Academic journal article Style

Meaning, Intent, and the Implied Author

Academic journal article Style

Meaning, Intent, and the Implied Author

Article excerpt

My interest in the implied author (henceforth 1A) dates back to a discussion on the Narrative listserv a few years ago. I have forgotten what started the thread, but I remember that it concerned how the IA of a certain text should be constructed and that all the participants seemed to take the theoretical importance of this notion for granted. Narrative fiction, all seemed to agree, was the product of a six-participant transaction involving an author, an implied author, a narrator, a narratee, an implied reader, and a real reader, though the outermost two participants were considered of no concern for literary criticism. In my earlier work, I had dutifully appended the term "implied" to any mention of the author, partly because Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction had succeeded in convincing me of the necessity of the IA, and partly for fear of appearing theoretically unsophisticated. But now I could no longer see the justification for building the protective wall of the IA between the reader and the real author, so I butted into the discussion with a post stating my skepticism regarding the existence of this sacred cow of literary criticism.

It was as if l had screamed, "God is dead," in the middle of a church service. The participants in the thread responded with a volley of posts explaining why flesh-and-blood authors must be left out at all costs from literary interpretation, and why they must be replaced by IAs if the text is to be regarded not only as the representation of individual events occurring in a fictional world (a representation which is the job of the narrator), but also as the expression of general ideas, values, and opinions whose domain of applicability extends to the real world. The main argument for attributing these ideas, values, and opinions to an IA rather than to the real author (henceforth RA) is that there is no way to tell whether RA sincerely endorses them or lives by these standards. Many cases were presented of authors being despicable in real life but admirable in their incarnations as IAs, though nobody could come up with an example of the opposite situation. Some contributors went as far as suggesting the purely hypothetical case of an author defending in a novel the exact opposite of what he believes in, not just through individuated characters, but as the global message of the text. (Why an author would want to do this remained, however, obscure: it seems a sure recipe for spreading the wrong ideas!)

I thought at the time that I was the only IA-doubter in the narratological community and that my arguments were consequently original. But as I started doing research for this article, I made the partly annoying, partly reassuring discovery that the concept of IA has a long history of being under fire. Its critics include narratologists as prominent as Gerard Genette, Mieke Bal, Ansgar Nunning, Michael Toolan, Nilli Diengott, Tom Kindt, and Hans-Harald Muller, all of whom, it should be noted, come from beyond the Atlantic. The proponents of the IA, by contrast, are mainly Americans: Wayne Booth, Seymour Chatman, James Phelan, Peter Rabinowitz, William Nelles, and Brian Richardson. The implied author wars, then, pit American narratology against the rest of the world. (See Phelan 2005 and Schmid 2009 for useful accounts of the IA controversy.)As l read through the pro- and anti IA literature, I soon discovered that the term "implied author" was like William Gibson's concept of cyberspace: "Slick and hollow--awaiting received meaning" (27)--and that the only thing that unites all the users of the term is just that: the use of the term. Every advocate of the IA seemed to have his own conception of what IAs stand for, and every opponent seemed to have different objections.

As the readers of this essay know full well, the concept of IA was first proposed by Wayne Booth in 1961 as a reaction against the rigid "textualism" of New Criticism. In the textualist position, the words on the page are the sole legitimate source of meaning, and any appeal to the author's intention (otto external documents that may explain the text) is considered heretical. …

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