Sunday, 18 March 2012

I is for INTENT

And so we come to the thorny issue of authorial INTENT. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of getting published has been how readers have interpreted my book in ways I never intended or even foresaw. I’ve lost count, for example, of the number of readers who are insistent that the film Die Hard is referenced throughout. For the record, although I’ve seen the film (to date still McTiernan’s best) and think it a clever, pulse-pounding thriller it was never an influence on Afrika Reich*. As a follow-on, many of the intended references – everything from TS Eliot to Luciano Vincenzoni to Norse mythology – have gone unremarked.

At university I came across reader response theory. I won’t bore you with a detailed explanation (you can find out more here) but in essence it says that the reader is the primary force who gives a book its meaning by interpreting it. As an undergraduate, and as you know already a fledging writer, I was deeply suspicious of this. How could the reader have more of a stake than the author? How could my book not mean what I meant it to?

It’s only since being published and having hundreds of people review and talk to me about my book (often in totally unexpected ways) that I’ve begun to appreciate there might be more to reader response than I initially believed. I now see how my intent has become just one of a myriad of interpretations of the text... though I still believe mine – as the creator – is the definitive one.

So what was my intent?

Now that’s an even thornier question! And one I’m not sure I should answer. This is not coyness on my behalf but after everything I’ve written above perhaps it’s not right to privilege my interpretation over others and so determine people’s view.

What I will say is that I wanted to write something relentless and visceral; something with an epic, journey-across-the-continent quality that would leave the reader exhausted. On a more surprising note, it wasn’t necessarily my intention to write an alternate history thriller... though clearly the book can be read that way.


*However, since so many people found ‘footprints’ where none were intended, as a private joke I’ve now referred to the film in Book 2!


  1. Golly! Intention and meaning. One of the reasons I stopped watching Time Team (apart from the silly "race against the clock archaeology"!!!) was whenever they'd dig something up they'd say immediately without any careful analysis (to me) "oh it looks like some sort of contraption meant for the wife to use over an open fire" and I'd be like "but how do you know this?!?!? Maybe whoever made this contraption intended it to be used for something completely naff - you don't know!". Then again maybe that was the intention of the programme...(to annoy the crap out of me!).

    Where was I?

    You've got me thumbing through my AR copy now looking for intentional references to Norse mythology, TS Elliot, that other person I don't know...! LOL!

    I think if you intended the reader to have a jolly good riveting read, then methinks you've done it! I shall definitely look for the Die Hard reference in Book 2!

    Take care

  2. Hello Guy

    I saw you the other week at Essex Book Festival and have read the whole of your blog. Very interesting it is too!!

    I was wondering though that you said your intent was not to writ an alternative history thriller and yet in previous postings you've written about choosing a divergence point and the influence of thrillers such as 'Fatherland' and 'Men on a Mission' which suggests that was what you intended to write. Or am I missing some point?

    Can't wait for the second book and keep up the good work here.

    Best regards, Ron

  3. Now, I am not given to commenting on other people's blogs - that way madness lies, not to mention that you join the conversation and before you know it, there's the morning gone and no parsnip-buttering words written.

    However, as a writer myself, I must come to the defence of reader response, if not the formal theory in its entirety. What readers bring to books is the magic of their own imagination. They bring books to life. Books need two parents - writer and reader. There can surely be no point in a book which is so closed (sorry, awful pun) that the reader can find no way in to put her/his own mark upon it. Nor can it say much for the writer's mind if s/he is in complete control of everything that goes into a book. It may be scary, but we have to live with the fact that our work betrays our sub-conscious as well as our conscious intent, and that our better, sharper, more engaged readers will dig that up.

    I have to confess, given that my own articulated intent is merely to tell stories, to great gratitude to readers who suggest I am addressing profound themes, but am still waiting for someone to detect the influence of Eliot on my work...Perhaps I have to wait till April...

    1. Sarah, surely you can claim: In the room the women come and go /Talking of Michelangelo.

      That's quite enough showing off for one morning. Back to emptying the dishwasher...

    2. If it were Leonardo, possibly, Catherine. You see, this is what I mean about commenting on blogs.My self-discipline slips its electronic tag and roams about unpoliced. And now I think we should move on to Pound, who would have been a lot more at home in the Afrika Reich than Eliot one imagines.

  4. I think writers are justifiably indignant with readers who are either too lazy or too prejudiced to pay attention to what’s actually on the page. On the other hand, if the thoughtful reader gets hold of the wrong end of the stick, it’s usually because the author has neglected to pass it to them the right way round in the first place.

    Assuming both writer and reader are doing their job properly, I agree with Sarah. I resent control-freak writers who make me stick to the path. What’s exciting is when the reader’s response resonates with the writer’s intentions, in rich but sometimes unintended ways. I believe absolutely in synchronicity and archetypes and the collective unconscious and the whole kit and caboodle - we’re all fishing in the same ocean. I’m often unable to spot the bleedin’ obvious in my own writing until it’s pointed out to me – so my subconscious must be slipping its electronic tag and roaming about unpoliced – a scary thought.

    1. To clarify, I’m not accusing Guy of being a control freak writer – it’s omniscient narrators I have a problem with. TAR is an object lesson in showing not telling and keeping to characters’ points of view.

  5. I didn’t spot the TS Eliot reference either. My money’s on the Four Quartets – Footfalls echo in the memory / Down the passage which we did not take. Or The end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time. I wonder if that chimes with your authorial intentions, Guy!

  6. Kitty – Golly back! ;o) Well, there are tonnes of references in the book if you want to look for them: a bizarre amalgam of all the things that interest me. And I bet you’ve seen at least one film written by Signor Vincenzoni! But like you say, you can read the book and enjoy it without picking up a single one. As for the DH reference in Book2, I’m sure everyone will spot it. I might even give Burton a dirty vest a la Bruce Willis.

  7. Ron – Hello and thanks for your comment.

    Clearly TAR can be read as an alternative history thriller, I’ve never denied that – hence the reason I had to settle on a divergence point, and the influence of the ‘Men on a Mission’ genre etc.

    I suppose the point I’m making is that describing the book as an alt history thriller is in effect a way to market it whereas my intention, beyond the surface, was to hark back to older traditions of story telling, something that fascinates me.

    The blog itself, like the process of writing the book, is also something of a journey. So although something maybe true at one point, as the work (be it blog or book) develops new truths take precedent.

    My, this is becoming rather philosophical! Hope that answers your question. Do feel free to comment here again: always good to hear from readers.

    Best wishes


  8. Sarah – I think you might have missed the intent of my blog entry (sorry, a joke I couldn’t resist!) or perhaps are taking it a little more seriously than intended. My general point was more one of bemusement at some people’s insistence on influences that just weren’t there. I chose DIE HARD as an example just because it has come up several times. However, since I’ve seen the film there is always the possibility that it seeped unconsciously into the book.

    A better example would have been a novel someone mentioned at my recent event for Essex Book Festival. During the signing afterwards someone complimented me on my reference to some book about Africa that I can’t remember. I can’t remember it because I’d never heard of it! And yet the woman in question seemed convinced I was referring to it. In that case it can’t be unconscious seepage. To that extent, I suppose it proves reader-response because the woman was making connections independently of me, the author.

    My problem with reader response is that it puts too much emphasis on the reader. It’s part of a whole traditional of post-war literary criticism that in its own way was a response to what happened during the Third Reich – i.e. critical theory of the 60s and 70s seemed to want to abandon any kind of hierarchy (the kind of hierarchies Nazism was dependent on). In such a context the reader can be just as important as the writer – something I simply disagree with. Of course the reader and his/her imagination is vital to the text but I feel uncomfortable with the notion that he/she should take precedent over the author.

    I’m minded of an interview with Georg Solti I once read that asked who was more important in the staging of an opera: the conductor or the director? Solti replied it should be a 51 to 49% split in the conductor’s favour. That seems like a sensible ratio between author and reader in terms of interpreting the text.

    Blimey, it’s too late for my poor brain to be thinking like this… especially after a long day’s plotting!

  9. Catherine – some very interesting comments here. First, can I just reassure anyone reading this I’m not a control-freak writer! I’m happy with people finding their own meanings and symbols in the text. I recently went to a book group in lovely Norfolk and was amazed at the multitude of interpretations in even the smallest details. Again, the thrust of my blog was my bafflement at people being convinced of references I never intended. I also agree, that sometimes readers spot things in the text that the writer was oblivious to.

    As for TS Eliot, well there was one poem I thought particularly apt and it’s repeated throughout the book, especially in relation to Burton. I’m not going to spoil all the fun and give it away but the clue to finding it is in another influence on the book: Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS (and if you really want me to give it away, a famous scene from APOCALYPSE NOW that was cut from the film).

    I fear at this late hour I’m becoming more abstruse, not less. I must try to reply during daylight hours!

    Thanks for taking the time to post your comments.

  10. A final, general point about reader response – and a serious one. As I’ve already noted, one of my criticisms of it is that it undermines the significance of the author. Such a path is a dangerous one in an age of internet piracy where people think they should get content for free. If academics are saying there’s little place for the author, why should people worry about paying for their ebooks?

    So let’s try and give writers their due… and the occasional royalty cheque.

    Oh - and Sarah, good advice about commenting on blogs. There's a big bite out of my evening gone! ;o)

  11. On the insomniac shift again tonight.

    Now these aren't your average blog responses! Very interesting, Guy. Interesting from the ladies too. Thanks for replying and look forward to the next installment.

  12. Ron - Please, PLEASE don't call us ladies, there's a good chap.

    And Guy, we may have to disagree about the importance of readers - they pay the royalties cheques after all :)

  13. Not my intention to offend, Sarah, so apologies for any taken.

  14. None taken, Ron and apologies graciously accepted :)

  15. Guy – I’m sorry, I absolutely did not have you in my sights when I was complaining about control freak writers – see “reply” to my own post above.

    The debate about who actually has rights over the text is a passionate one, and goes all the way back through the Reformation to the invention of printing and the translation of the bible into the vernacular - so let’s congratulate ourselves on being able to continue it here without burning anyone at the stake.

    A good point about copyright piracy, Guy – and if I was a published writer I would be much crosser about my work being stolen or bowlderised than I would be about the paying public moving some of their own furniture into my house from time to time.

    Eliot poem – dur, I’ve got it now. Spotting the cultural reference is my favourite parlour game – but Kitty’s right, the book has to stand up on its own (which TAR does, of course!). Also, they’re there for a purpose, and not just to make people like me feel clever.

    Sarah, Ron – gracefully done.

    My excuse for fb, blogging etc. is that it’s the home worker’s equivalent of the chat by the watercooler – and this one has been considerably more edifying than most office gossip.

    1. Catherine, I agree that the internet is the modern equivalent of the scuttlebutt and perfect for people like me who are retired and miss those random moments of chat offices provide. For someone who grew up in the pre-computer age, I’m constantly awestruck by all these new forms of ‘connectivity’.

      That probably gives away my age, and to my generation referring to a woman as a ‘lady’ was meant as a compliment. However, I appreciate the word can be hijacked, which rather neatly brings us back full circle to the original subject of Guy’s posting: intent. Sometimes the intentions of our words can be lost. In such cases I find a little grace usually smoothes things over.


  16. Catherine – sorry for having taken forever to reply to your last comment, things are a bit hectic at the moment.

    Firstly, I didn’t take it that you were referring to me as a control freak writer – so no worries there! As for who ‘owns’ the text (beyond issues of copyright) I think it is indeed a debate that will go on forever. I suppose what has fascinated me most about the experience of getting published is that previously it had always been an abstract issue; now it has taken on a reality. And realities always provoke very different emotional responses.

    Glad you got the Eliot! :o)

    I agree – this conversation has been one of the most interesting on this blog so far. Long may they continue…

  17. Hello Guy

    I've been checking the blog every now and then and looking forward to the next entry. Any idea when it will be?

    Best Regards, Ron

    1. As it happens, Ron, I should be posting the new entry later tonight. 'S for...' can you guess what?

      Stay tuned!