“What was your intention when writing this book?”
“What did you mean by the passage on page 108?”
“What did you want the reader to feel at the end?”
“What message did you intend the book to deliver?”

Authors of novels, especially novels for children, know that questions such as these are not uncommon. This might be surprising, in view of the fact that more than sixty years have gone by since William K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley published their famous essay “The Intentional Fallacy” (1946), except that somehow it isn’t surprising at all to find that lengthy and passionate discussion among literary critics has not the slightest influence on the way most readers read most books. Clearly, for many readers, the author’s intention still does matter, and getting it right, or at least not reading against this supposed intention, is an important part of the satisfaction, or perhaps the relief from anxiety, they hope to feel. Recently I answered online a number of questions from readers of His Dark Materials, including this one: “Is a reader ‘allowed’ to have a Christian/religious reading of a text that is supposed to be atheistic?”

What seems to be going on here is the feeling that reading is a sort of test, which the reader passes or fails according to how closely the interpretation matches the one the author intended. It would be easy to criticize or mock this feeling, but it is genuine. It comes from the same source as the indignation readers feel when a text they believed was a truthful memoir turns out to be fiction, and it’s almost certainly related to the anger felt by a child who learns what the rest of the family has known for years, namely that he is adopted. It’s the desire not to be made a fool of: the wish not to be shown up as ignorant of a truth that everyone else knows. In fact, it’s a natural human feeling. People think there really is an answer. I should probably qualify that by saying that it’s young readers, or unsophisticated readers, who seem to be most anxious to know the author’s intention. English literature graduates will have at their fingertips all the arguments about the intentional fallacy, and a dozen other fallacies besides. But do we expect all readers to have that sort of knowledge? It would be absurd. There are plenty of other things for people to be interested in. The question is how we deal with this one.

What I want to examine here is what part intention really plays in the writing of a book, and whether it really helps readers to know what that intention is. Unfortunately, writers are not always trustworthy when they tell us about their intentions. Firstly, they might not remember; secondly, they might not want to reveal their true intentions anyway; thirdly, the context of the question sometimes determines the sort of answer it gets. Questions like this tend to be asked at events such as literary festivals, where the task in hand is that of entertaining an audience rather than revealing deep and complex truths, and faced with that task, the storyteller’s instinct in front of an audience takes over and shapes a few scraps of half-remembered fact and a sprinkle of invention into a coherent and interesting narrative: a story about their intentions.

But they—they? I mean we. I mean I. I, we, and they do that with most questions, especially the old favorite, “Where do you get your ideas from?” We do it because it’s necessary. One of the occupational hazards the modern writer has to negotiate is the book tour, and it’s in the course of such a tour that we have most need of such instant stories about telling a story, because the same questions come up in every interview, at every bookstore, with every audience, twenty, fifty, a hundred times; and in sheer self-defense we develop a performance, with a set of neat anecdotes, one-liners, and pat answers. And one of the consequences of this anti-madness strategy is that our audiences, which consist for the most part of people who like reading but don’t necessarily follow the convolutions of literary theory, come to believe—or are confirmed in an existing belief—that there really is a simple answer to such questions as “What did you intend when you wrote this book?” and that that answer matters to their reading of it.

But here, I hope, I can abandon the pat answers and tell a little more, or as much as I know, anyway, of the truth about my intentions when I wrote one of my books, The Scarecrow and His Servant (2004). The book tells the story of a scarecrow who miraculously comes to life, engages a young boy called Jack as his servant, and wanders about a land that seems to be a sort of fairy-tale Italy. After several adventures, during which they are followed without their knowledge by a lawyer representing the obviously villainous Buffaloni Corporation, they discover that the Scarecrow, thanks to the will that his maker had hidden in his stuffing, is the real owner of a farm in a place called Spring Valley. The Buffaloni Corporation, which had illegally taken possession of the land, is foiled and evicted, and the Scarecrow and his servant live happily ever after.

The story forms a book 230 pages in length, and is illustrated by delicate pen-and-ink drawings by Peter Bailey. I mention that because it was part of my intention to write a story with pictures, and because Peter Bailey had done such delightful illustrations for some of my previous books. So I had his talent in mind from the start, and I intended to write a story that would suit his light and fantastical style.

But as I write those words I know that “intended” should really have been “hoped.” And this is perhaps the first thing to say about writing and intention: intending to write a particular kind of story is not the same sort of thing as intending to rake up the leaves on the lawn, or telephone one’s cousin, or buy a present for one’s grandchild. We know we can do those things. We don’t know we can write a story that will be funny, or moving, or exciting, though we hope we can. All we can honestly intend to do is try.

Then there is the matter of the subject, the characters, and the setting. This is also difficult to explain in terms of intention. I can recall the moment the notion of this story first came to me: it was during a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide (1956) at the National Theatre in London in 1999. I found the relationship between Candide and his servant Cacambo intriguing, and wondered about other such simple master/clever-servant pairs, such as Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. I liked the inbuilt dynamics of the relationship. Did that mean that I intended to write a story about such a pair? Not yet, but the possibility was there. However, the observation struck me with a particular resonance, which I’ve learned means that I probably am going to write about it.

There were two other sources of which I was conscious. One was a book of reproductions of the younger Tiepolo’s lively and brilliant drawings in pen and brown wash of Punchinello. Punchinello, or Pulcinella, was one of the characters in the commedia dell’arte, and whereas the Scarecrow is not Pulcinella, he has this in common with him as well as with the other commedia characters: he is flat and not round. I had found that an absence of psychology in my protagonists was a positive advantage in writing fairy tales of the sort this was going to be, and the sort of intense vivid character embodied in the commedia mask, its reactions instant and predictable and its attempts at subtlety absurdly obvious, was exactly the sort of personality I could already sense developing when I thought of the Scarecrow. Again, it’s impossible to separate what is intention here from what is something else—hope, as I’ve suggested, or simple fascination: here’s a new character to play with. And, of course, the commedia background suggested Italy, and that soon became inseparable from the rest of the idea.

The second source I was aware of was a book of vivid watercolor sketches sent me by a friend, a poet and painter living in Japan, who had become intrigued by the scarecrows Japanese farmers made for their fields. Anything will do: a pink plastic Wellington boot, a toy plane on a string, a doll trailing scores of colored ribbons. They are a riot of improvisation. My friend had sketched dozens of these, and the infinite transmutability of the Japanese scarecrows certainly played a part in one important development of the plot, when the lawyer for the Buffalonis is trying to prove that the Scarecrow in the witness box is not the Scarecrow mentioned in the will, since every single part of him has now been replaced by something else.

But at what point did I intend to make that idea a part of the plot? From the beginning? I don’t think so. I seem to remember I found it with a start of pleasure as I was writing the court scene, but all that might indicate is that my mind had been preparing the way without my being aware of it: that my intention had been unconscious. However, once I had become aware, I could go back and prepare the way by making sure that in the course of each adventure the Scarecrow lost a leg, or an arm, or his clothes, and his servant Jack found a replacement. I definitely remember intending to do that.

In fact it may be that the major decisions are out of our control, and the intentions we’re conscious of are concerned with matters of detail. That certainly goes for what we’re going to write in the first place. I learned a long time ago that it was a mistake to intend, in a calm and rational way, having looked at a range of options and considered their relative merits and drawbacks, to write a certain book rather than another. The part of me that intended to write that particular book wasn’t capable of it, and the part of me that was capable of writing books didn’t want to write that one.

Among those major decisions, the ones that are made for me, is the one about voice and point of view. I couldn’t truthfully say that I “intend” to write in the third person, though I almost invariably do write like that. Nor did I “intend” to make the voice that tells His Dark Materials different in tone from the voice that tells the Sally Lockhart novels, or both of them different from the voice that tells The Scarecrow and His Servant and my other fairy tales, though they are. The voice I found, in each case, seemed to be what the story wanted. And although I think those voices are different, I dare say that if anyone were to perform a stylistic analysis by computer of all my various stories, it would show that I have certain habits and mannerisms that would always give me away, no matter which “voice” I was using; but as I don’t know what they are, I can’t say that I intend anything very much in connection with them.

The aspect of the author’s intention that readers are perhaps most concerned about is the one about “message.” After the first and second volumes of His Dark Materials had been published, but before the third, I was asked many times which of the characters were supposed to be good, and which bad; whom should the readers cheer for, and whom should they boo? They were clearly frustrated by the lack of a clear signal from the author, or the book itself, or the publisher via the blurb, and they felt unmoored, so to speak. The answer I gave was, in effect, “I’m not going to tell you, but the story isn’t over yet. Wait till you’ve read it all, and then decide for yourself. But what are you going to think when someone you’ve taken for a bad character does something good? Or when a good character does something bad? It’s probably better to think about good or bad actions rather than good or bad characters. People are complicated.”

Audiences seemed satisfied with that, and the question faded away; it was seldom asked in that form after the final book was published. But anxiety about religion and morality is particularly sharp in the present age, so variants of that question turn up still, such as the one I quoted earlier: Is it all right to think X, when the book is apparently intended to say Y? What’s the correct view? What’s the right answer? People clearly feel that intention matters a great deal, and that they can trust the author to tell them about it.

The final aspect of “intention” I shall look at here has to do with audience. “What age of reader is this book written for?” is a question that different authors feel differently about. Some are quite happy to say “It’s for sixth and seventh graders,” or “It’s for thirteen and upwards.” Others are decidedly not. In 2008 most publishers of children’s books in the United Kingdom announced that in an attempt to increase sales they were going to put an age-figure on the cover of every book, of the form 5+, 7+, 9+, and so on, to help adult purchasers in nonspecialist bookstores decide whether a particular book would make a suitable present for a particular child. They met a determined resistance from many authors, who felt that their efforts to write books that would welcome readers of a wide age-range were being undermined by their own publishers, and that the age-figure would actively discourage many children from reading books they might otherwise enjoy. The argument continues, but again it shows the problematic nature of “intention.” Does age-guidance of any sort imply that the book is intended for a particular kind of reader? My own view is that the only appropriate verb to use is, again, hope rather than intend. We have no right to expect any audience at all; the idea of sorting our readers out before they’ve even seen the first sentence seems to me presumptuous in the extreme.

To conclude: a writer’s intention with regard to a book is a complicated and elusive matter, and explaining each case truthfully and in full is not always possible. Would a reader want to know that complicated and elusive truth in any case? Would it be any use to them? Possibly, if they were genuinely interested in the process of composition, and prepared for ambiguities and contradictions and uncertainties; probably not, if their desire was for a simple answer that would end their anxiety about whether they’d really understood what the book was saying.

But it would be frivolous to maintain that a writer’s intention doesn’t matter at all. In other spheres of activity it matters a great deal. If we accidentally dislodge a heavy flowerpot from a sixth-floor balcony onto somebody’s head, it’s unfortunate; if we intend to do so, it’s murder. The courts certainly recognize the difference. There is also the related question of responsibility. If a writer produces a story that has the effect of inflaming (for example) racial hatred, can the writer disclaim responsibility by saying that whatever intention he or she had, it wasn’t that, and that in any case the writer’s intention is irrelevant? To disclaim intention and responsibility altogether seems to me to regard the author as little more than an elaborate piece of voice-recognition software, taking down dictation from an unseen source. Of course our intentions matter to some extent: it’s just rather difficult to say what they are.

In practice, the way we answer questions depends on what we judge to be the needs, the age, the maturity, and the intellectual ability of the questioner, as well as the situation in which the question is posed. If we’re lucky enough to have a long line of young customers waiting for us to sign their newly purchased books, we can’t spend much time on any of our answers; with a small group of well-prepared university students in a seminar room, the case is different.

But I think that I would try—that I do try—to explain that what I intended to do was make up as good a story as I could invent, and write it as well as I could manage. And I try to explain something about the democratic nature of reading. I say that whatever my intention might have been when I wrote the book, the meaning doesn’t consist only of my intention. The meaning is what emerges from the interaction between the words I put on the page and the readers’ own minds as they read them. If they’re puzzled, the best thing to do is talk about the book with someone else who’s read it, and let meanings emerge from the conversation, democratically. I’m willing to take part in such conversations, because I too have read the book, and if I’m asked about my intentions, then any answer I give will be part of the conversation too; but it’s hard to persuade readers that my reading has no more final authority than theirs.

In that way, I may not clarify much for people who want to know about my intentions, but I do introduce the idea of reader-response theory, which is probably more helpful.

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