RARA-AVIS: Re: The definition of classics

From: Kevin Burton Smith ( kvnsmith@thrillingdetective.com)
Date: 05 Nov 2007

Mario wrote:

> "And my question about intention was serious, too. If one were to
> judge
> a work based on the author's intention, who knows what the results
> would
> be. In fact, there is one school of criticism that uses authorial
> intention as its main tool. I have always found it suspect (and
> impracticable, in most cases, since one doesn't have access to the
> author)."

And Mark wrote:

> I agree with you here. Especially since declarations about authorial
> intent are so often retro engneered from the finished product.

Definitely. So much of what writers say about their work is bullshit. Or at least highly suspect.

Like all those authors who claim they've never been edited, or that they never revise. Or know where they're going when they start a book. Or know how to spell cognac.

Oh, I'm sure it happens sometimes, but so much of it seems so self- serving. Like those puffed up autobiographies that would-be manly authors sometimes trot out to make themselves seem like a cross between John Wayne and Hercules. Or author photos where they pose with guns or pipes or dead animals or in bomber jackets or biker gear. Talk about Tarzans on motor scooters.

Or when they claim for themselves intentions attributed to them after- the-fact by critics. A while back, a writer defended/excused a work of his to me in almost exactly the language, almost word-for-word, of a recent review of the same work. Made me wonder if he wrote the review himself or if he was in bed with the critic from the start. Or if he hadn't a clue what his book might possibly be about until somebody else told him.

I have no doubt writers (or at least the better ones) do have certain intentions when writing a book beyond merely moving units. Some carry it off, some don't. And some are subtle about it (Hammett, say, or Chandler) , and some beat you over the head with it (Spillane, Paretsky, say). In all cases, it isn't merely the quality of the intentions that matter so much as how well they're integrated into -- or allowed to show through in -- the narrative.

But when an author stoops to sitting us down to tell us what a book that's been out for a while is REALLY about, I usually take it as a sign that either he's lying and hadn't previously had a clue what his book was about until some critic gave him an angle he could latch onto, or he simply failed to get his intentions across in the first place.

They should have put all that work and effort into writing the book, not trying to convince us after the fact.

Kevin Burton Smith www.thrillingdetective.com

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