The Intentional Fallacy Is Not a Fallacy

Literature professors think talking about authors is wrong - They're wrong

In a creative writing classroom, when the class discusses and analyzes a work of fiction, poetry, or creative non-fiction, the main business of that discussion is to determine why the author made the choices he or she did. Why third person instead of first? Why that word instead of its synonym? Why break the line here instead of there? Why a fragmented, nonlinear structure instead of a chronological one?


We do this because authors are faced with thousands of choices and for the student, such choice is overwhelming and confusing. By studying how and why other writers made decisions based upon the effects they were trying to produce in the reader, the student writer is guided through this confusion.


But if a creative writing student enters a literature classroom and asks the same questions of a text, they are shot down by their professors. They are told their questions are invalid, not even worth considering. The student is guilty of the intentional fallacy.


In no other university department is the creator of a work of art so summarily dismissed and ignored as in the literature department, where they seem not to have learned one of the great lessons of 20th century art, illustrated by Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 “Fountain”: that the intent of the artist is what makes something art.


Origin of the Intentional Fallacy

The idea of the intentional fallacy was introduced by W.K. Wimsatt, Jr., and Monroe C. Beardsley in their book The Verbal Icon (1954). They correctly criticized the belief that the intention of the author was the one and only correct interpretation of a work. Certainly, there can be other valid interpretations of a work, and of course the literature scholar should not be limited solely to the author, who may have had one intent, but produced a wildly different effect on readers. (The Jungle is an obvious example of wide disconnect between intent and effect.)


There are also, of course, difficulties knowing precisely what an author’s intent was, or why he or she made one choice or another. We should keep these inherent difficulties in mind and be comfortable with them. However, many literature professors have taken an extreme position that authorial intent should never be considered, ever. To even look down that road is foolish.


But consider this: if you walk into any contemporary art museum you will, without fail, find on the wall next to the art, a statement from the artist about their intent for the piece.


When Marcel Duchamp submitted an upside-down porcelain urinal signed “R.Mutt” to an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, it was rejected by the exhibition’s committee, even though this was in violation of the exhibition’s rules. Duchamp (or a friend who was in on the prank) went to the pages of the The Blind Man in defense of conceptual art:


"Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view — created a new thought for that object." ("The Richard Mutt Case," The Blind Man, New York, no.2, May 1917, p.5.)


That statement eloquently and simply explained how an artist’s intent is what transforms a urinal into a work of art (and why a 2004 poll of 500 art experts voted "Fountain" the most influential artwork of the 20th century.) The urinal did not even need to be physically altered by Duchamp in order to complete the transformation. An infusion of intention was all that was needed. Intent, in other words, is powerful stuff.


To ignore such powerful stuff is to ignore what makes a work of literature or a poem separate from a newspaper report. Poet Kenneth Goldsmith, author of Uncreative Writing, takes “found” texts like traffic reports and turns them into poetry via the power of authorial intent, in exactly the same way visual artists like Duchamp take “readymade” or found objects and turn them into art. Imagine analyzing a book of Goldsmith’s poetry for a college course without discussing authorial intent. What sense could you make of it?


So I ask literature professors to do a simple thing: lift the taboo against talking about the author in class. This is not a radical suggestion. It does not lead to a slippery slope. It simply brings the literature classroom in line with every other classroom on campus where art is under discussion, and treats the literary arts like all other forms of artistic expression.

update 2/15/17:  I received an email from a reader who told me that I had made an error in this post because Duchamp did not create the famous urinal. Instead, it was Dada poet and artist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhbphoven. Either way my argument about the relevance of authorial intent and the attitudes of literature professors is unaffected. However, I enjoy conspiracy theories so I looked into the question of the urinal's authorship. A large number of bloggers and journalists seem convinced that Baroness Elsa was the work's true creator and a summation of their position can be read here. Baroness Elsa, was by all accounts a brilliant Dada artist and ahead of her time, but the evidence for a conspiracy by Duchamp to take credit for her work and lie about it for 30 years is largely conjecture and entirely circumstantial. Rachel Bernstein and Jesse Prinz have written a thorough analysis of the claims here and they conclude most of the arguments for Baroness Elsa's authorship do not withstand scrutiny.