Authorial intent is not sovereign.
TW: self-harm, eating disorders.
I was doing some inner work and suddenly came up with the following poem:
I feel hungry (happy).
Maybe, when reading the above, you concluded I have an eating disorder. Perhaps I get “a high” from feeling hungry because that means I’m restricting enough.
Or… Maybe you concluded I am a masochist.
Neither of those conclusions reflect what is TRULY behind the poem I shared above, but they’re logical conclusions to take. I’ll tell you what my intention was: I wanted to express how important is food (and nurturing) to me, because I’m one of those people who restricts as a method for self-harm. It’s not that I’m trying to achieve a specific body shape, OR somehow feel pleasure in the pain of hunger. No… It’s still pretty much pain and pretty much awful in my experience. And that’s the point. When I’m feeling really low, sometimes I get to this point where I am willing to let myself slowly die of hunger, and the mental bullshit behind is so strong and powerful that I PHYSICALLY stop feeling like having food at all. My body just does not “ask” for it.
…But if I’m happy, I “realise” that now I need nutrients. Ouch. The hunger! I need food! — This is a sign that I want to go back to living. No more of this slowly dying shit. So, where’s the food? I want it. I feel hungry (happy).
People’s mental image of food can reveal a lot about their inner selves. Mine is like the photo above — I rarely ever envision the food by itself, perhaps multiplied by a dozen. No… What I envision is more like a big table where I’m sitting with people who love me, and we’re all chatting and smiling and emanating this energy of companionship. And THEN, there’s food. Perhaps a plate with a single portion for me, but prepared with such attention and loving care that it makes me want to cry with joy.
Ain’t nobody nagging me to eat, or beating themselves up over not having prepared it perfectly. Nobody is watching me or others attentively to see how much or little or weirdly or chaotically we eat… No. There’s only acceptance. There’s only love.
That is what I envision when I feel hungry. That is what my hunger entails.
But my mental idea of food is mine. It will not be relatable to everyone. Maybe some people, when they think of food, think of something a lot more complicated and wounded. You see, I did not associate MY wound with the concept of “food” — if anything, food is my medicine. But maybe there are people in the world who do. And… Who am I to say they are mistaken?
When this kind of phenomenon happens, we’re having a conflict between “authorial intent” and “the public’s interpretation”. Which one prevails? Which one is sovereign and should be upheld above the other? Dare I say, none. They’re equally valid and equally flawed.
You might have noticed I added a trigger warning to my post. Some people dislike the idea of trigger warnings. They tend to be people who think authorial intent shouldn’t be a thing. “Oh, you’ll encounter disturbing things in life without warning, learn to deal with it”, they say. I used to be one of them; still am, to some extent. Other people say “no, trigger warnings are super important! They go to show the author cares about a reader’s reaction to something hard to digest in their text”. But in doing so… Aren’t we sort of trying to control public perception? Like, we’re still talking about the sensitive topic, but there’s a heads up now because we care (?). I mean, you might as well take a quick look at other things this same author has written — if there’s trauma-based content every now and then, maybe it’s a thing to be expected. If there ISN’T, if it’s a rare kind of trauma they are now talking about in one of the articles, then yes, the public wouldn’t have expected it, so a trigger warning is in order (or so I believe).
So, I am for authorial intent to some extent, if what I bring is truly a shocker or very out of my usual ramblings. I can’t bring myself to support it in other cases, though, because it just reads to me like “I’m enabling people to be lazy and not do their homework or truly care about me”. I mean, if they did care, they would have felt at least curious about what else I’m writing, and whether the absence of a trigger warning in some posts just means I always talk about this topic anyway. If I started slapping trigger warnings on everything slightly controversial I ever write, it would perhaps feel like sitting alone at a small isolated table while other people sit together elsewhere and gorge themselves by neglecting MY needs. I would be the tireless provider to a group of entitled brats who just receive, and receive, and receive… At my expense. But nothing is fixed or permanent; maybe one day I’ll change my mind.
In fact, there are people whose views of authorial intent are the polar opposite of mine:
Back in 2018, when JK Rowling went crazy on the authorial intent remarks about the Harry Potter series, I couldn’t help but feel betrayed.
It’s as though she was trying to be the big mama, trying to mother each and every one of her readers (myself included), but in a controlling way instead of a healthy way. Healthy mothers nurture; unhealthy mothers control/neglect — either way, there is no nurturing to be seen. “I want you to be like this, be like that, think this, think that. No, not those other things. Just this and that. Yes. Good boy/girl” — if she was honest to her fans, this is what she would say.
This character is actually [insert revelation here]; That scene was actually meant to evoke [insert feeling here]; And so on and so forth. There were funny skits made about it, I’ll link to one:
I felt betrayed not because any of her later remarks on twitter targeted me (luckily, no…), but because I could no longer count on the Harry Potter series to bring me the escapism and the comfort that I once found in it.
I mean… If JK Rowling was willing to come after people whose interpretation of the series was “wrong”… Then maybe it was “wrong” of me to have imagined the series the way I did when I first read it.
I remember very vividly, for instance, getting disappointed with Hermione’s almost straight hair past the second movie, and I was still a teenager at the time, but I already understood the concept of the public’s interpretation. I just thought to myself “well… this is how the crew imagined her. That’s valid too I guess”. My perception might be different from the film crew’s perception, which might even be different from JK Rowling’s original intention… but they’re all valid. They all exist inside each person’s head, having come to life the first time we all read the story.
Perhaps if Rowling was coming from a healthier standpoint, she would behave a bit more similar to an author friend of mine who, hearing me remark that “this character of yours has straight golden hair in my mind’s eye”, simply said “huh? I know I didn’t describe it but I intended her to have jet-black, curly hair. But if that works for you, it works”.
Not every author these days is behaving like JK Rowling (thankfully!), only one very unhealthy minority. I have to say I always rejoice when authors not only thank but also share fanart of their original characters even when it has nothing to do with the originally intended canon. It means they care about nurturing people’s imagination, not only stroking their own authorial ego.
Authorial intent is not sovereign. Even when it gets noticed, it still won’t produce “perfect” reactions.
I mean, some authors do get lucky and see their fans discussing the issues originally intended with the piece of fiction they wrote. For instance, a lot of people agree that X-men is a metaphor on being a social misfit because of medical anomalies you can’t control. The series draws attention to the problem of ableism (the very first intention according to the authors — originally trying to subvert the “super-able” hero trope), but also expands to include racial and social issues later on.
This wasn’t achieved by chance, though. There were some very obvious references to the struggles of people with disabilities from the beginning — such as Professor X using a wheelchair because he is unable to walk. Is he the only character worth noting? No, there are all the mutants we know and love, too. But Professor X is there, standing like a blatant advertisement for authorial intent. This was probably done because the authors knew the public interpretation can vary… And that’s fine, but let’s promote this originally intended idea by making it stand out, too.
And how much more mature is that, compared to… JK Rowling’s “saying so” on twitter without concrete evidence throughout the series to back her up.
And by “the public interpretation can vary”, even in X-men where most people agreed with the authors, what I mean is, for example, the fact a lot of people don’t consider Wolverine a hero. A hero is, by definition, someone who saves the day or comes out triumphant in the end. Wolverine is more like a martyr because he just keeps dealing with loss and failure all the time — and I don’t think that was the original intention with his character, yet here we are.
Let’s go back to my original poem, the 4 simple words that sparked this entire discussion.
I feel hungry (happy).
What if a younger version of me had uttered these words? A version of me without the maturity I now have, without the ability I’ve acquired over the years to look beyond my authorial intent and perceive a possible misunderstanding which could lead hurt people to try and hurt me? A version of me more naive, and not yet prepared to deal with the backlash that would ensue, with an angry mob claiming I am writing in support of anorexia — when in fact, my poem might be relatable to people with eating disorders, but it’s in no way encouraging anything harmful?
Am I irresponsible for posting this, trigger warning included? Should I neglect my need (that of expressing the very intimate, powerful, and cathartic feeling of finding out my body’s response to an offering of food can indicate whether or not I’m still depressed)?
Well… It’s complicated. First of all, maybe this post will end up offending some people regardless of the initial intention I had of showing how DANGEROUS the first version of my poem was (and I can only do that by showing the poem itself. Sorry…) Much as I wish people would make space for my unusual way to express a traumatic experience of food, I can’t just ignore that an entire group of people (those recovering from eating disorders) could find a HARMFUL kind of relatability in these words. Hence, I added a trigger warning to the post. Is it enough? I don’t know. But I’ve chosen to accept the risk of offending some people, if that means I can show beyond mere abstractions a phenomenon I think we should discuss more. Anyhow, the poem isn’t finished. Perhaps my words just need some polishing. Let me make a second attempt:
My hunger for life is back.
It’s less poetic, less vague and abstract, so my ego doesn’t like this second version as much; But I know it would be better received because it eliminates the ambiguity that warranted my trigger warning in the first place.
I couldn’t simply ask people to interpret the first version of my poem the way I first intended it, not because the authorial intent wasn’t there, but because it was hidden beneath the surface. There’s nothing wrong with hiding authorial intent (usually…) but you must be aware that when you do, you shouldn’t expect most people to “get” it. And you DEFINITELY shouldn’t act patronising to the people who don’t get it.
As an oracle, I can’t begin to tell you how many times I caught myself in a bit of a panic trying to interpret “efficiently” the intent behind the message received — just so my consultant will “get it”, and it will help instead of harming them. It’s an art in itself, and it sort of mirrors the predicament a lot of authors find themselves in. Of course, some people simply aren’t ready for the message, and will act out or complain despite my best efforts; But I do worry that some other times, a misunderstanding could be “my fault”.
This is why I expose myself to the “danger” of misinterpreted authorial intent via writing, music, art, and every possible avenue. Nobody is immune to it. Not even you.