Unintentional fallacies

Monday, 17 November 2008 — 4:36pm | Literary theory, Literature

I am pleased to see that Jonathan McCalmont is writing again. I followed his SF Diplomat blog quite regularly before he abandoned ship, and have yet to find a suitable replacement for the aggregation of insightful commentary on speculative fiction that he consistently provided.

That said, I have to hold him to account for his recent post on Futurismic, “How to Dismantle the Wall Between an Author and Their Work”, for its egregious misrepresentation of the intentional fallacy. I recommend that you read the full text; despite its flaws, it is an ample demonstration of when it is valuable to take the author into context when reading a work of fiction. Permit me to quote some of the boldfaced declarations:

  1. “[The intentional fallacy] is a denouncement of the idea that one can ever infer what an author was intending when he wrote something and [the affective fallacy] is a rejection of the idea that the effect that a text has on a reader is any kind of basis for thinking about it.”
  2. “There is no ‘logical’ reason why one should not interpret a book in terms of what one knows about the life of the author.”
  3. “[…] if one cannot infer from a book what an author means then one cannot infer from anyone’s words or actions what they are thinking.”
  4. “The inner life of an author before they write a book is as much a part of that book’s meaning as the words on the page.”

Unfortunately, statements (1) and (2) rely on a disingenuous summation of what the intentional fallacy is and how it is put into practice. Furthermore, an argument for the validity of biographical criticism is not equivalent to an argument for its primacy or necessity. The latter opposes the thrust of the intentional fallacy, but the former does not.


First of all, the concept of the intentional fallacy, be it in the original Wimsatt/Beardsley essay or any of its other permutations, says nothing about the inference of the author’s intent. In fact, the formalist analysis advocated by the New Critics has no interest in the author’s intent at all, insofar as that intent produces a specific direction for how to interpret the text. McCalmont cites the Wikipedia article on the intentional fallacy, but I’m not sure he read it; the article clearly outlines Wimsatt and Beardsley’s stratification of empirical literary evidence into three categories—one of which is contextual and possibly biographical.

From the Wimsatt/Beardsley essay (emphasis added):

There is a difference between internal and external evidence for the meaning of a poem. And the paradox is only verbal and superficial that what is (1) internal is also public: it is discovered through the semantics and syntax of a poem, through our habitual knowledge of the language, through grammars, dictionaries, and all the literature which is the source of dictionaries, in general through all that makes a language and culture; while what is (2) external is private or idiosyncratic; not a part of the work as a linguistic fact: it consists of revelations (in journals, for example, or letters or reported conversations) about how or why the poet wrote the poem‑to what lady, while sitting on what lawn, or at the death of what friend or brother. There is (3) an intermediate kind of evidence about the character of the author or about private or semiprivate meanings attached to words or topics by an author or by a coterie of which he is a member. The meaning of words is the history of words, and the biography of an author, his use of a word, and the associations which the word had for him, are part of the words’ history and meaning. But the three types of evidence, especially (2) and (3), shade into one another so subtly that it is not always easy to draw a line between examples, and hence arises the difficulty for criticism. The use of biographical evidence need not involve intentionalism, because while it may be evidence of what the author intended, it may also be evidence of the meaning of his words and the dramatic character of his utterance.

Part of the problem is that Wimsatt and Beardsley do not provide the most lucid explication of what it is they oppose, even though they coined the term: they redefine “literary criticism” within certain boundaries, displace the external and contextual evidence into “literary biography”, and regard the two as valid but separable fields of study. Keep in mind, also, that they openly admit the instability of the distinction. The label of the “intentional fallacy” applies not to the existence of biographical or contextual criticism, but to their use as an overriding interpretive authority. The New Critics do not argue that one must not pull evidence from outside the text. They claim, instead, that one need not pull evidence from outside the text, and still produce a valid piece of criticism. Unfortunately, the semantic fogginess of the term “criticism” as distinguished from “biography” clouds the issue.

A much better explanation can be found in Northrop Frye’s “Polemical Introduction” to Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays:

The poet may of course have some critical ability of his own, and so be able to talk about his own work. But the Dante who writes a commentary on the first canto of the Paradiso is merely one more of Dante’s critics. What he says has a peculiar interest, but not a peculiar authority. It is generally accepted that a critic is a better judge of the value of a poem than its creator, but there is still a lingering notion that it is somehow ridiculous to regard the critic as the final judge of its meaning, even though in practice it is clear that he must be.


The poet speaking as critic produces, not criticism, but documents to be examined by critics. They may well be valuable documents: it is only when they are accepted as directives for criticism that they are in any danger of becoming misleading.


McCalmont claims that the intentional fallacy is not a “fallacy” at all, and that the use of the word is “a rhetorical tool, a means of imbuing what are ultimately arbitrary fashion-statements with the authority that comes from logic.” He later states that “the taboo against delving into an author’s brainspace is not a matter of logic but of fashion” and that (correctly) “flouting that very taboo has created many great works of criticism.” But to dismiss the isolated reading of intrinsic textual evidence as ungrounded fashion is a case of assertive hand-waving.

Once again, the problem here is the false equivalence of biography and intention (a line that Wimsatt/Beardsley didn’t tread very carefully themselves). No, an appeal to authorial intention is not anything like a formal propositional calculus, but it is a specific case of a well-recognized fallacy in rhetoric: the argumentum ad verecundium, or the appeal to authority. I would provide an original example, but McCalmont has handed me one on a silver platter.

In a stunning contradiction, McCalmont cites Elaine Radford’s evisceration of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game as a fascist apologetic as an ideal example of the value of biographical context, especially when juxtaposed with Card’s ideological sympathies—most recently, his demonstrated homophobia. (I should note that the Radford piece is actually diligent about drawing on textual evidence and levelling an indictment of the novels, and not so much Card himself; while for all I know, Card believes in some form of inheritable genetic determinism, I’m not about to draw any conclusions about him as a person based on the genetic determinism that pervades his work. However, McCalmont is quite right in pointing out that Card’s “love the sinner, hate the sin” endorsement of Proposition 8 does not speak in his favour.)

Radford does not publish the text of Card’s rebuttal for copyright reasons, but the very fact that a rebuttal exists tells me that Card denied, to some measure, the claim that Ender Wiggin is a stand-in for Adolf Hitler. To me, this is an excellent demonstration of textually derived criticism in action. That Radford’s piece presents a coherent and defensible thesis against the stated will of the author is a triumph for the critical method that Wimsatt and Beardsley advocated from the beginning. Nobody could reasonably accuse Radford of committing the intentional fallacy; to the contrary, the commission of the intentional fallacy would involve discarding the Radford piece on account of Card’s denial (again, assuming it was a denial). As for Jonathan’s observation, I find that it sheds more light on the link between Ender’s Game and Orson Scott Card than the one between Ender Wiggin and Adolf Hitler; if we were to pigeonhole it, it would belong to the class of literary biography that Wimsatt and Beardsley permit.

Once more: the concept of the “intentional fallacy” is not here to exhort that one must ignore contextual knowledge, but that an interpretation that divorces a text from its author is a valid subclass of literary discussion. The validity of biographical criticism, which McCalmont amply demonstrates, does not preclude intrinsic, text-driven readings from being an equally valid scope of analysis. What Orson Scott Card says about Orson Scott Card may well be a defensible interpretation in its own right, but it is never the “true” interpretation by virtue of who said it—and it never, ever imposes a restriction on critical activity.


I now return to statement (3) above, and quote it in full:

One could argue that if one cannot infer from a book what an author means then one cannot infer from anyone’s words or actions what they are thinking. Indeed, it is no accident that the intellectual tradition founded by thinkers such as Derrida and Barthes (who famously proclaimed the “Death of the Author“) questions not only the idea of an author’s interpretation being the ‘correct’ one, but also the idea of ‘truth’ itself as anything more than a social construct.

Admittedly, there does exist a sound basis for hysteria over the apparent moral poverty of reading texts out of context, in the Derridean mode. The tragedy of postmodern theory is that it often combined textual readings with the belief that history is all a matter of representation, with no accessible basis in empirical truth; and in doing so, relinquished any moral high ground for the refutation of, say, holocaust denial. (I’ve written on this before.) Famously, when Paul de Man’s former association with a collaborationist newspaper came to light in the 1980s, Derrida came to de Man’s defence with an ill-conceived deconstruction of his writing, attempting to show that the writings published in an anti-Semitic rag actually advanced the Jewish cause if you read it in a certain, contorted way.

(Honestly: all Derrida needed to do to fend off those who wished to discredit de Man’s valuable contributions to literary theory was say, “That’s ad hominem.” But deconstruction doesn’t play that game, you see.)

We should realize, however, that the moral poverty of ignoring empirical evidence when it comes to the construction of historical or scientific narratives—which must, as a matter of methodology, have a basis in the externally observable—has no analogue in the reading of fiction. When we read something that is declared as a work of fiction, we accept that it is by its very nature a constructed text that has every right to defy or ignore reality.

Thus, the self-contained reading of the text has no ill implications for how we read people or interact with society at large, as McCalmont would like us to believe. A work of fiction has no responsibility whatsoever to replicate the views of its author. Robert Heinlein was free to advance a libertarian ideal in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and defend a militaristic system of civic participation in Starship Troopers without coming off as a discombobulated contradiction of an author, precisely because we need not equate one book or another with his real-world political views.


Now that I have shown how Jonathan McCalmont’s defence of biographical criticism refutes not the intentional fallacy, but a straw man of the same, I must turn my attention to what he does advocate—namely, the essential importance of “the inner life of an author before they write a book” to the book’s meaning.

While biographical evidence can certainly make for a good interpretation of a work of fiction, I take issue with the claim that the author’s life becomes anything intrinsic to the book’s meaning—especially where speculative fiction is concerned. The assumption that novels are necessarily representative of their authors’ beliefs is a troubling one; often, it is simply not true.

One case study we can look at is the composition of fantastic fiction by atheist authors: two that come to mind are Philip Pullman and Salman Rushdie. (Yes, I’m aware that Rushdie is an outsider to the sci-fi/fantasy tradition, whatever that is, but he writes his own brand of magical literature, and I feel perfectly justified in including him here.) Both of them are on the record as ascribing to a godless, material universe.

In Pullman’s case, the author’s declared atheism has coloured many a reading of His Dark Materials—particularly the last volume, The Amber Spyglass—as a fundamentally atheistic text. Even as perspicacious a reader as Michael Chabon was guilty of this, as I discussed in a previous post. True, the His Dark Materials trilogy is unambiguously opposed to organized religion, denouncing the project to sever children from sin and celebrating the deposition of God, the Authority. But to claim that Pullman’s books are intrinsically atheistic as an extension of the author’s beliefs is to wilfully ignore its Gnostic cosmology and its frequent recourse to magic, as in its reimagining of dark matter as an element of fantasy and its depiction of a scientist, ostensibly the serpent of Eden, who finds truth in the I Ching. The case for a naïve biographical reading of the author’s theological agenda pales in comparison to the rigour of reading the books for what they actually depict.

Similarly, Rushdie’s “apostasy” from his Islamic heritage and his, ahem, controversial satire of the birth of Islam in The Satanic Verses are connected, but not congruent. There is no reason to believe that his renunciation of Islam on atheistic grounds is equivalent to the anti-authoritarian case in The Satanic Verses—a book that brims with the supernatural, with its magic lamps, men surviving falls from exploding aircraft, and heads swapped with those of donkeys. As with Pullman, the biographical knowledge that the author is an atheist allows us to draw a connection between the author and the book, but it is only responsible for a reader to acknowledge where that connection fails.

As another example, I point to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which I recently reviewed. The elegance of the book lies in its undecidable debate between the anarcho-communist utopia of Anarres and the capitalistic progress of Urras. A perusal of online reader reviews—particularly the negative ones—reveals an equal measure of mudslinging by those who think it’s anti-communist tripe, and those who think it’s pro-communist tripe. The magic of the book is that it reveals the flaws of either system, as well as their necessary and inescapable shackles. Certainly, it would be limiting to argue that one side “wins” over the other on the basis of what Le Guin actually believes. Novels that explore a complex range of ideas and give them a fair hearing make it difficult, as well as unsatisfying, for one to suppose that one particular side has the last word.


McCalmont claims that biographical criticism is on the decline, a claim that I find curious. The trend in literary studies after deconstruction, and especially after postcolonialism and recent developments in gender theory, has strongly tended towards cultural studies and theories of identity—which, at its worst, have descended into a despondent swamp of narcissism.

However, I am unsurprised that SF criticism has moved towards the formalist, author-free end of the spectrum: after all, it is in SF that fiction authors have made the deepest inquiries into the information age, and whether we can dispense with the whole notion of intellectual property. We see this displayed most prominently in cyberpunk and its derivatives, be it William Gibson or Cory Doctorow, but also in the increasing sense of entitlement and ownership prevalent in fan-fiction communities. There is no question that this is evidence of a rising belief in the death of the author, on top of McCalmont’s keen observation that reviews in SF magazines are predominantly author-shy.

While I agree with McCalmont’s concern that the utter lack of biographical criticism is unhealthy for what should be a diverse intellectual climate, I think it is important to remember that the speculative genres, by the very fact of how they exercise the imagination in a way that defies the mimicry of the real, rely on the ability of authors to get beyond themselves and write about subjects of more universal scope. There is no denying that their personal histories inform their imaginations, as how an awareness of drug addiction informs the novels of Philip K. Dick; nevertheless, science fiction and fantasy are essentially incapable of acting as thinly veiled autobiography. So far as I am aware, there is no Jack Kerouac of sci-fi. (Let’s ignore William S. Burroughs; I would hardly call Nova Express thinly veiled.)

Genre writers imagine not only characters, but whole societies and sets of counterfactual laws. If we can read their books apart from their personal histories, we should see that as a virtue—as evidence of complexity and universal scope. The staying power of mythology lies in its capacity for escaping its socio-cultural origins. Mythmakers and myth-readers alike should keep that in mind.


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2 rejoinders to “Unintentional fallacies”

  1. Hi Nick 🙂

    I’m glad you’re pleased that I’m writing again. In truth I didn’t stop so much as step away from the SF blogosphere. I am still putting stuff out there at my new site ruthlessculture.com

    I’m also glad that you considered my points interesting enough to want to respond to them in such detail.

    Many of the points you raise will have me pleading no contest as I was aware that I was cutting corners in a few places because I a) like to keep my Futurismic columns quite short and b) because my target was not so much the theory itself as the people who enlist the theory to protect the wall between critics and authorial intent.

    The column in also an impression not so much of a finished theory as an impression of my thinking on the matter. My background is in analytical philosophy not literary theory so I’m not particularly wedded to anything I argue in those columns… they’re more think pieces than anything else 🙂

    However, I’ll try and make some of my thinking on these matters clearer.

    In essence, you are correct that I am running intentionality and biography together.

    I do not contest Frye’s view that Dante is just another critic of Dante, nor do I contest Wimsatt/Beardsley’s points about the complex structuring of evidence. In fact, I agree with both.

    Dante cannot claim authority over his own texts because Dante does not have full awareness of the causal chains that lead to the creative decisions in his works. He can claim that his intent was such and such but I see no reason to accept his findings straight off the bat.

    However, there is a true intention behind every text and this intended meaning is epistemologically superior to meanings created by critics from textual analysis because it is a stronger answer to the question ‘what is this text supposed to be about?’ (Turing’s Halting Problem not withstanding)

    So yes, I do run intentionality and biography together because I take them to be linked. The only way to access intentionality is through biography.

    So I suspect that I’m agreeing with the New Critics BUT I’m using some of their terminology a bit differently and in this you may be right that I did not adequately understand Frye et al on the intentional fallacy.

    (As a side note, I do buy into Frye’s idea that critical readings can be free from hierarchies of rank and access but I take these as understandings of texts rather than proper explanations).

    Regarding Card, I think that Radford’s reading is dangerously close to being correct as it not only makes powerful internal and coherent sense based upon examinations of the text, but it also fits with a lot of what we know about Card from his non-fiction writings. It is not entirely true, nor is it completely convincing as our access to Card’s psyche is limited but, in so far as one can talk about one reading having greater verisimilitude than another, it is superior to readings of Ender’s Game that do not present it as an apologia (Kessel’s interpretation based on child abuse is also compelling).

    As for Le Guin, Pullman and Rushdie, the problems you suggest are issues of epistemological warrant, not method or logic. To read His Dark Materials drawing solely upon the fact that the author is an atheist is to attempt biography with very little data. Yes he is an atheist but what of his other politics? what of his actual attitudes towards the church and children? what of the psychological landscape that defined his day to day life while writing the book. All of these issues (and more) would need to be considered for the books to be fully understood.

    Of course, this sets the bar for capturing intent insanely high but have you read any Plato scholarship recently? millennia later and they’re still trying to work out what his exact position was.

    In fact, I suspect that the only ‘correct’ criticism is criticism that talks not of theory but of brain states and neural cause and effect. As I pointed out in one of my first BG columns, this is a trend that is starting to emerge in art criticism. Biographers are hamstrung not only by a lack of relevant data about people’s lives, they’re also lacking an adequate model of psychological explanation. This is why you see so many literary critics clinging to outdated hokum such as Freudian or Lacanian psychoanalysis. At best these readings are interesting (by which I mean amusing and’or liable to prompt you to think other thoughts)… they are never true.

    I think that there is a lot less biographical criticism in SF than there is in other fields. The study of film, via auteur theory, has always been partly biographical and I’m glad to hear that, post-theory, academics are turning their attentions in that direction too but take a wander by Strange Horizons or The SF Site and you’ll find a lot of critics that are terrified to cross the boundary into biographical criticism.

    Monday, 17 November 2008 at 6:05pm

  2. Hi Jonathan – thanks for dropping by. I agree there is plenty of fallow ground for literary study based on cognition, especially given how advances in the cognitive and computing sciences are giving us increasingly better models of knowledge representation/acquisition as well as pattern recognition – both of which can finally move semiotics past airy-fairy platitudes and into a more verifiable realm where we may draw some connections between perception and the emergence of meaning.

    I’m not so certain that will ever move us towards anything like a “correct” reading, though: I think we are more likely to see our understanding improve on the readers’ side than the authors’, because findings can at least be reproduced and compared. That said, you’re right in saying that more candidness from authors about the creative process can go a long way – even if it is a separate act of self-criticism outside their own texts. The only empirical absolute we are likely to divine from literary interpretation, I find, is not the “correctness” of interpretations themselves, but progressively better models of how authors and readers alike grapple with structure and metaphor.

    Wednesday, 19 November 2008 at 12:18am

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