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Zach Valenti

Questions for Sarah Shachat for May 6th, 2018 #SelfCareSunday episode?


Hey everyone, I have the great privilege of bringing Sarah Shachat on the show to talk about all things writerly, Wolf 359, and more. Please answer this post with your questions for Sarah & upvote any questions you see and want asked!

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Since nobody has asked any questions yet I'll ask one that's been on my mind.  It's actually one that I asked you, Zach, (as well as Zach Libresco) but both of you didn't know what it meant.  I hope you don't mind that I'm asking again (with clarity this time, in case you want to answer too).  (Also don't worry- I won't be offended if you don't want to read all of this.  I got a bit carried away with my explanation!  I've included a "too long didn't read" if you don't want the full thing.)

What are your thoughts on "author's intent" versus "death to the author"?  It's a debate that I've seen many creators grapple with and nobody has reached a consensus on it so I'm curious about what you think.

(tldr:  Is it best for the creator or fans to have more power when deciding the meaning of a work of art?  How much control should each side have?)

The idea is this:  when creating a piece of art, the author has a certain sort of intent.  Whether it be for fun or to make a statement, creators have specific things in mind while making their creations.  It informs their decisions on why they write/paint/express things a certain way in their work.  This is the "author's intent"- the way they intended people to take their work.  When you consider the author's intent while consuming art, you view the piece through their lens- taking into mind the author's background and identity, what they have to say about their work, and what they tried to accomplish through their work.

Contrasting this is "death to the author".  This is where all consideration for the author's intent is ignored.  Instead, all meaning gathered from the work should be derived from the person consuming the art.  Whatever the artist was trying to say doesn't matter- the important thing is how each individual sees the work.

I've heard many arguments in favor of one or the other but there's no general consensus it seems.  As both an aspiring creator and an avid fan of things, it's really worrisome.  As a fan I like a certain degree of "death to the author" because it allows me to interpret interactions and themes the way I want but as a creator "author's intent" is pretty important too since I want people to understand what I'm trying to say.

Here's a way to make this all a little less abstract:

Why author's intent can be good:  it can help people understand/appreciate symbolism better, gives the author a voice to let them speak about issues important to them, and explains things like why characters act the way they do.  A solid example of this is the book "Animal Farm", which is actually about a failed Russian Revolution.  It makes the events of the story more interesting by giving them a bit of extra weight while also making its ending more tragic.

Why author's intent can be bad:  by making the author's word law, it stifles opposing opinions on the work.  As with the saying "the road to hell is paved with good intentions", sometimes authors can be trying to do something good but ultimately do something bad (like if an author was trying to make a story fighting racism but wrote something that's interpreted as racist instead).  Author's intent takes away the power of interpreting art in your own way in favor of reaffirming the author's opinion.  An excellent example is the poem "The Road Not Taken".  There's a really in-depth Youtube video explaining this but the poem- which is often used as a source of inspiration- isn't really about taking difficult or splitting paths in life.  The poem was actually written by Frost because he was poking fun at an indecisive friend!  But honestly Robert Frost can pry the line "I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference" from my cold, dead hands before that stops being important to me.

Why death to the author can be good:  It allows for people (especially minorities) to take charge and see the work as something that applies more to themselves and their struggles (such as deciding that certain characters are POC or LGBT+).  It helps create a feeling of community and collaboration when come together and discuss the different ways that they see the art.  It also creates a degree of separation between the author and the work, which is good if the author is a jerk.  Fanfic, in general, is a good example of this.  "Ender's Game" is also a good example, since the story (and message, if I recall correctly) is good but the author is a nasty person.

Why death to the author can be bad:  It gives people the power to twist elements of the story for nefarious purposes.  It also ignores any of the artist's struggles/identity that goes into the work, since it's impossible to completely separate your background/experiences from the undertone your work takes.  In general I also think it's dangerous to live by an attitude of "it doesn't matter what you had to say regarding ______  because here is what I think."  A strange example of this is an internet meme known as Pepe the Frog.  Due to some contrivances Pepe started being used by/associated with the alt-right and white supremacists, despite Pepe's creator being vehemently against it.  It went so far that the creator made a funeral comic for Pepe, which most people figure represents that Pepe is dead now (to his creator, at least).

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