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Some Thoughts on Intentionality and Interpretation

S. Yaeger's picture

Our discussion on Tuesday about Spivak's idea that the author is often the worst reader of their own work has me thinking about "The Help."  I'm not sure if many of you have read it, but it was on the bestseller list over the summer, and was also adapted into a film.  "The Help" is, in short, the story of a rich white woman who breaks into the publishing world by teling the stories of the black household workers of her southern town.  At first it reads, as it was intended, as a sweet tale a inter-racial connection and understanding which is heartwarming and inpiring to all.  However, a close reading reveas that the story is actually a sort of standard llne revision of US history, in which a white person risks nothing while the black characters risk everything and, at the end, the white woman is left in a better position, while the black women are exactly where they are when they started.  The book contains scant reference to the civil rights movement, and the movie, from what I understand, contains even less.  

Once I finished reading the book, I commented on it on Facebook, and was met with several comments about how I had misread the book, and how the author intended to highlight the racism of the 50's.  Though I never did have time to research the author's statements regarding her intention, I did end up engaging in several debates regarding the story, and those debates eventually led to me gaining a greater understanding of the people with whom I was debating.  

I know that "The Help" is pretty far from "The Breast Giver" in terms of impact and density, but I think that my involvement in the debate over the first, and my opposition's insistence that authororial intention was important is a sort of reader's digest version of Spivak's case.  At the end of the day, the author's intention and own reading of a piece has little consequence when others are reading it, but that is not a bad thing.  If every text came with a mini-author to tell us what they meant, reading would fairly useless, and conversations like the one I'vee described above would never happen.  

I think this is the point I was trying, clumsily to make in class yesterday.


melal's picture

I really like the point you

I really like the point you made at the end that “if every text came with a mini-author to tell us what they meant, reading would fairly useless…” One thing that reading attracts me the most is that it is a process that never ends. Unlike solving a math problem, which can simply be told as correct or wrong by looking at a specific answer, reading is open to different interpretations. People can have different understandings to the same book by reading it at different ages, in different moods, or with different people. It is true that a good book should give readers a feeling that they are welcome readers to discuss, to interpret and to give comment on, as Spivak argues. However, I think we excluded the author herself/himself as a person to participate in the reading process. I was wondering that isn’t the author also a reader—a reader who reads an event and turn it into a book by writing down her/his opinions and feelings? In our class discussions, I felt we highlighted how one cannot have an objective perception for one’s own life story and therefore the person herself/himself is not the best person to write her/his autobiography. But on the other hand, the writer should also be given an opportunity as a reader to read her/his life experience. After all the aim of reading is not to get an objective answer, so a successful reading experience should not be judged by whether or not the readers get what the author means, nor by whether or not the author writes subjectively and comprehensively.

This also makes me rethink about college applications. Everyone knows the importance of personal statement, but how much does an essay tell us about a person?If an admission officer decides to admit an applicant merely because she/he has written a great personal statement, is it fair? If writing an essay is one gives an interpretation to one’s life, how can people know the “true” applicant? 

bluebox's picture

Intentions or no?

In my high school english class, there was one student who would always ask the teacher after we finished a book or short story if the symbolism and hidden meaning that the teacher listed out for us was what the author intended. The teacher got quite annoyed at this question, as we read quite a lot of stories, and always answered "I don't know."

When we read "The Yellow Wallpaper" there were many theories in the class about the main character. One theory (from the boy mentioned above) was that she went crazy because she couldn't get back in the kitchen where she belonged. The other boys in the class thought that was hilarious, and some of the less bright ones might have even accepted that as the meaning of the story. I don't remember what my teacher told me the meaning was, if she was even right, but the moral of the story is it really is all up to what you see into the story.  I feel like you learn more about yourself from your interpretation of a story than from the actual story. To me, that's what matters more.