The author’s intentions

For the past few years I’ve been working with Dr. Terry Oggel of the VCU English Dept. on an assignment with his graduate bibliography class.  (A real tough one by all accounts).  I’ve deposited the entire paper and electronic trail of The Bright Spot with VCU’s Special Collections.  This includes several drafts, handwritten notes, emails, etc.  Each student is given a portion to examine in minute detail to determine an authoratative text.  They find interesting things every time.

An issue that always comes up is the author’s intention.  I meet with the students a couple of times, the first to answer any questions they might have, and the second to hear their conclusions and comment on them.  The second meeting for this class was last night.  One student was working on a section I had revised in my handwriting on the printed page after editor Juliet Ulman’s astute comments.  The student assumed my original intention somehow trumped these written changes and wanted to revert to the unrevised text.  I had to ask why my earlier intentions were more important than the later ones.  That is, having heard Juliet’s advice and finding it useful, I had changed what I originally wrote, making it (I hoped) clearer and more effective.

I think this glorification of the author’s “original intent” grows out of the mistaken notion that somehow the novel precedes composition in some platonic realm, that the author somehow has a “novel in his head” he struggles to get on paper.  People tell me this sometimes—”I have a novel in my head I intend to write someday.”  In my experience, novels evolve.  The “original” intention is usually a vague, frail thing.  It’s only by endlessly indulging in the process of writing and rewriting that a novel happens at all.  Sometimes that process is actually held back by some misplaced affection for the original intention.

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