Yesterday, the culture world was dominated by two stories. In the first, David Chase told our writer that Tony Soprano wasn't dead after all. (Chase later said his remarks were "misconstrued," but he did not deny having said them.)
In the second, the Japanese cartoon cat best known as Hello Kitty was revealed in the Los Angeles Times to, uh, not be a cat, but rather a little girl. Who just looks like a cat? We guess? It turns out a translation error may have been the problem here. So Hello Kitty is a cat after all. Phew.
But though both of these stories could not be more different on their surface, they're actually about the exact same thing: authorial intent.
What is authorial intent?
Authorial intent is an idea within criticism of what the author intended when he or she created a work of art. It rose out of the world of literary criticism, which is why the word "author" is there, but it's gradually come to be applied to just about every possible artform.
If you are a big believer in authorial intent (sometimes called an intentionalist), then you believe wholeheartedly that what the author wanted to do with the work is one of the most important things that can be determined. Thus, if David Chase says Tony Soprano is alive or J.K. Rowling says Dumbledore is gay or Sanrio says Hello Kitty is a girl, you probably revise your opinions of the work in question to reflect these ideas. You also will probably get in a lot of arguments about Hello Kitty from now on (especially with people who know Japanese), but you get the idea.
But you might have noticed a lot of TV critics yesterday saying they didn't much care about what Chase said (both in the wake of the piece and after he released the later statement), that they remained comfortable with the idea of the final scene being totally ambiguous. And this is because many, many critics reject the idea of authorial intent completely.
Why would they do this? How will we know what is real anymore?!
Well, think about it this way. If you're like a lot of people, the idea of Hello Kitty being a little girl is an odd one. You're probably quite comfortable deciding for yourself that she's a cat and leaving it at that. (Since you're calling her Hello Kitty, you're already expressing your comfort with the death of authorial intent, as Sanrio says her name is "Kitty White.") Congratulations, you've rejected the chains of authorial intent!
Of course, for a lot of people, it's easier to do this with a cartoon mascot controlled by corporate overlords that they'd apparently misunderstood from the word go. If Warner Brothers released paperwork from the 1930s that proved Bugs Bunny was actually a gopher tomorrow, nobody would go along with that either. These sorts of ideas have long since moved past their original owners and out into our collective unconscious, perhaps because they're so heavily identified not with individual creators but with corporate masters.
This gets trickier when you get to the level of an individual book, film, album, or TV series. Despite the collaboration that goes into all of these artforms, we're quite comfortable attributing credit for them to the author, director, artist or band, and showrunner, respectively, because we live in a world where auteur theory is largely accepted. (Briefly, auteur theory is the idea that even highly collaborative artforms like film have authors, and in a film, that author is the director. This idea has spread to TV, where the showrunner has become the equivalent of a director.)
Because we live in a largely individualistic society, we tend to be inclined to respect other people's wishes within reason. And so, out of subconscious politeness, plenty of us retroactively agree with Rowling that, hey, Dumbledore is gay, because it doesn't really negate anybody's readings of the Harry Potter books, and it's kind of cool and inclusive (if very strange to announce after all the books had been published).
The problem comes when a work signals intentional ambiguity, and the author comes out and says specifically what they intended. Even beyond David Chase, we have the curious case of Ridley Scott and the film Blade Runner.
In the film, Harrison Ford's character, Rick Deckard, is chasing down so-called "replicants," which are humanoid robots that have attained sentience. Throughout the film, the suggestion that Deckard himself might be a replicant is teased but never confirmed, and it's led, as you'd expect, to a fair number of debates about Deckard's true nature. But within the text of the film, it seems clear that whether he is or isn't a replicant doesn't matter, because the true reason for this ambiguity is to play around with ideas about the class system, about how any time we try to reduce someone to a faceless "other," we dehumanize and invalidate them.
Then, years after the film's release, Scott announced that when he made the film, he very much intended for Deckard to be a replicant, and we should all watch the film that way. As far as some were concerned, that was that. But do the questions of Blade Runner (or The Sopranos) boil down so easily to a binary answer? If you watch either, the answer is a resounding no.
So for many critics — including myself — the most important thing about a work is not what the author intends but what the reader gleans from it. Authorial intent is certainly interesting, but it's not going to get me to stop calling Hello Kitty a cat.
You don't just get to say what things mean!
That's the thing, though. We all do this all of the time.
The idea that authorial intent should be rejected rose out of the New Criticism, a movement from the first half of the 20th century. One of its proponents was the famous poet T.S. Eliot.
One of the main arguments of New Criticism was that the primary reason to read a text wasn't to figure out what the author had meant to do. Many of the authors literary folks study have been dead for centuries, and both our meaning and understanding of the world shift and change with every new generation. The most important thing was the reader's interpretation of the work, which could be filtered through any other number of critical lenses (feminist, Marxist, formalist, etc.).
New Criticism largely won out, and for the most part, authorial intent is treated as a curiosity in critical circles today. (There are still people who care about authorial intent, of course, but they do not tend to be the most prominent voices, particularly in popular criticism.) Now, once a work is released, the author's relationship with it is supposed to be over, and it belongs to the audience. That's why Rowling's comments rankled a few. She might be the creator of Albus Dumbledore, but she doesn't get to change everything about him retroactively. (See also: her comments about how Hermione and Harry should have ended up together.)
In a way, this is just an extension of humanity's long evolution from collectivism to individualism. Using criticism to figure out an author's intent is having a bunch of people try to solve the same problem (albeit in their own highly individualistic ways). Using it to share individual interpretations allows for far more diverse readings and considerations.
So when I say "we all do this all of the time," I mean that when you, say, watch a movie and say, "That was good!" or "That was bad!" you're not worrying so much about what the director intended as you are what you thought about it. This isn't a strict rejection of authorial intent so much as a normal, immediate emotional reaction, but it does exist in the same general neighborhood as that rejection.
Every time we experience art, that's filtered through our own perceptions and ideas about the universe, and, thus, when we express our interpretation of a work, we're telling others around us as much about ourselves as we are the work. The best critics do both together so smoothly that you don't even realize what they're doing. But go read, say, a really good Roger Ebert movie review sometime, and you'll realize how much it resembles a personal essay.
So go ahead. If you want to think Tony Soprano is dead, do so. If you want to believe Harry Potter ended up with Luna Lovegood, that's only right. And for God's sake, don't try and think Hello Kitty is somehow anything other than a cat.
So I just shouldn't care what the author thinks at all?
As stated, it's complicated. Learning what an author intended can be interesting — particularly if they wildly missed the mark — but it shouldn't change our fundamental experience of something. (If you go back and read our David Chase profile, this is one of the things he and the author argue about in regards to his film Not Fade Away.)
The best course of action is this: listen to what the author says and take that into consideration. But by all means, if you disagree with it on a fundamental level, don't abandon your original thought. Once it's released, art no longer belongs exclusively to its creators. It belongs to all of us, and we all get to play a part in shaping its story.
(h/t to @HeerJeet for this awesome idea)