Who Has Authority Over Meaning: Authors or Readers?

  • literary interpretation text interpretation
  • 24 January, 2017

I’m often asked if the questions I publish here are “real.” That is, do teachers, really ask me these things? The questions definitely are real. Though they come to me in a variety of ways.

           Not long ago a colleague contacted me for my advice on a question she’d been asked. She was surprised to see that one show up on my blog. Other times, I might be giving a talk and a question comes from the audience. I remember it later and answer it again for you.

           This week’s “question” is less a query than a confluence of two recent experiences.

           First event: The Washington Post told the story of Sara Holbrook, an author, whose poetry is included in Texas’s state reading test. Ms. Holbrook was chagrined to find that she couldn’t answer all the questions about her own poems. Part of the problem was that one question was about the implications of the poem’s structure, but in printing the poem the publisher screwed up the formatting. One shouldn’t need the original author to fix that kind of mistake.

           The more interesting concern was with another question that asked about the meaning of a particular simile Ms. Holbrook had used. She thought there were multiple answers that could be acceptable and chided the test makers.

           I came across all this from a tweet from my good buddy, Kylene Beers (please don’t judge her for that). She posted it and various educators weighed in about the futility of testing. Despite my recent rant about how we misuse testing, I picked a fight, pointing out that in various interpretive communities, once a text is “published” the author has no more say in what it means than anyone else. Kylene’s followers evidently were not amused.

           Second event: I was working on a curriculum project, and I had to compose some stories to use in the lessons. My wife, Cyndie, was helping me and at some point we got in an argument over the meaning of one of the stories. She believed that it carried one theme and I thought another.

           After we had banged at each other for a while, she started laughing. “What’s so funny?” I asked.

           Her response: “I’m arguing with the author about what his story is suppose to mean.” Once she stopped laughing, she suggested that I write about this on my blog.

           The issue is this: who owns meaning and what does it matter who owns it if we are trying to teach kids to read and interpret texts?

           Many years ago, I studied kids’ conceptions of authors and their role in reading comprehension and text interpretation. In doing that work, I read a great deal of literary criticism, and was surprised to find not everyone was as excited as me about having readers think about authors. In fact, many literary critics thought it was a singularly foolish idea.

           The New Critics, the Post-Structuralists, the Communities of Meaning groups all rejected the author’s primacy. While some authorities (e.g., Louise Rosenblatt) seemed not so much aimed at banishing the author as treating him/her as a minor irrelevancy, others, like Michel Foucault, went so far as declaring the author to be dead (a position Foucault recanted later).

           My point isn’t that since many experts reject the importance of author in interpretation that we should too. I’m only pointing out that it is contested ground.

           In contrast to the anti-author group are those who champion the idea that readers must construct author persona from a text, or those, like E.D. Hirsch who have made the argument that readers are ethically responsible for trying to honor the author’s meaning—rather than simply constructing any meaning they might choose.

           There are at least a couple of ways of considering these arguments about meaning within reading instruction. One simple thing to do would be to pooh-pooh it all as trivial; we are talking about the interpretation of literature right. Does it really matter, in the whole mix of things, whether we think about authors or not?

           I can’t do that because we aren’t just (that is an ironic italicization) talking about literature. The world may not be disrupted much whether I grasp the true meaning that Robert Frost crafted into “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” but there are text interpretations that do matter materially. I remember Stanley Fish providing a seminar to Supreme Court Justices concerning the futility of trying to grasp the “original intent” of the Founders. Do laws mean what the words say or what the authors might have meant when they wrote those words?

           You might not care whether I think Frost’s poem is about death or Santa Claus, but you might care a lot about Justice Robert’s take on what the U. S. Constitution has to say about reproductive rights or gun control. Those issues turn on where the meaning resides—in the text, in the reader, or in the original author.

           I tend to fall on the conservative side of such arguments… that is, I tend to believe that authors try to communicate with readers, and that our job as readers is to try to figure out what the author meant to communicate. Like Hirsch, I see it as a matter of ethics. To turn someone’s words to your own purposes is very similar to using other people for your own purposes.

           Not only do I think thoughtful reading considers what an author was trying to convey, I believe that much of our ability to argue back with a text is bound up in our perception that the words represent another person; another fallible person with a point of view that may be wrong.

           I’m one of those readers who luxuriate in an author’s voice (when I read E. B. White, I slow to “hear” his flat, unemotional accent—a bit of New York, a bit of Maine).

           However, those things do not render me ignorant of the ultimate impossibility of ever grasping another person’s meaning with full certainty. Language is too imperfect for that.

           Doesn’t that argue for simply asking an author what she meant? Perhaps, but as Fish has pointed out, authors err; they change their minds; they forget; they have a subconscious; they have ulterior motives for nurturing or dispelling ambiguity. Maybe Ms. Holbrook doesn’t like tests and was willing to twist her original meaning to make a political point. Or, perhaps she had second thoughts about getting paid by a test company. Ultimately, you just can’t trust authors.

           I buy the ethical argument that we should try to honor an author’s words—considering not just multiple interpretations, but which one the author may have intended; it appeals to my sense of decency. But, I also accept the idea that multiple interpretations will usually be possible, and that once a work is shared, the author surrenders his or her authority over the “meaning” of the text. Now it belongs to all of us, including the people who make up test questions.

           Okay, that’s part one. Next time I’ll provide some practical ideas about how teachers may best enable this dual approach to interpretation: how to teach kids to be sensitive to authors and true to what those authors probably tried to mean; and, also, how to ignore an author, appropriately, when trying to develop one’s own interpretation.

           I not only can talk out of both sides of my mouth, I can teach that way.


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Who Has Authority Over Meaning: Authors or Readers?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.