A lot of people don’t like their English classes. Yes, writing papers sucks, and yes, the dense, dusty classics are usually a bore. But it’s deeper than that. In every English class I’ve ever been in—K-12 and higher ed—whether I was a student, a TA, or an instructor, there’s always a pivotal moment when one student says what everyone else is thinking.
What if blue was just their favorite color?
How the teacher answers this question sets the tone for the rest of the class—because at the end of the day, what this student has done is demand the instructor defend the entire discipline. Why do we read this way? And is it possible it’s all total horse shit?
[Obligatory quip about how STEM people say yes and administrators defund us for it.]
What that question boils down to is intent. There is a very innate assumption, it seems, that meaning in a work is only valid if the author intended to put it there. Now, if you’re reading this, I’m assuming you are at least a little familiar with the creative process. Like me, you might call yourself a writer. And so like me, you know that despite our best efforts—and no matter how many times we put beginning, middle, and end on the page—no one knows what the fuck we’re doing.
We wrangle symbols and themes and character arcs into our work—sometimes we’re even pretty good at it—but then when readers get involved, all hell breaks loose. Things we thought were clear aren’t, characters we thought meant X end up reading as Y, and betas come up with meanings and patterns that we didn’t even realize our brains put there. Creative writing is messy. So it’s often hard, on our end, to believe that George RR Martin is a genius who planted every little seed in his thought garden with elegant intent. Instead, we see that final season of GOT, go WTF? like the rest of the world, and then we take a little bit of comfort knowing he didn’t know what he was doing either.
Recently, I was beta reading for a good friend of mine, Britt Laux, and the same exact thing happened. They wrote a symbol, I got really freaking excited about what that symbol meant to me, and then Britt was like, “welp it was a total accident.”
Sometimes the curtains are blue on purpose. Sometimes we just liked the sound “bl-oo.” Sometimes we saw a blue car drive by the coffee shop window. Sometimes it’s an easter egg for our grandmothers to find. Or, God forbid, sometimes blue actually is our favorite color.
So what if it is an accident? Does that mean we can’t read meaning into it? And if we can, who gets to say what it means? The writer? The critic? The reader?
Existential crisis in 3… 2… 1…
Now you can see why this question comes up in every class—and why it’s a make-or-break moment for the person in front of the whiteboard. I’ve been that person. Hopefully, I’ll be her today.
The long and the short of it: intent is bullshit.
But it didn’t always used to be.
Before the early 20th century, literary scholars were more like historians. They spent their careers learning about the lives of authors and then connecting them to what they saw on the page. Knowing that Shakespeare’s father was catholic—despite England having gone through an incredibly bloody Protestant Reformation—for instance, changes our reading of the ghost of Hamlet’s father. We can rightly point to the muddily catholic moments about limbo and haunting with some confidence and say, “Yes! Shakespeare intended us to see this.”
The problem is, intent is bloody hard to prove. What if Shakespeare didn’t realize he was putting heretical material in front of a protestant Queen? What if he just wasn’t that stupid—or that brave—to rebel like that?
Intent is so hard to prove, in fact, that it’s the thorn in the side of civil rights litigators. In the ACLU documentary, The Fight, lawyer Dale Ho ran into that issue. The Trump administration wanted to add “are you a United States citizen?” to the census, despite that information being available to them through the Social Security Administration. If they succeeded, we know that undocumented and mixed citizenship families would be afraid of that information being used against them; we know that it would not have been the first time such a thing has happened (census information identified Japanese American families for the government to then intern during WWII); and we know that if those families simply don’t participate in the census, (mostly democratic) states would be in danger of losing seats at the House of Representatives. But did the Trump administration know that? And did they put the citizenship question on the census because they knew that? Given the racist context of the presidency, the answer’s undoubtedly yes. However, fellow litigators told Dale Ho to try to win without that pretext. Try to win on the fact that the federal government should have used the SSA instead of the census—because proving intent is damn hard to do.
But here’s the catch: even if we can’t prove the Trump administration knowingly and willfully set about this policy (among others) to purposefully discriminate, does that mean that discrimination is not worth talking about? Of course not. The effect is felt. The effect matters. That’s why we take the time to explore it—or in this case, fight it.
20th century literary scholars were tired of trying to prove the impossible and instead started to explore the effects. They cared more about the tension, tone, alliteration, and symbolism in Hamlet than whether or not he, himself, was catholic. Or, in other words, they set out to explain why Hamlet impacts readers in the way that it does, not the ways the world impacted an English playwright named William.
New Criticism was born. And it was so revolutionary, its core tenant is the basis of all subsequent literary scholarship to this day: Close Reading. Find the patterns that are felt. Analyze their effect. Then tell us why that matters. (Observation, Analysis, Synthesis).
If the meaning is there, it matters. Intent be damned.
So, who gets to say what it means?
Overwhelmingly, the readers. They are the ones affected by the words. (And for the record, I’m including critics here. Literary scholarship is just laser-focused, peer-reviewed reading). We, as writers, can do our damnedest to lead readers in certain directions—and we should try to do that—but at the end of the day, our audience is the one impacted by our work. They feel all our planted seeds, but they also feel the weeds. The accidents, the easter eggs, the chaos of our subconscious brains are all there—and readers will focus or not focus on what they will.
Once it’s out there, there’s not much more we can do.
Honestly, that’s why JK Rowling is so damn frustrating (beyond, you know, the fucking TERFdom). She likes to take to Twitter to have the final word on what her work means, but if it’s not there—if we don’t feel it—all that does is feel cheap to us. Cool, Dumbledore’s gay, but like… where? You can’t just tell us he is. We need to feel it for ourselves.
At the end of the day, my creative process is an exercise in both New and Old Criticism. I write. I read what I wrote like a scholar—laser-focused. And then I take what I’ve learned and write with intention. I plant the weeds, so to speak, so they aren’t just scattered everywhere.
I write like I did it on purpose.
Whether or not I’m good at it is another thing entirely. But the point is, I try. And I’m hoping this blog will help you try too.
Because here’s the thing. I’m sitting here saying that readers have the final say and no one knows what they’re doing. **Cue Movie with Mikey’s jingle.** Assuming you came here to maybe grasp a little more about the craft, that is a radically uncomfortable statement, right? But actually, there’s this weird power in embracing it. Our work has influence beyond our control.
Writing is our witchcraft.
There’s magic in the worlds we create, an energy embedded in the syntax, the turns of phrases. We are just doing our best to harness and shape it. With experience, we can do it well, but our worlds can be powerful even without our intent.
And that, my friends, is truly magical.
Speaking of happy accidents, this last little bit was completely unplanned, but I love that it tied into this mug. Not sponsored, just lovely. If you want it for yourself, check out Lindsay Elizabeth’s store.