Sunday, February 22, 2009

Ian McEwan and the Intentional Fallacy

A passage from Daniel Zalewski's profile (registration required) of Ian McEwan in the current New Yorker reminds me of our earlier discussion of the intentional fallacy. 

McEwan tells Zalewski a story about his son Greg:

Poor Greg had to study
Enduring Love in school. He had a female teacher. And he had to write an essay: Who was the moral center of the book? And I said to Greg, "Well, I think Clarissa's got everything wrong." He got a D. The teacher didn't care what I thought. She thought that Joe was too 'male' in his thinking. Well. I mean, I only wrote the damn thing.

If McEwan's point is that, because he wrote the book, he has a better command of its details than his son's teacher, that's fine. But if he's saying that his interpretation is worth more than the teacher's simply because he's the author, then I think that's suspect.

Great works of literature, it seems to me, take on the richness and complexity of life itself. And, like life itself, they are open to multiple perspectives. If the author has the "answers" to the work, then that work is in some sense lacking multidimensionality: it's simply a vehicle for the author's ideas or "point." 

I think it's interesting that McEwan pointedly notes that Greg's teacher was a woman—and that he frames the divergence of interpretation in terms of gender. Different readers bring different perspectives to a work, and will hence make different meanings out of their encounters with them—meanings that are no less grounded in the details of the work. A great example of this is Judith Fetterley's essay on A Farewell to Arms, in her book The Resisting Reader. One of my colleagues has talked about how this essay completely changed the way he saw Hemingway's novel, even though he'd been teaching it for years.

Greg's teacher might be completely off-base (though in my experience high school English teachers often know the details of books better than just about anyone). But it could also be that McEwan is bristling because someone has seen something in his novel other than what he intended. McEwan may be refusing to accept that, once you put a work of art out into the world, "what was yours is everyone's from now on," as Wilco puts it.

And does it seem a little janky that Greg basically had his dad write the essay for him? Of course the teacher didn't care what Ian thought. She wanted Greg to think for himself.

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