Intentional Fallacy, Meaning It, and Generous Ways of Reading

Robert Allen Papinchak’s LARB review of George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is mostly filled with praise. Among the two objections he notes (the other being Saunders’ tendency to be overly self-deprecating) is what he characterizes as his “bête noire” and the “one persistent objection” he had, in his many years of teaching, to discussions and analyses of fiction. This is the intentional fallacy, which students committed when they “claimed to know what a writer had in mind,” “when they presumed an understanding of a story that even its writer might claim not to have.” Papinchak points out a number of occasions where Saunders’ does precisely this.

In commenting on Turgenev, [Saunders] wonders if “technically rickety” parts of “The Singers” make it a “clumsy work of art” by intention. Did Turgenev “intend” the story to “serve as an apologia for his lack of craft”? With Chekhov, he surmises that the relationships in “The Darling” were “intentionally” carrying forward “some set of variables.” With Tolstoy’s “Alyosha the Pot” he brings up intention at least six times, even attempting to rewrite the story to what he considers Tolstoy’s intentions might have been.

In response, Papinchak notes that “a story is what it is” and “it has a mind of its own,” and quotes D. H. Lawrence: “Never trust the teller, trust the tale.” I suppose he means by this that what we have access to is the story itself and any presumed understanding of the author’s ideas outside of that is speculation on our part, something Tolstoy once suggested in a response to a reader who asked him what he meant in a particular passage of Anna Karenina: “If I wanted to tell you want I meant in that passage, I would have to write the whole book again from the beginning.” In other words, the story is on the page. Read it. Don’t ask me to reconstruct what I “meant” to say, especially after the fact, when I might not even remember what I had in mind at the time. There’s a similar, perhaps apocryphal, line attributed to Samuel Johnson: “Madam, when I wrote that, only two beings in the universe knew what I was thinking, myself and God. And now, Madam, God only knows what I was thinking when I wrote that!”

Papinchak moves on rather too quickly for me, but fine, it’s a relatively brief review, and, as I noted to begin with with, a basically positive one — indeed he calls his objections “minor nits to pick in an otherwise overwhelmingly constructive book.” The reason I find the observations too fast and perhaps based on too cursory a reading is, mainly, that Saunders brings up the intentional fallacy almost immediately after one of these instances, in “Afterthought #2” to “The Singers,” where he notes:

We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he wanted to express, and then he just, you know, expressed it. That is, we buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same. ¶The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and beautiful and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully. (p. 110)

What I find so interesting in this passage is how, by the end of it, the point of view has shifted from that of reading to that of writing. This, I think, explains the page-before instance of what looks a lot like the intentional fallacy:

Did Turgenev intend ‘The Singers’ to serve as an apologia for his lack of craft? While he was writing it? After he had written it? I’m pretty sure he didn’t ‘aim’ to produce an apologia–didn’t start out to do that. I doubt he realized what he’d done, and I don’t know that he’d necessarily bless our assessment of it. But here’s the important thing: I don’t think it matters. He did it, and then he let it stand. Which is a form (the ultimate form, for an artist) of ‘meaning to do it’ (of taking responsibility). The blessing an artist gives the final product (which he gives by sending it out into the world) is his way of saying that he approves of everything within it, even parts of it that may, in that moment be hidden from him. (p 109)

Besides the fact that “he did it” isn’t too clear (he did what? produce an apologia? or write what he wrote?) and that there are a lot of male pronouns here standing in for “the artist” (let’s just assume this is Saunders writing based on his own experience), what I find especially remarkable is the pull of perspective from reading to writing, which is constant throughout the book, such that sometimes, if we’re not paying close attention, we might get stuck squarely between the two.

The book’s pattern is to begin with reading, and this makes it look like it’s about about how to read, how to interpret, and this is where Saunders’ references to what Chekhov or Turgenev were “trying to say” look like instances of the intentional fallacy pure and simple. But this reading is always in the service of how to write, and its intended primary audience is writers who want to create their own stories. So he consistently moves quickly past these interpretive moments and turns them to the service of writing. When, for instance, he writes about “the actual process” in the passage above, he has shifted over to the process of creation, away from where he started, which was with the process of discussing art (“we often discuss art this way”). Well, of course, one might object, since this is a book billed as a master class for writers. But that is only partly the case: it might have emerged from a fiction writing class, but somewhere in the process of taking on its final form, it became a “master class on writing, reading, and life” (my emphasis, but it’s the subtitle of the book, so it’s not at all unfair). This is where it raises larger questions.

When you’re the one doing the creating, you’re faced with different questions from those of all other readers, mostly about your own intention, and these will include how much control you need to feel you have over the story you’re creating, and the responsibility you take for what you leave on the page as the final version. This, I think, is what Saunders means by “meaning it,” confronting those moments “when we have to decide whether to accept a work of art that we have to admit we weren’t in control of as we made it and of which we’re not entirely sure we approve” (108). I understand this, and I certainly appreciate both the sense of responsibility it seems to want to emphasize authors should take for their creations, and the way that it complicates the intentional fallacy for them in their practice. Not so much for readers who aren’t thinking of writing, where I agree with Papinchak: it’s the intentional fallacy.

What I’m still trying to fathom is a habitual manner of reading the words of others that is so implacably turned toward expressing oneself. As Saunders jokes (“and yet not”) on the opening page, “we’re reading to see what we can steal” (p. 3). The book is certainly consistent in this sense. A writerly approach to reading, I suppose, one perfectly suited for a fiction writing workshop, where the works explored are there as models and examples. This is the master class on fiction writing.

But reading and life? I suppose one could argue that life is like a short story, but that is not an argument Saunders employs. In fact he frequently points out the opposite, the starkness and efficiency of the form as such, which is highly artificial. This reading-for-writing-fiction clearly counts among the various ways one might read, and it wouldn’t preclude learning other things from the texts read that might be helpful to one in life, if only by happenstance. But it’s not a generous way to read. In fact, in its own way, it is as narrow as that used by students and scholars when they are focused on writing an analysis, where they ignore all the parts of the story that don’t support their argument and emphasize only those that do. Aren’t these stories worth reading in a more open spirit? For their history, and beauty, and critique, and richness, and subtlety, and tragedy, and all the other things you might discover if you weren’t focused on taking something to use? This is the biggest problem I see: I have doubts about being able to read both ways at once.

To put it more bluntly, I’m afraid that you narrow down the stories when your readings turn, again and again, to what you can use as part of your “own” stories? The approach reminds me a bit of those people we have conversations with sometimes who (we can sense it) are really only listening in order to be able to respond, a little like if someone learned a foreign language only in order to tell people things in it. I find myself hoping for a more generous approach, in which one is ready for anything the text might bring, because, I think, this kind of reading is what results in challenges to one’s accepted notions, in deeper engagement with the perspectives of others, in discovery and empathy.

This would be the master class on reading and life.

Teaching Russian Short Fiction

I’ll be teaching what is called a “second 8-week” class this semester. This is a special format that my university came up with to address two problems. The first one is that sometimes a professor offers a class that doesn’t get enough students to sign up, such that it has to be canceled. The second is that some students find that the classes they signed up for at the beginning of the term are not for them, so they need another class to take (often in order to maintain their full-time student status, which is important for such things as financial aid, scholarships, and so on). I was hoping to teach a graduate seminar, but I didn’t get enough students, so instead I’ll be teaching “Russian Short Fiction,” an intro-level course that I taught once before. The title sounds like an oxymoron to some, but there’s actually quite a bit to choose from, and I’m looking forward to it.

As part of my preparation for the course, I began George Saunders’ new book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, which just happens to include four of the stories I use in the class: Chekhov’s “In the Cart” and “Gooseberries,” Turgenev’s “The Singers,” and Gogol’s “The Nose.” The book is based on a course he has taught for over twenty years in the MFA program at Syracuse, which means it is perfect for the sorts of students who are likely to take my course: interested in a general way, probably without Russian language or at least not enough to read the stories in the original Russian, and likely to respond to a practical approach that asks questions about what Saunders calls “the physics of the form (‘How does this thing work, anyway?'”

I have been surprised in the past by how a new book can come out just at the moment when you can use it in one of your classes, and this one has me really excited. While I know the material from having studied and taught it for many years, and from having written about it in a scholarly vein, I anticipate learning things from Saunders, who comes at it from a different perspective. I also anticipate sharing more here as I find little gems of concise, effective writing like this:

“This is a resistance literature, written by progressive reformers in a repressive culture, under constant threat of censorship, in a time when a writer’s politics could lead to exile, imprisonment, and execution. The resistance in the stories is quiet, at a slant, and comes from perhaps the most radical idea of all: that every human being is worthy of attention and that the origins of every good and evil capability of the universe may be found by observing a single, even very humble, person and the turnings of his or her mind” (p. 4).