It happens every so often that a student will, in the midst of a particularly detailed discussion of some poem or story, make something like the following objection: “It just doesn’t seem likely that the author was thinking about all of these things when they wrote this.”
Something about reading deeply into a text, pulling and prodding and exploring, bothers this kind of student, and they think that by appealing to the improbability that the author was thinking about diction or metaphor so minutely, they can short-circuit the analysis and guard against “over-analysis.” I’ve never quite been able to peg this student’s concern, why it is they are worried about seeing something that the author didn’t mean. Part of it might be that close-reading, if they allow it in, means they can’t read unthinkingly anymore. Part of it might be that they are afraid they can’t do this kind of work. Part of it might be that they see literary analysis as taking away some of the magic of literature. Whatever it is, they just want it to end.
This passively reading student, however, is asking a better question than they know. The interesting part of the question isn’t the “likelihood” but the “not thinking this” part. This student assumes that a writer knows exactly what it is that they are doing (they don’t) and that any readerly deviation from that intent is somehow contaminated and contaminating (it isn’t).
What they don’t realize is that for the truly gifted, ability exceeds understanding. Whether some innate sense or learned sensibility or acquired skill, great writers can do things with language that escapes their own comprehension. Language itself is so rich that no one can claim to be the absolute master of the words they use and sentences they assemble. The task of criticism then is to re-attach the effect with the art, to fill the gap between what is written and what is conveyed.
The question the student should be asking is not “can we do this?” but “why should we do this?” The answer, which is rather unsatisfactory to an earnest 18-year old, is understanding and the mastery that understanding brings. To understand something is to no longer be subject to it, it is to intervene on your own behalf. In short, criticism allows us to be in conversation with art rather than subject to it and to our own unthinking reaction.
So to the student who protests that an author wasn’t thinking all of this stuff when they wrote it, I always respond: “You’re probably right. That’s why we need to.”