Authorial Intent isn’t always Conscious

…but that doesn’t let you off the hook.


“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. … I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”
– Tolkien


I hate to be the one to break it to you, but Tolkien was wrong.

Well, perhaps not “wrong”, but certainly less insightful that one might have hoped.

Authors, artists, songwriters, creators of all stripes: they bring their entire selves to their work.

It’s inescapable. You have your biases, whether you are aware of them or not, and ditto your beliefs, your values, your stances and your opinions, on everything from the taste of avocados to who you want as leader of your tribe.

And when you create – when you get that first flash of an idea, be it for a novel or a painting or a new recipe for what to do with left-over fried chicken – a whole ton of these things will come into play, with or without your awareness or knowledge.

It’s a kind of truism, for example, that every portrait a painter paints is, in fact, a self-portrait – that they paint themselves reflected onto the person they are painting.

And it’s always been quite fashionable to rag on English lit profs for “reading into” someone’s writing things that to readers often feel like pedantic, nitpicky weirdness.

“The colour of the curtains doesn’t have to mean anything!” is the kind of stuff you hear from frustrated undergrads, who just grew up liking to read books and from that decided that a BA in English would be fun.

But it does mean something. All of it means something, and sometimes it can mean something quite important.

When a writer sees in their mind’s eye the vision of a room and then describes it, it’s not merely a random collection of details. The colours often/almost always *do* have significance, and even if the writer isn’t aware of why they chose to see the curtains as green instead of yellow, outside perspectives can throw a lot of light onto what those choices could signify.

Tolkien may not have consciously intended to reflect the English view of World Wars One and Two, and their importance, and might not have been able to see the ways in which he translated that set of experiences into his work, and may have denied to himself the symbolism of the One Ring in terms of the vast changes to warfare that began in 1914 and culminated in 1945, but that doesn’t mean that his own unconscious mind didn’t have a very clear intention of writing a saga that made some kind of sense out of the technologies and events and world changes for him.

Every story has, in the end, two creators. The writer puts the words together.

The reader completes the process by understanding those words.

It’s a conversation, not a monologue.

Which is why authors do, in fact, need to be aware of not only their own internal codes, prejudices, and mental structures, but of the time and general milieu they live in. They need to bring very critical eyes to their own work, and have a clear grasp on what it is they might be unconsciously saying in their work.

Deciding that this isn’t important, that it’s “just a story”, and then being angry or upset when the reader points out problematic or disquieting things that the writing might be saying about the writer, is an abdication of responsibility, but – even worse – it indicates a lack of belief in the importance of the craft the writer has chosen as his own.

Handling the Tough Reviews


Recently, I wrote about how bad reviews are part of the “author experience”, and that while they might hurt, and you might feel that the reviewer could have been kinder or less acerbic in their summation of what they feel is wrong about your work, writers, as professionals, need to learn to accept these reviews and not publicly weep about the cruelty of the world on social media.

But how do you do that?

Well, it isn’t easy, I admit.

What I learned, in art college, where the feeding frenzy of nasty critique was an almost daily ritual, is that distance, both psychologically and in terms of actual time, are the tools you need to get the most out of even the nastiest public excoriation.

First off, you need to accept the fact that even the most well-written and beautifully-crafted piece of writing will not please everyone. There are English Lit majors who hate Dickens, and fantasy fans who cannot get past page one of LoTR.

Taste is personal and wayward. That’s just a fact of life.

But you need to remember, too, that the reviewer (presumably) does not know you. You aren’t a person to them: the only thing they have to go on is the writing, and some people just write sarcastically, even when they *do* like things, so when they don’t like it, the pen will almost literally drip venom.

So remember that the critique is not about you as a human being. It is about your work, and while you might feel that you poured your soul and every ounce of your being into the writing, it is not “you”.

It is something you made, but the moment you hit “Publish”, it separates from its creator and goes out into the world alone.

This is your mantra: “My book is not *me*.”

Secondly, even the harshest review can teach you things.

Okay, on that first, second, or even fifth reading, it will hurt, and you probably cannot see past that pain. Your first instinct is to reject it entirely as wrong, that the reviewer misunderstood the whole thing, that they just didn’t “get it”, and that the fault is theirs, not yours.You might even assume they are a poor reader and failed to actually read the words you wrote, or even that they simply wanted to hurt you.

That’s almost certainly not true.

What you can do is let it alone. Put the words away in a mental drawer for a few weeks, even a few months, and do not go back to the site where the review sits.

Later – much later – go back, as if the book wasn’t even your own work, and take a dispassionate look at what has been said.

If you are really serious about writing, if you truly care about being the best writer you can be, time will have taken some of the sting out of the words, and you will, hopefully, be able to take the review apart with the intention of understanding what it is that the reviewer felt was wrong.

Because, ego notwithstanding, your writing was not perfect, and in your heart of hearts, you do know that. So let some time pass – lock the hurt away, and ignore it all – until you have gotten some emotional distance, and then go back and analyze the ways in which the reviewer felt you had come up short.

Ask yourself, honestly and with the will to learn and grow as a writer, where you could have improved upon your work.

I used to stuff the written notes from my critique sessions into a drawer, sometime for the entire semester, and then, three months down the line, I would reread them, and it was like someone had suddenly switched on a spotlight in a dark room.

The criticisms were almost always right.

Never mind how rudely or crudely they were expressed. The ways in which I could have made the work stronger, or been more careful in my technical execution, or even had chosen the wrong visual symbols to express my intent: the critique was always so right that I was ashamed at having taken so long to see these truths.

And my work improved. Based on some of the most personally wounding, ill-expressed words of instructors and fellow-students, I began to make work that really resonated, that I could be proud of.

The point is that the reader’s opinion is important and real, and they are almost never wrong, and for every barbed and negative review that someone bothers to write, you can be sure that there were many, many other readers who simply could not be bothered to tell you how short of the mark you came.

If a reader cannot understand the motivation of a character – then you, as the writer, failed to convey that motivation adequately. Next time out, you can do better.

If a reader thinks your plot was shallow or boring, or that it simply didn’t make sense, then that is – without a doubt – the writer’s fault. The writer has to make the plot make sense to the reader, and if the story lacks excitement or suspense or tension – if the reader can tell on page one exactly what is going to happen and how – then the writer needs to up their game.

If the protagonist acts in ways that the reader finds irrational, then it is the writer’s job to make their next protagonist behave in more logical ways.

Reviews/critique are not weapons against writers. They are the tools a craftsman uses to make their work better.

And it’s a poor craftsman, as the saying goes, that blames the tools for their failures.

Sensitivity and Reviews – a writer’s perspective

Recently, I got into a bit of a barney with another writer who had received a bad review, and felt that the reviewer had been unnecessarily rude.

The review in question:

review bad

Now, it is true that the reviewer *might* have expressed themselves a bit less rudely. There’s no denying that this was harsh, and expressed in terms of deep derision. On the other hand, they revealed themselves to be a fairly decent writer as well, which kind of gives them some clout.

And that’s just how this stuff goes. You put it out there, and then the level of control you have is gone: the readers are free to express themselves in any way that seems fit to them, as long as they don’t violate the reviewing platform’s terms of service.

They are not required to consider (much less pander to) the writer’s feelings. Any artist, writer, actor or prima ballerina has to accept this.

Going public with your hurts is not a course anyone advises – and since the author in question did not blank out the identifying information on the Tweet, they have, themselves, revealed a certain lack of professionalism.

Look, I went to art college. Art college is one of the most vicious arenas of ego death available.

Every week, in every class, the students and instructors would gather in front of your last-week’s assignment, hung up or otherwise positioned, and take it apart, inch by inch, and an incredible amount of that critique was expressed in very personal terms.

You walked in, confident in your skills and your insight into the thematic and technical requirements of the assignment, and, two hours later, you emerged, exhausted and broken, with your now-shriveled ego cupped in your trembling palms, a mere shadow of the person you had been at the start of the day.

Your peers often took the opportunity to insult your personal ethics, your family background, and your entire reason for existing on the planet, in addition to pointing out every conceivable way in which you lacked even the vestige of artistic ability.

And you either learned to accept this ordeal by fire and tweeze out the actually useful nuggets that you could use to improve your work…or you dropped out.

Literally. When I started second year, there were 32 students in my major. (Printmaking, in case you need to know.)

By the end of that year, there were 12 of us left.

At the start of third year, there were 9 of us. At the end of third year, there were 8, but when we reassembled for our fourth and final year, there were only five people.

Four of us actually graduated.

An enormous part of that was simply the level of vitriol in the crit sessions.

And this was actually the point of it.

Harsh and unfeeling critique accomplishes two things.

One of them is to weed out the dilettantes – the people who just want to call themselves “artists” but who are not willing to learn the skills and refine their own engagement levels to make real art. They don’t really want to make art that has meaning, they just want to throw some paint around and be admired and envied and complimented.

The other purpose – the more important one – is to learn how to subject yourself to an iron-hard and internal critique, so that when you are alone in your studio, without those ever-present intellectual vultures circling overhead, you can self-critique at a high enough level that your art will continue to improve and gain the kind of resonance real art needs.

This applies doubly – even triply (is that a word?) – for writers, seeing as how anyone nowadays can get published without spending more than what their laptop and an internet connection costs them.

And with publication should come the understanding that if people don’t like your work, they are free to tell the world what they think, in whatever terms seem suitable to them.

Just like reviewers in the New York Times get to do. Believe me, no author is immune.

If you cannot take the critique without also taking your hurt feelings public, you probably should not publish.

Critique, no matter how nastily phrased, is the real price you pay for putting it out there.


Note for those still stinging from a bad review: You are not alone.



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It’s interesting, how kids draw.

When my nephew was four, we started seeing big changes in his artwork. He’d been drawing people for about a year by then, and the drawings were changing fast. It was partly because he’d gotten more motor control, but it was also partly that his perception of the world was changing, and you could chart what he saw as important by how the drawings had changed.

In the beginning, the people were mainly heads with eyes and feet.

Now they had bodies, although they were smaller than the heads. They sprouted legs and arms, and they had hair – sort of squiggly, razor-cut, only-on-the-very-top-of-the-head hair, but it was hair.

And they had wide smiles and big, googly, eyes with irises in them. They still lacked noses, though.

They were hilarious and sweet and they told a story about how he saw the world and what he thought was important about the humans he shared the planet with.

He saw people in a wholly unique way that was ever-changing, and very personal.


And I think that writers are the same: they tell their stories and you can trace the ways in which they see the world by what they put into those stories.

And what they leave out.

Flash Fiction Friday!

There were bars on the windows.

They threw shadows across the floor that moved steadily along the cold stone flagging, stretching and shrinking as the day progressed, and every day, when the narrow streaks of golden light were at their longest, they came to the door and asked what it was she wanted.

She never answered. The lights and shadows were enough.

Flash Fiction Friday!

It wasn’t so much that he was in love.

That seemed inevitable, and he could have coped – he’d been in love before.

It wasn’t the fact that this feeling seemed unreciprocated. He’d spent a lot of his adulthood aware that the people he was attracted to were supremely unaware of his existence, let alone his deep regard for their charms.

It was just that this time, she refused to die.

Flash Fiction Friday!

The dream always began the same way.

She would be standing in the orchard, and the fruit would be hanging low and ripe. She would reach out her hand to pluck an apple, anticipating the cool, crisp taste and the explosion of tart juice in her mouth.

And then – and this was where it went wrong, every time – there he’d be, that blustering, bullying idiot, yelling and shaking his finger at her, and reminding her that the fruit was for selling, not eating, and the Master had told her that, over and over.

And every time, she’d obediently dropped her hand and followed him meekly away, to her punishment.

Every time.

Except this time.

Flash Fiction Friday!

She found the egg lying in a patch of the garden, basking in the moonlight, and because she was young, she had not the slightest hesitation in picking it up and carrying it, stealthily, to her room.

She found some old things she no longer fit into, and piled them into a nest for the egg. It was an odd thing, not in the least like any egg she had ever seen before, but she had lately grasped that she was young, and that there might be things she had not seen or understood before, so she merely studied it, admiring its shiny, iridescent surface, glinting in the sunlight.

In the night, when a noise woke her, she saw the egg crack. Cleanly, and only a small portion of the shell lifting in a neat, triangularly-shaped opening, and three skinny, bipedal, featherless creatures stepped out onto the unknown planet that their scientists had assured them was uninhabited but ideally fit for human colonization.

Flash Fiction Friday!

Ogilvie had never bothered much about his new neighbours.

Indeed, he rarely saw them, and even then, only as shadowy glimpses in the early dawn, wafting between the pine trees at the end of the back garden, or slipping down the drive at sunset.

It was with a certain amount of shock, therefore, when the doorbell rang, and he opened it to see a slender, very beautiful girl, nearly six feet tall and with a halo of golden hair and very obviously pointed ears.

An elf.

Every vampire’s mortal enemy.