent and Criticism

When the dust settles, and we realize that books survived and people still read them, someone (maybe even a “scholarly type”) will try to tell you that authorial intent doesn’t matter. This someone will tell you that literature is whatever you make of it and whatever your interpretation is in response to what you put your eyes on. I’m telling you now: it’s untrue. It’s too convenient to say everyone’s interpretation is correct. It is dismissive rather than critical. It is, at best, lazy. At worst, narcissistic. It’s saying you embrace yourself reading a book rather than embracing the actual words on the page. It leads to simple-minded anachronism, the kind of thoughts that sound like “Kosher is healthy now, therefore Kosher laws must have come about because of health concerns.” That might be true but health fads change all the time. If an all-shellfish diet came out tomorrow that was scientifically proven to be the healthiest diet a person could have, people would still rattle off their Kosher-is-healthy speech without thinking for a second about the text of the Old Testament. It is this kind of rationalized ignorance that will carry most people through their reading lives. You’ll finish whole works of fiction that everyone seemed to like and you will hate it and not be able to pinpoint why. You will read things that everyone else scoffs at and feel an emotional connection and not know why. You will read and think that the only thing that matters are what thoughts you conjure while running your eyes over a book. You’re right. Your thoughts do, in fact, matter. But your decision to like a book or not like a book based solely on how you feel does not. Good writing and bad writing exist. The difference between the two, however, is not a matter of personal taste. The difference between good writing and bad writing is the answer to this question: “did the writer accomplish what he or she set out to do?” If the answer is “yes. The author made me cringe at the rotting poverty in Behind The Beautiful Forevers and I decided to do something about it” then the author achieved her purpose. If the answer is “No. I had a great time reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers but I didn’t like some of the characters” then the writer failed. Or, more likely, you failed. Writing, unlike abstract art, has the ability to state clearly its message and plainly present the provocative and unlikable. It’s your job to read it, understand it, and tell yourself why it “works” or not. Your feelings are secondary. Your interpretation of what the prose could mean out of context is tertiary or so tangential it is rendered meaningless by the fact that if you presented these planted thoughts to someone else as what the book is “about” you’d sound crazy. To read and say “likable” or “unlikable” is not enough. To insist that something is good or bad because of how you feel is unjustifiable. If the goal of literature was to be “liked” we would write reassuring novel about monogamous relationships that eventually worked out despite the average American struggle. Everyone would find love after a tiny bit of difficulty. No one would write books that challenged the status quo and no one would read books that made us feel “bad.” To dismiss what an author is trying to say through narrative is to dismiss the book. To put your own ideas as a tagline for the book is to not merely misinterpret but to stubbornly stick to one opinion while the truth stares you in the face. Maybe fiction lets you read between the lines a bit, but there is still authorial intent and it still matters. If something about marriage was written in 1930, it has everything to do with the human condition that exists now, sure, but it’s not about YOU. Part of your reading of Middlemarch should be secondary research about what most marriages were like in 1874, not just about what elements of a marriage still apply today. To think that you can read a novel from a hundred years ago and understand it at a glance is to think that you know exactly how cavemen felt when they foraged for food because one time you were famished and had to walk multiple blocks to find your favorite chain restaurant. It’s silly, and yet it’s as far as criticism seems to stretch these days. It’s tantamount to reading The Communist Manifesto and deciding that Marx hated…something? Not sure what. Maybe he doesn’t like machines? Or specters? Not sure. Who cares? It was boring. You can believe whatever you want about books based solely on what you feel they should say. But that doesn’t make it true.

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The difference between good writing and bad writing is ‘did the author do what he set up to do?’ You can’t say ‘this is a novel about my first love and by the end you’re going to be heartbroken’ then none of that comes out of the book. And I’m not talking about a book that was structured that way on purpose, but a writer not doing his work! If a book gets published, an editor looked at it and plucked out specific paragraphs that didn’t fit in the novel…There are cracks in something other people deem perfect… If there’s a level of perfection to strive for, there’s also laziness and garbage material. You know the level of perfection you want to reach, and if that’s true then there must also be bad art.

Pieces of Dan’s rant on criticism from the Two-Book Minimum podcast with Jeremy P. Bushnell.

Listen to the episode here.

(via betterbooktitles)

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Two-Book Minimum is back Friday, February 28th @ 9:30 PM!

Join a pair of writer-comedians as they invite their favorite writer-comedians into a closed bookshop for a free night of stand-up, stories, and a few drunken ramblings about their favorite books. Every last Friday of the month, Dan Wilbur (Better Book Titles creator, author of “How Not to Read”) and Ross Hyzer (New Yorker contributor) keep Community Bookstore open after hours for a show like no other! Past guests include writers from The Daily Show, MTV, Comedy Central, and College Humor.

Friday, February 28th lineup includes:

Tom Shillue (Comedy Central, Conan)
Brooke Van Poppelen (John Oliver NY Stand-up Show)
Travis Irvine (Huffington Post contributor)
Mike Drucker (Late Night with Jimmy Fallon)

Friday, February 28th @ 9:30 PM
Community Bookstore
143 7th Ave Brooklyn, NY

RSVP via Facebook

Show photos by Anya Garrett.

Good times had by all.

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I was part of a truly great web series for Official Comedy called “Love’s a Bitch.” Check it out!

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