Part 2: Authorial Intent & Responsibility

May 16, 2015

This is a post that I've been meaning to write for a very long time, and a recent bad experience with a book finally acted as the catalyst. Also, this post contains way too many questions, and too few answers, just so you know. I am a very confused person.

NOTE: Part 1 of this post can be found here.

I was really enjoying the last book I was reading until I came across a small bit that really took me aback:
"Ladies first."
Right away I wanted to throw my glasses in the nearest trash can and yank my ponytail down. Chivalry makes me want to be the kind of lady who deserves it.
[Before I elaborate further, I just want to note that I'm not going to mention the book's name, because this is not a hate post, and the book isn't the point of this anyway. I simply want to speculate on a few things.]

First of all, what does that last sentence even mean? That only gorgeous women who have their shit together are worthy of chivalry? That simple, normal women who aren't put together all the time don't merit common courtesy? That if you are the recipient of some chivalry you're supposed to immediately assess the ways in which you can improve your appearance so that you *deserve* it? So that... what? You can thank the guy with your appearance?

In a world that's becoming increasingly materialistic and shallow, and placing undue value upon physical attractiveness, is it really a good idea for a book to reinforce the idea that looks are everything? Is that the kind of message that a book targeted at young adults should convey? Aren't young girls faced with enough pressures to fit the narrow definition of beauty that the world has these days?

You may think I'm overreacting, but bah! It just makes me so mad!


As I was fuming over this, it got me thinking about the entire issue from the author's perspective. I know authors in general are pretty level headed individuals, and this author in particular is not someone who projects such ideas in her stories.

So how did this happen? (and this wasn't the only issue I had with the story. There was also a scene in which a character laughingly contemplates sexual assault, which is not okay)

I've noticed in the last year or so (since I've starting keeping up with bookish news), that authors sometimes do things that they only later come to realise are wrong, and end up apologizing. These issues may be over social media, or even in books, and to the uproar that is inevitably caused, the authors claim that they didn't have any untoward intentions (but there are also times when they adamantly stick to their view and say they didn't do anything wrong).

And I have a feeling this was most probably the case with this particular author. Maybe she simply didn't realise the kind of message her words would be sending.


Which naturally gets me thinking about whether or not a reader should understand literature while keeping in mind the author's intent while writing it.

There are credible arguments for both sides of the issue, with the trend moving more towards the reader's interpretation of the work itself these days, with lesser emphasis on authorial intent.

However, to me, it feels like we need to know where the author is coming from before we judge a book. And I think context matters a great lot too. For instance, when there were scenes of rape and animal brutality in Red Rising by Pierce Brown, I can't say I liked it, but I did understand that its presence could not be equated to the author's endorsement of said issues. In fact, Brown has stated, "The entire story is... about combating greed and combating selfishness and evil. And also trying to rise above what society has told you that you have to be." And I know for a fact that he dearly loved his pet dog Sir Oswald. So obviously, in this case, you can't pin the blame for an unpopular view on the author.

But I think we need to take things like this on a case-by-case basis. Because context and misconstrued intentions are one thing, and willful propagation of harmful ideas, even as subtext or on a subliminal level is a whole other thing.


Authors hold in their hands a very potent power, which in its quest to often reflect society can also have a considerable influence on the direction the world takes in the future. Can anyone honestly say that authors like Jane Austen, J K Rowling, Suzanne Collins, and several more have not had an impact on the way the world sees and reacts to things? Or on the way our cultures, our thoughts and our ideals have evolved?

So while benign intentions are all very good, I think there is a lot to be said for responsible writing. Words have a power greater than anything else, and those who wield that power have to be conscious of it, and assess the ramifications before sending something into the world.

There will always be people who will read too much into some small little thing, or those who take up arms against some imagined offense. There will also be people who will glean something from a work that the author had no intention of putting there, and come away the richer for it. It can go both ways. But I think its important for an author to make sure that their work is conveying exactly what they want it to convey.

Or at least, that it's not conveying something that they don't want it to convey.

But this is just my two cents on the issue :)

Have you recently come across something in a book that you thought was offensive? How do you think we should look at issues like these?