Authorial Intent

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See also: Resistant Reading, Fan Service, Word of God, Open Texts
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Authorial intentionality is a concept in literary theory and criticism referring to an author's intent as it is encoded in his or her work. Not all fans assign the same importance to authorial intent, and some consider their own reader response to be the thing that determines meaning in a work.

Authorial Intent in Source Texts

Fans may discuss authorial intent and its importance when discussing source texts for their fandoms. In many episode reviews, fans will try to divine the intent of the creators or TPTB in the meaning of the latest plot twist or character revelation. The idea of Fan Service relies on interpreting specific motivations of the authors of a source in relationship to the fan's expected reaction to it.

When authors or creators discuss their work in public, they often make statements about their own authorial intent. Many fans regard arguments such as "Author X has stated that character Y is heterosexual" to be immaterial; what counts to these fans is the work as it stands on its own. Not all fans or fandoms follow the same rules on determining what is or is not canon, and reactions to authorial statements of intent will vary.

  • J.K. Rowling revealed in a question period after a book-reading that her character Dumbledore was conceived of by her as gay.[1] Some fans took this as justification of their queer reading of Dumbledore, while others regard Rowling's opinion on the matter as mere interesting trivia.
  • Joe Mallozzi wrote in December 2008 at his blog[2] that the character of Captain Alicia Vega in the Stargate Atlantis episode Search and Rescue asked out Jennifer Keller in a scene that was cut and never aired.[3] The character was later killed off in the episode Whispers, leaving fans the option of accepting the blog entry as canon and retroactively creating another Dead Lesbian, or ignoring the information.
  • Director John Waters wrote in the "Sort-of Famous" chapter in his 1981 autobiography Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste about being invited to the Berlin Film Festival: "The buffs are unbelievably serious and went crazy when I told them my films weren't political. "YES THEY ARE!" they screamed, and I backed off. I guess you can read anything you want into a screenplay."[4]

The issue of an author's control of their work and how it is perceived is sometimes at the heart of creators' objections to the existence of fanworks. Many authors who express extreme displeasure at the existence of fanfic for their works are upset by their characters being used in ways that they disapprove of, often citing sexually explicit or slash works as examples of the very worst of fanfic's transgressions against them. (See The Fan Fiction Rant, Diana Gabaldon, Professional Author Fanfic Policies for more details.)

TPTB Taking Back Authorial Control

Sometimes fans feel a push and pull between the original creators and attempts by fans to make it their own via fanworks. This is especially true when a show, especially a "live" show, is headed in a direction that may be unpopular or suspect fannish "interference" has become to strong to ignore.

In 1989, many fans were upset about the change in the direction of the show War of the Worlds and the killing off of two main characters. One fan writes: "Still cynically, looking at how Frank Jr. chose to write Ironhorse out makes me wonder if he didn't do it as nastily as possible simply because we made so much fuss, kind of an "I'll Show The Fans Who's Boss.""

Sherlock (BBC), to some fans, has some elements of this "slap down" effect. From 2014, shortly after the third season began, cathexys wrote in response to cesperanza's post:

Power game it is, though--I'm thinking back on Matt's essay where we get the pretense of equality and power only to have it pulled away from us, bc they are the "real" fan auteurs, they are the ones in control. I like Anne Jamison's take on the meta narratives, the unreliability, the play with fanon (Fanon has always been canon on this show), but I disagree with her that M&G are not ultimately reinstating their authorial position. I think that's where I'm closer to you--it is a fucked up power game where we, the fans, never get to have the last word. I mean, really, if I want to look at it nicely, I'd say that the multiple solutions and the openness allow us to tell out own stories, to keep all explanations of the past year "canon." But on another level, it broadens their authorship to include everything, so that we never get the chance to write against them…[5]

Authorial Intent in Fanworks

The question of authorial intent also arises when fans discuss each other's works. In discussions about fanworks that may reinforce the misogyny or racism in a source text, fans may question the relevance of the author's intent in creating the work vs. the importance of individual fan's responses to it.

In the discussions surrounding Take Clothes Off As Directed and Coming Home, some fans asserted that Helen was intending to have her story viewed as a feminist critique of the original story. Other fans viewed the author's intent with what was labeled "an unauthorized homage" irrelevant, and individual interpretations of the story as a critique or as a more friendly-seeming remix were all valid. See links at Fandom Reactions.

The very practice of labeling fanworks with headers that include genres such as gen, het, slash or pre-slash, or labels such as non-con or dub-con, is an exercise in the author expressing their intent with the work.

In cases where the label is debatable (see Genre Boundaries) readers may resent having their reading of the work dictated by the header. There is also a perception among some fans that writers who don't want their friendship fic seen as slash are sometimes antagonistic to slash fans in their labeling.[6]

In 1995, a fan wrote about a friend's reaction to fannish comments, not taking into account that readers have their own opinions:

At least one Pros 'mary sue' was quoted to me when I know for a fact that the character was not a mary sue (I know the writer and she was Not Amused that people had thought that the character was her. Not amused at all.). [7]

In 1998, a fan wondered about the "morality" of reading slash into a stated gen universe:

On the subject of K/S or not K/S, years ago I began to find when reading genzine stories that I couldn't read them if they hadn't the potential or at least the hidden opportunity to be K/S whatever the author's views on the subject. For example the Sahaj series (if you can get hold of these, do so, they are classics in the best sense.) I disliked the original premise, that Spock has an illegitimate son by a woman who has no interest in him or later in the boy. (Too complicated to explain here but it works and Sahaj is a wonderful character.) The author, Leslye Lilker wrote a series of stories detailing Spock's learning of the child's existence, Sahaj's upbringing, and the eventual coming closer of father and son. Not much chance of K/S here and I didn't fancy reading it but I was talked into it by a friend who said that you could put your own slant (if you see what I mean) on the relationship—and she was right— you can. You see Spock has no interest in the woman, his loyalty to his Captain is overwhelming and they share a mind link. Spock says to Sahaj that Kirk is more than his friend. When in The Forging (which is the finest of the works), Kirk beams down to join Spock and Sahaj on a Vulcan desert journey, I have no trouble in seeing a K/S relationship between them, even though Spock tells Sahaj that his bond with Jim is fraternal. Well, he would, wouldn't he? The boy is only 11 or so. The problem with all this is that I believe that Leslye was very anti K/S. So where does that leave us? Is it 'immoral' to read someone's story in a way that is against her/his express wishes? [8]

In 2008, a fan wrote:

Isn't interpretation (however wild) down to the reader?

Many of my stories are commentary on the text or commentary on someone's else's story in a fictional form, and that won't work if you allow the writer to be the arbiter of how their work is interpreted. One line of modern critical theory has it that the 'author is dead' meaning that they don't have power of interpretation over a story that is 'out there' and that would surely apply to fanfiction as much as to published fiction. I mean, logically we can't claim anything, any ownership over the text that we don't allow authors published for money. Fandom may be a gift economy, but it's not an hypocrite or idiot economy.

As I see it, if you allow fanfiction authors that kind of power it would mean that Lee Goldberg and his furry little friends are right, and nobody should be writing fanfiction, let alone slash, in any universe in which that author has said their work should not be interpreted that way. That would mean, as I understand it, little Trek, almost no Lord of the Rings, very little Harry Potter...and so on, and so on. [9]

Further Reading/Meta


  1. ^ Tara Weingarten (2007-10-15). "Rowling Says Dumbledore Is Gay". Newsweek. Archived from the original on 2022-08-11.
  2. ^ Joe Mallozi (2008-12-08). "December 8, 2008: Ships and What Ifs Joseph Mallozzi's Weblog". Archived from the original on 2020-08-15.
  3. ^ Darren Sumner (2008-12-08). "GateWorld - Mallozzi: Captain Vega was gay". GateWorld. Archived from the original on 2008-12-10.
  4. ^ Waters, John. Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste. Baltimore: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1981.
  5. ^ cesperanza (2014-01-02). "OK, I get it, I get it!". Dreamwidth. Archived from the original on 2022-08-12.
  6. ^ suaine (2009-06-17). "I was going to post about some sexist crap, but I found this instead". Dreamwidth. Archived from the original on 2022-08-12.
  7. ^ from. Strange Bedfellows (APA) #10 (1995)
  8. ^ from The K/S Press #20 (1998)
  9. ^ from a mailing list, quoted anonymously (June 2008)