From Wyatt Mason's blog:
Listening to writers explain themselves can be disconcerting. Often, what is said about their work is not very illuminating. Elvis Costello said in concert many years ago, as he strummed the introductory chords to a song, that he had been asked by a reporter what the lyrics in that song meant. Costello said he told the reporter that if he had meant for the song to mean anything other than the words he had written for it, he would have written a different song. Less a stance than a pose, Costello’s answer only goes so far. What I do like about it, though, is its idea that the questions we might ask of poetry, or of prose, are better directed at the made thing than its maker.
What Wyatt Mason and Elvis Costello are both rejecting here is called the intentional fallacy by New Critics: the belief that the author's intentions have primary significance in understanding the meaning of a work of art.
It's something that I think about as a high school English teacher, because I think students innately believe this fallacy. I remember feeling it as a high school student myself: Did the author really intend these things, really encode them for my teachers to spin out with such intricacy?
Not till college and graduate school did I realize that it doesn't matter, and it's impossible to say anyway. It's the difference between finding meaning and making meaning as a reader. It's why I shy away from questions like, "What do you think Homer is trying to say here?" and from words like "symbolizes." Instead, I like to use the word "suggests."
Who is to say what Mark Twain intended in this or that chapter of Huckleberry Finn? A work of literature is so complex, its implications so wide-ranging and multifarious, that it would be impossible for an author to have control of them all. And that's part of what makes literature so exciting. A reader's job is not to deduce what sort of meaning the author intended, but to use the details of the work to construct a coherent meaning that is grounded in the work itself. That's why I like the word "suggests"; especially to students, "symbolizes" implies authorial intent, whereas "suggests" is, in a sense, a judgment by the reader.
My favorite book is The Tender Land, by Kathleen Finneran. Over the years, as I've taught it, I've slipped interpretations and little pieces of writing about the book to Kathleen, and she has sometimes responded with surprise and pleasure to ways of thinking about the book that have never occurred to her. Does that mean that she is a sloppy writer? Not at all: it means that the subconscious mind is powerfully at work during the process of writing, imbuing the text with pattern. It means that a good work of art has layers of complexity that can be explored and stretched and reconfigured. It means that such works have a kind of artistic integrity that can support multiple interpretations and that can nourish thought.
Mason is quite right to say that questions about the meaning of a work are better directed at the thing itself than at its maker. Elvis's point should not be taken as a dismissal of the project of interpretation (though that's the lesson many a high school student, frustrated by the difficulties of reading well, would like to draw). Instead, his point is simply that his own work is done. He's written the song, given us the pleasure of listening to it, experiencing it. We're responsible for whatever meaning we choose to make of it.
The Elvis reference, by the way, is to the version of "All This Useless Beauty" on Costello & Nieve, a boxed set of five discs, live recordings from the first tour Elvis and Steve (the brilliant piano player from the Attractions) did together as a duo. It's great stuff, stripped down versions of songs from Elvis's vast back catalog. I saw the two of them at the American Theater in St. Louis on their second tour together, and I have a bootleg recording of the show, which can still give me shivers when I listen to it.
The song's refrain, now that I think of it, seems like the perennial question that art prompts:
"What shall we do, what shall we do, with all this useless beauty?"
Here's Elvis and Steve doing the song: