Saturday, 21 November 2009

Authorial intent, snark, and missing the point on purpose.

Lately, some of my contemporaries have been engaged in a rather nasty debate about the state of poetry reviewing, the apparent prevalence of snark, and the role of authorial intent in criticism.

Let's start with "authorial intent"

This is a much misunderstood and abused term, and I think some people might be misunderstanding it on purpose. It's a familiar term in critical discourse, and I don't know why it needs to be explained, but apparently it does. It has a specific meaning that has nothing to do with magically "knowing" what the artist was "trying to do" like some are claiming. That's just a red herring. That's not what it means at all.

Poetry is more than mere building blocks; it's communication, and all communication has a purpose, which to say it has intent. In critical discourse, engaging with "intent" has more to do with understanding how the poetry works within its given mode, understanding how a text has been assembled and reading it with an eye towards understanding its purpose, its message, and its content. For example, one would not (should not) measure a poem by E.E. Cummings with the same material yardstick one would use to measure a poem by Robert Frost, or whichever two dissimilar poets you might choose. The two poets have a different ethos, a different project, a different way of communicating, a different "intent" that is expressly manifest in their work.

It's disingenuous to say a critic cannot, given a close reading, determine the functionality of a text, and from that, extrapolate its purpose and gauge that against the traditions it either draws upon or tries to subvert. It would be an incompetent critic indeed who could not do that, but that is what it means to engage with the "intent" of a text in critical discourse. It has nothing to with reading the author's mind. If a critic understands the "intent" of a piece, for instance, he will not declare that a poem failed to be a sonnet when in fact it meant to be a lipogram, or vice versa.

Different modes of criticism have their own relationships with the idea of authorial intent: deconstructionists, post-structuralists, materialists, etc. Only the most rigidly fundamentalist critical approaches disregard "intent" completely. In doing so, they create large black holes in the reading of a text. They miss the point on purpose, so to speak. I dislike fundamentalisms of any kind, and that includes both critical and aesthetic ones. In poetics, at both the conservative and radical ends of the spectrum, you have those modes that fetishize their own kind of formalism to the detriment of (or even to the exclusion of) concerns about content. At either extreme these formalist fundamentalisms (say a revived take on the radical poetics of Oulipo or an orthodox approach to classicist meter and rhyme) you will find a kind of literary autism; the poems are toying with their physical minutiae, but they are disinterested in actually communicating much of anything. When such fundamentalists bring their aesthetic ideology (their dogma?) into the critical arena, they end up measuring poetries against it that aren't compatible with their criteria. Holders of this position cannot help but commit the fallacy of saying, "the non-traditional is bad because it is not the traditional" or vice versa. They mistake the rationalization or the justification of taste with the application of reason and critical rigor. They are, in a sense, defending a camp. They are saying: I have staked my poetic identity to this ideal, and now I must protect it and evangelize it. But creativity isn't fostered by defending a camp. It comes from exploring strange, new lands. The plural and open are fruitful, while the limited and the closed are doomed.

And what does this have to do with "snark"?

Quite a lot, actually.

But first, let's remind ourselves exactly what "snark" means in terms of book reviewing. The term was coined by Heidi Julavits in an essay in the March 2003 issue of The Believer magazine:

I fear that book reviews are just an opportunity for a critic to strive for humor, and to appear funny and smart and a little bit bitchy, without attempting to espouse any higher ideals—or even to try to understand, on a very localized level, what a certain book is trying to do [italics mine], even if it does it badly. This is wit for wit’s sake—or, hostility for hostility’s sake. This hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt is, I suspect, a bastard offspring of Orwell’s flea-weighers. I call it Snark, and it has crept with alarming speed into the reviewing community... (link)

So, according to Julavits, a refusal to engage with intent is a key ingredient in snarkiness. The critic is there to look clever and bitchy, and engagement with the books, and with literature in general, is secondary. Snarkiness is inherently self-serving, and generally at someone else’s expense. It’s selfish. I agree that this style of book reviewing has become all too prevalent in recent years. I believe that even if a reviewer dislikes a work, he can afford its author the dignity of treating it seriously, and if he does not believe a work warrants serious critical attention, positive or negative, then why review it? Just to be bitchy?

This raises another issue. Whenever the issue of snark or nastiness in reviewing is raised, someone, usually the offender, inevitably cries, "What? You don't believe in negative reviews?" Again, this is a simple case of missing the point on purpose. A bitchy tone and a critical value judgment are not the same thing. A snarky book reviewer is no more a “critic” than a muckraker like Perez Hilton is a “journalist.” A reviewer can offer a negative value judgment without being snarky, entertaining himself with his own barbs. Indeed, such a rancorous tone can be evidence of an ad hominem fallacy; if a reviewer's tone (or, indeed, his language) suggests that he believes the author is inept (rather than the text insufficient), then he is guilty of an ad hominem fallacy. This seems to go hand in hand with the fallacy that all insults are honest and all civility is phony, or that trying to hurt or demoralize people is a valid critical stance.

It isn’t.


Bryan Sentes said...

Paul: hear! hear! bang on on your clarifications of "intention", aestheticritical ideologies, and snarkiness. First time I've read anyone peg formalisms, neo- or innovative, as two sides of the same worn coin (but, with all due respect, that's probably just an index of how much I keep up on the critical topos, print or electronic, wot). A propos "avant-garde" formalism, Mike Heller delivered a trenchant talk in '87, "Avant-garde Propellants of the Machine Made of Words" available in his Uncertain Poetries (Salt, 2005). This isn't to say there is nothing to be learned from or done with formalist compositional modes and concerns, but that's not to take away from the acuteness of your point.

Chris Banks said...

Fantastic post Paul. Well said.

Jacob McArthur Mooney said...

Well put, Paul.

A couple quibbles:

1. I'd agree that a critic, at least a fully-engaged, broadly-read, and honest critic, can deduce elements of intention from a text. In the same way any trained observer who meets those criteria can deduce elements of the intention behind any behavior. The writing of the poem, after all, is a behavior, albeit a complicated one.

I'd argue, though, that this is a lot of pressure to be putting on a critic. If the critic has to cover the lion's share of the distance between source and target in any communication, then the source should not be surprised if the critic stumbles along the way. And if a misunderstanding of that intention occurs, the poet can throw up his or her hands and say "But you don't even understand my work, you don't appreciate what I was trying to do." This is so often my problem with writing that identifies itself as "experimental", the author places the critic in Madagascar and the text in Alaska and says, with all assumed humility, "The least you could do is go meet it on its own terms".

This is why, while I agree that intention is a valid point of conversation in a review, I prefer discussing the product. What is the product? Who is it for? How successful is it as an final result?

2. You asked "if he does not believe a work warrants serious critical attention, positive or negative, then why review it?" If I can play devil's advocate for a minute, I'd point out that critics play a broader role in responding to the sum cultural output. This doesn't happen at the level of one book/one critic, I think reviewers should at least start with the text in front of them when planning their response, but the critical community has a larger role to play as well. If the critical community is presented with a succession of titles that warrant no "serious critical attention", then isn't that, in and of itself, something that critical attention should be paid to?

Of course, when a critic just writes to his own amusement, when he doesn't have the necessary respect for his craft, when he (to paraphrase Wells, on his recent blogpost) considers both criticism and art to be just "games", he perverts the above-mentioned role as completely as he perverts any other. And there's examples of that all over Zach Wells's recent work. Without having to scroll through the archives, I can think of his reviews of recent books from Crozier, Capilongo, Neilsen Glenn...

Paul Vermeersch said...


1) I think you're still not quite on the same page about "intent" and that this the purpose of my blog. To clarify the term. You say, "I prefer discussing the product. What is the product? Who is it for? How successful is it as an final result?"

But the "intent" (if we are talking about the critical concept of intent, and we are) is in the product, not in the author. “Authorial intent” refers what the author leaves in the work from which the reader can deduce its message, purpose, direction, etc. Asking the question "who is it for?", for example, is all part of reading for intent. Remember, it's not about knowing the author's mind, as I have said. "Intent" is manifest in the work.

Oh, says Derrida, we cannot know "intent"! (He's one of those fundamentalists I was talking about), so poets who go gaga for Derrida create a kind of poetry that masks their intent and call it L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, except it becomes clear that their intent is to mask their intent and the whole experiment fails by virtue of that paradox.

So, to sum up, when we are talking about the critical notion of "authorial intent", we are talking about only those things that are manifest in a text. We are not asking a critic to look for anything that isn't there, or to be party to any secret information.

The other side of the coin is "reader response" or "critical interpretation" and those are important elements, too. But they are separate elements.

2) You left out the part of my rhetorical question that asks, "Just to be bitchy?" which I think is the real question of my post.

As for the larger role of criticism beyond "one book/one critic", you ask: "If the critical community is presented with a succession of titles that warrant no "serious critical attention", then isn't that, in and of itself, something that critical attention should be paid to?"

Yes. Of course. But that was never in question, was it? My post is about snark, not about the critical validity of addressing trends or patterns on a larger scale. But those can be done without being bitchy or insulting, too. Can’t they? That’s my point.

I would still argue that those things are best addressed by the thoughtful reviewer or critic or essayist, and not the snarky one who would rather be sharp-tongued than seriously engaged with his subject. At that point, book reviewing just becomes a less fashionable analog to the gossip column.

Jacob McArthur Mooney said...

1. I know what you mean by "authorial intent". But asking "Who is this for?" doesn't necessarily equal, "Who did the designer imply it for?", unless the design was somehow perfect, which doesn't seem possible in something as subjective as poetry. A good critic should be open to intent, but not let it stand-in for the executed result. Likewise, they should begin their query with the result, but not ignore the process of its creation, and the ideas and intentions of its creator.

2. I agree with all this. I was just answering the question. You asked "Why would a critic want to respond to something they saw no value in?" and suggested the answer "Just to be bitchy". I was suggesting an alternate answer, "To complain about the endless procession of valueless crap." I agreed, though, that in the example we're all obviously talking about, the critic just wants to show off his nice words, to play "the game" or criticism, not to try and discuss the object in question like it's an entry, successful or not, in the history of something essential.

Bryan Sentes said...

Paul, given that language-centred writing (broader and deeper than "L=A=N=G=U=G=E) is a contemporary compositional mode, a "school" if you will, it demands the hermeneutical labour and charity its own proponents so often deny those who differ from them, often as vociferously as our own reactionary vigilantes. To dismiss it (and Derrida!) in a couple of sentences is the kind of gesture we're criticizing here, aren't we? Ironically, e.g., you write "we are talking about only those things that are manifest in a text", which echoes Derrida's famous "il n'ya pas hors de texte". I refrain from continuing: regrettably, there's not world enough and time in a blog comment to mount an apologia and critique for ANY school of writing...

Paul Vermeersch said...

Jake, fair enough.

Bryan, good question. I should clarify. I only that meant that "intent" is always part of a text, and the experiment to mask it or do away with it cannot ultimately be entirely successful because the creative process will always leave its fingerprints behind. When Derrida says "il n'ya pas hors de texte", he clearly forgot to dust for prints. Unless what he really means is "il n'ya pas hors de texte that I want to think about".

Bryan Sentes said...

Paul: I hope one day we get a chance to discuss Derrida and poststructuralist theory. This thread isn't the place to (re)launch such a discussion. Let me just remark, I think you do disservice to the subtlety of Derrida's thought here: being avowedly indebted to phenomenology, he would be the first to point out that the poem is an intentional object; indeed, Derrida's (in)famous remark re "texte" is precisely that there is NO phenomenon that doesn't bear the mark of (human) language.

Paul Vermeersch said...

Bryan, I look forward to that conversation.

Brenda Schmidt said...

A well-argued post, Paul. The Julavits quote is great, but leaves me wondering yet again about the big role that the editors who accept snark play in all this and why their responsibility for the apparent prevalence of snark hasn't been more closely scrutinized. Surely they know snark when they see it. They publish snark. They compensate snark. Thereby they encourage more of it from the ones currently writing snark and that published snark must set an example for up-and-coming reviewers. How do editors and publishers measure the weight of snark in the Canadian marketplace? Clearly they feel it sells magazines, but is that really the case?

Paul Vermeersch said...

You raise a very good point, Brenda. While the bloggosphere has made it possible for snarkists to join the fray without passing editorial muster, I'm sure some editors just want to take an arm's length approach and give writers a wide berth without taking proactive steps to shape their publication's editorial direction. Other editors might simply be starving for content and have to settle for what they get, even if it is snarky drivel. Other editors perhaps feel that sensationalism is more profitable than journalistic credibility. Who knows the answer? It has to be a case-by-case issue, but it certainly adds an entirely new level culpability to the equation.

Mitchell said...

Excellent post, & a very convincing & welcome argument. Except I agree with Bryan about Derrida :)

NigelBeale said...

"Remember, it's not about knowing the author's mind, as I have said. "Intent" is manifest in the work."

Helen Gardner makes the point, about Donne's Air and Angels, that if intent isn't 'manifest' in the work, it can be said to be a failure:

"Here I cry out for some dates. If I could date this poem, and date Donne’s other lyrics, I might be able to support one or other reading by reference to the poems which Donne was writing at about the same time. Or if I knew how old he was when he wrote it and whether he wrote it to any particular person, I might use this information to argue that this or that reading is the more likely in the circumstances in which the poem was written. Or if we had Donne’s notebooks and could see from drafts how he had begun and worked at the poem, we might find a clue. If we saw how the poem began we might feel more certainty about the intention of the poet. For it is the poet’s intention which is not clear in the poem. For that reason I have to decide that it is not a wholly successful poem. The amount of ink that has been spent on its twenty-eight lines suggest that it has had at any rate many unsuccessful readers, of whom I am one."

Lemon Hound said...

Very good points, and discussion.

Brenda, I have a similar question regarding the supporting of this particular approach to reviewing. One answer is that it gets's the negative attention model. The binary of good/bad...
Not a great one but it seems to work, at least on the surface. Another answer is that we have been circling around in the cesspool of the "if you aren't negative you aren't critical" argument that evolved out of the evaluative criticism model.

Who benefits? One might argue that since this model of criticism is holding up an elite, model of excellence, it is the wish to be found in the inner circle of elite that, to some degree, must keep it afloat isn't it?

In any case, I don't see this problem as limited to one reviewer. Really, it seems to be an accepted model for mainstream reviewing venues (and growing). My worry is that un-interrogated it will continue to be the model of choice.

Bryan Sentes said...

This thread may have run its course, but here goes...

Nigel, your observation and the quotation from Gardner are interesting and germane, to the topic of intent. But if we bring Gardner's words under the rubric of Snarkism they take on a different significance. I'd wager the passage you quote is preceded by pages of hermeneutic labour, where we see her bringing to bear every gram of available scholarship, critical acumen, and interpretive ingenuity. Her words are as much an admission of failure on her part, introduced as they are by her stating very clearly exactly what she would need to come to a satisfying first reading of Donne's poem and, in the process, revealing where she herself is coming from. No Snark she! (Nor do I take you to present her as such). What her words say about problems in interpretation is a much more profound question...

GM said...

Thanks for the post, Paul. Are people arguing about something? I've been writing poetry, so I've missed it, I guess.

Chris Banks said...

"Who benefits? One might argue that since this model of criticism is holding up an elite, model of excellence, it is the wish to be found in the inner circle of elite that, to some degree, must keep it afloat isn't it?"

That is certainly how I read it and I agree with you that it extends beyond just one reviewer. It is a model of reviewing that is growing her in Canada. That it is about prominence-building and not about actual criticism makes it all the more troubling.