Authorial Intentions

Here, by the way, is an article in the National Review bemoaning the belief that literary criticism shouldn’t care “what the writer intended to say with this book.”

I’m one of those critics who don’t care. Because it’s a waste of time to wonder about what anybody intended and how that intent translated into action. I suspect that Nikki May, the author I discussed in the previous post, wasn’t trying to write about horrible, mean bitches from hell in her novel. She probably finds her characters endearing. Or maybe she’s deeper than I credit her and actually intended to portray them as irredeemably nasty. I have no way of knowing but why does it matter? Whatever she intended or didn’t intend won’t change my perception of these characters as horrid and the novel as highly entertaining.

My goal in writing, teaching, and talking about books is to get people excited about reading and engage them in discussing what we read. This is so much more interesting than trying to psychoanalyze authors. If a writer didn’t intend to be funny but I find a book hilarious, why is my laughter less important than his intention?

Also, it really cuts both ways. If we divorce the writer from the product of the writer’s talent and don’t ban books because their authors were imperfect human beings, then how can we remain obsessed with authorial intentions?

Book Notes: Nikki May’s Wahala

Wahala was one of the New York Post books of the year, so I had to check it out and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a great mommy-lit novel about four mixed-race women in London. The women are daughters of despicable Nigerian fathers and white mothers. And they are all messed up about men.

The problem that the female characters of Wahala encounter is that black men are deadbeats and crooks while white men are doormats and wimps. And the women themselves are entitled, horrid brats. If you ever felt a bit down on yourself, read this novel. Whatever your faults are, you’ll feel like a saint compared to these characters.

As the women in Wahala abuse their pathetic white husbands and miserable children or are abused by shifty black boyfriends or fathers, they consume boatloads of interesting Nigerian foods. There are even recipes included at the end of the book!

This isn’t high art, of course, but it’s great entertainment. However, the phenomenon the novel points to is true. I have no idea why it’s so but women from unfortunate countries do tend to exist only in two modes: being eagerly mistreated by compatriots and acting like total bastards toward kind, earnest men from more civilized places.

Leaving aside the racial angle (which is hard to do because the author makes sure you never forget about it), the novel shows us how ugly the life of uncontrolled consumerism is. If you don’t have some limiting factor – be it religion or an intense intellectual life – unchecked wanting turns you into a horrid person. The female characters of Wahala are so nasty because there’s no organizing principle in their lives, no moral code, no purpose. They do atrocious things and never even realize it. This is what living in a moral vacuum looks like, and it’s scary.