Authorial intent vs Reader’s Expectations

When I first joined IFWA, there was a member I didn’t like. It wasn’t her inferiority complex about her gender she wore like a cowl or her creepy obsession with her brother. It wasn’t even that she eventually tried to sue Calgary Expo for expecting her to respect the terms of service like a plebe. I don’t remember much about the story that set my opinion of her, but it was about an unpleasant nun and an unpleasant priest in a spaceship arguing with each other.

She asked me what I thought. I told her that I didn’t think it cared much about what the reader was getting out of the story. She looked at me strangely and said she didn’t care what her reader thought. She wrote for herself, only.

Which is fine, obviously. Publication doesn’t have to be everyone’s goal in writing, but it still annoyed me to my core. I wanted to ask her what she was doing in a critique group if she had no intention of listening to a critique.

Writers taking time out of their lives to help other writers through the mountain ranges between most writers and their publishing goals is a sacrifice we all make because any writer in the group would do the same. Some writers just want an audience to share their work.

But it made me realize that the author’s intent is probably the most prominent mountain range most under-published writers have to get through on their own before they can accept all the help available.

Between believing that the author’s intent is sacrosanct and there are no rules, I think writers can spend decades writing and not significantly improve. They’re the perfect cover for the human brain to never think it needs to do more than what it’s doing to accomplish its goals, no matter how far they are from them.

I’ll never forget how many first chapters full of just dialogue and description I saw in my MFA, but it feels like more than half of all submissions were precisely that. I spent three years watching learners have every one of their confirmation biases confirmed. If their intention was to tell the readers everything through dialogue, the draft couldn’t be altered in any way. To do so was an attack on the author’s intent. It was the most harm I’ve ever seen done to students in my educational career.

So much of my issue with my program was how presuppositional it was. I argued with bishops, not educators. The dogma that the reader’s experience was second to the author’s first draft intent was just worshipping at the altar of Our Lady of Shooting Oneself in the Foot.

To even question that maybe, a reader’s experience and authorial intention do not have to be at odds with each other if the piece’s goal is to sell to a commercial market was blasphemy. Structural edits were heresy to a program that taught what the writer meant to do is immutable and could not be infected with the evils of craft.

Hearing so many writers writing commercial fiction for commercial genres explaining that they don’t want to give the reader what the reader would want out of the story brought me right back to nuns and priests in space. But I wish I could have asked them why they’re paying tens of thousands of dollars to willingly learn absolutely nothing because while the bishops in the class were certainly better versed in the dogma than they were, my classmates were all lifelong converts.

It almost feels like an MLM, to be honest. The few writers talented enough to earn pink Cadalliacs/publishing experience teach the ocean of writers who want their own pink Cadalliacs to do the same actions they did to succeed. But it wasn’t the actions that led to their success; it was their cutthroat nature/innate writing ability. You can’t teach either of those things.

They have to be learned. But instructors who have always had enough innate writing ability to publish can’t teach what they don’t know how to do themselves. Putting their intention over the reader’s experience worked for them, and they didn’t have to learn their craft, so that methodology must work for all writers is what we call a “fallacy” in education.

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