The Intentional Fallacy, or Authorial Intent

Go ahead, English Literature majors, groan. I’m actually going to talk about “The Intentional Fallacy”. I’m a nerd, what did you expect? I didn’t really like modern literary theory as an undergrad but I wouldn’t be doing literature justice if I ignored it entirely.

For those who don’t know, “The Intentional Fallacy” is an essay written by New Criticism literary theorists W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley circa 1946. The essay argues, in essence, that the author’s intent when writing a work is impossible to know and highly undesirable when analyzing said work. What the author meant to say and what the writing actually says may be two entirely different things, especially when considering that many readers interpret texts differently, and so the author’s intent is negligible. If you want to know more, you can start with this Wikipedia entry on authorial intent. Beyond that, there are many resources you can explore, including the essay itself, but the Wikipedia entry provides a basic understanding.

We try so often to argue that an author meant this or that when we’re analyzing his/her work, but there’s a reason professors won’t let us get away with phrasing essays that way. It’s virtually impossible to know what a writer meant. We can’t step back in time and ask Herman Melville what he meant to say when writing Moby-Dick or what Percy Shelley tried to express in his poem “Ozymandias”. Even contemporary documents, such as letters and journals, may be unreliable.

Someone will probably counter that the prominence of social media allows modern writers, such as J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, to make their intent better-known. Does that mean we should utilize their intent in our analysis? That’s where we step into murkier waters.

Image retrieved from “The Problem of Authors”

In my critical honors thesis, “The Dumbledore Conundrum: The Presentation of Homosexuality in Harry Potter and the Production of Slash Fanfiction”, I address J.K. Rowling’s announcement regarding Dumbledore’s sexuality as a springboard for my overall argument. However, that does not serve as the sole–or the main–basis for my claims. I delve into textual analysis of both the books and the resulting fanfiction, theories regarding such topics as sexuality and the effects of children’s literature, and readers’ reactions to Rowling’s announcement. Certainly Rowling’s intent sparked a conversation but it does not drive the entire analysis of her books. Rather, readers compare and contrast their interpretations with her intention, thoroughly exploring the text for proof either supporting or disputing her claim.

Does such an argument fall under intentional fallacy? It’s possible. After all, the initial question behind the analysis relies on Rowling’s intention. However, the continuation of the argument relies on a much wider range of factors, including existing theories and textual evidence.

With the rise of writers’ presence and discussion of their own works on social media, we are met with an intriguing question: does the intentional fallacy still apply when studying 21st-century authors?

I don’t have a straightforward answer. The literary theorist in me wants to say yes. After all, writing is like any other form of art; the writer’s intention may have led to the creation but that isn’t what’s necessarily being expressed by the piece itself. Still, the curious reader in me wants to say that it’s not that simple. A writer’s intention may expose a side of his/her work that we simply hadn’t considered before but, now that it’s been brought to our attention, we see it everywhere.

I suppose my answer is this: authorial intent can start a conversation about the work but should not be primary evidence for any of the ensuing arguments. An author’s intent can be an interesting factoid and shed new light on his/her work but it does not prove that the work conveys that intent. Take what a writer says about his/her own writing with a grain of salt, especially when trying to formulate an argument about the piece.

What’s your opinion on the intentional fallacy? Does it still apply? Does social media and the Internet at large complicate matters? Leave your thoughts in the comments.


Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

2 thoughts on “The Intentional Fallacy, or Authorial Intent”

  1. Stephanie, thanks for this post. I’d never heard of The Intentional Fallacy. I agree that it’s impossible to know an author’s intentions unless they’re stated, and even then an author might not disclose everything. I say this because when it comes to my own novel, I have reasons too personal to share.

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      That’s always a problem, especially since we know that, even if we don’t admit it, we put a lot of ourselves into our work, whether it’s drawing directly from events in our life or just using our personal emotions as a springboard. Theorists also debate if it even matters, as far as literary analysis goes, what the writer meant if that’s not what readers see. It’s a fine line.

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