Pointed at your temple with the intent to kill

April 2nd, 2008 by | Tags:

I’ve seen it said, both online and off, that intent doesn’t matter– results do.

It doesn’t matter that you intended to do one thing if it ends up being another. All that matters is the end result and how the reader takes it.

I don’t know that I agree. For one, it puts the reader on a higher pedestal than the author. I’m not entirely comfortable with that. On equal levels? Sure, I can get with that. What you take from it is just as important was what’s portrayed or what was intended. But, the reverse?

Why should the experience of the reader trump that of the author?

Honest question, not just talking out loud.

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9 comments to “Pointed at your temple with the intent to kill”

  1. I hope that’s not true or else a lot of children’s Christmases are ruined.

    “I don’t care if you made this macaroni sculpture to make me happy! It displeases me! You are a failure! Get out of my face!”

  2. The reader has the $$$. If you’re publishing to make a living, pleasing your customer ultimately trumps most other concerns. If you’re only writing to please yourself, why bother with publishing? With that said, of course an author should strive to please himself (giggity).

    And yes, Results DO matter. It doesn’t matter how much you feel sorry for the poor starving kid in Africa, if you don’t do anything (or more importantly, don’t do the RIGHT things) then all your pitiful feelings and crocodile tears are for naught. Right thoughts are useless without right action.

  3. With comics, the reader’s experience seems only to really matter insofar as it generates money. And the comics, as some folks point out because of the who Superman rights thing, isn’t that big a slice of the pie these days.

    And let’s be frank: as much as people hated Chuck Austen’s run, the X-book he was on still sold. And the only books I ever see praised to the moon are the books that no one is reading.

  4. It’s a tricky question. It reminds me of Ray Bradbury, when he said Fahrenheit 451 was actually about how TV makes people dumb, not the anti-censorship meaning that other people attributed to it. Do you throw out the experience of readers who interpret as as a statement against censorship and also hold TV in a positive light? If the author’s word trumps the reader’s there seems to be less room for interpretation.

    Then again, the author may be trying to force a certain interpretation and not want things to be so open.

  5. I think both are important, really, and probably equally so. If you’re intending to draw a fight sequence, and it looks like someone knitting, you’ve failed as an artist, unless you were intentionally doing so (in which case you’re probably exceptionally gifted). This reminds me of some post I saw on LiveJournal that someone copied from (sigh) 4chan about Pokemon being the coma dream of a schizophrenic. I was like “no, it’s about a kid who trains monster to fight.” There’s a point at which the writers’ intent outweighs the result.

  6. Firstly, it really depends on what we define as “matter”, doesn’t it? Or “intent”, I suppose.

    Say I write what is intended to be a satire on conservative values, but the satire is so subtle that I appear to almost every reader to be extremely right wing. By the time I realise my intention has been misunderstood, everyone now automatically assumes they know my personal politics. Who’s at “fault” here depends on viewpoint. I might say that it’s the readers’ “fault” for being too unintelligent to realise the subtlety of my writing, while the readers will see it as my “fault” for not being sufficiently skilled a writer that my intentions aren’t, if not obvious, then discernable on analysis.

    In a scenario like the above, I really think that the writer should be the one at “fault”, if for no other reason than marketing: it’s not a good idea to call your customers stupid. After all, the dynamic here is that, just as we expect accountants to account well or lawyers to lawyer well, we expect creators to be able to impart their ideas and intentions to us via their words and pictures. Broadly, if they can’t do this either overtly or via subtext, then they’ve failed.

    I say broadly because things are complicated by subjective viewpoints. Everyone isn’t as smart as each other, so there will always be a proportion of your readership who will miss something, just as there’s a proportion who’ll read too much into something. The goal is to reduce these margins. If most of your readership understands what you’re doing and it’s only the fringes who are mistaken, you’ve probably correctly judged your readership. If everyone’s completely misunderstood what you’ve intended, you’re probably writing for the wrong audience.

    Sorry for length of comment.

  7. “And let’s be frank: as much as people hated Chuck Austen’s run, the X-book he was on still sold. And the only books I ever see praised to the moon are the books that no one is reading.”

    I agree. So many books are considered garbage, but have high sales…and people (completists) will still buy the bad issues just to have the whole run. I can name several titles that were horrible (in my opinion, and probably others would agree with me) yet sold in the 100,000 range.

    Then you have a book that everyone says “YOU HAVE TO READ THIS!” in ‘Walking Dead’ and that title is lucky to get 24,000 issues sold a month.

  8. Madeley: I agree, but I’d add that people should remember that understanding intent doesn’t mean agreeing with it.

  9. It’s a question of degree, IMHO. As Madeley said, if only a few people don’t “get it,” the author’s intent is likely fairly clear. But if it’s a large chunk of people who don’t “get it,” the author needs to take the blame for that, because his point wasn’t clear enough.

    Once a work is put out for the public eye, the author (or editor) is merely an interesting commentator. Marvel’s “Civil War” and Joss Whedon’s “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” (at the close to Season 6) both come to mind.

    When a Tom Brevoort (for Marvel) or Joss (for Buffy, obviously) make comments outside the medium of the story, it’s a nice addition, but it doesn’t change what was presented. If a large number of fans take the notion that Iron Man is a fascist, or that Spike didn’t actually ask for his soul, away from the story presented, the fans can’t really be entirely blamed for that.

    Yes, nothing happens in a vacuum, and we all bring our own prejudices to the table, but when it isn’t a small number of people, but indeed a sizable number, you (the collective “you”) really need to stop blaming the reader/watcher.

    So I guess I’ll say that intent is nice (insofar as entertainment mediums, as opposed to determining the morality of a person, where intent DOES matter more than results), but I do think the perception of the audience carries more weight in the long term.

    I hope that makes sense without coming off as critical.

    Take it and run.