Tag Archives: intentional fallacy

Fiction and Non-Fiction and The Death of the Author

After reading “Greatly Exaggerated,” I decided to look back at my first post of the semester when I wrote about “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky” and the intentional fallacy (http://machines.kfitz.info/166-2009/2009/02/01/the-intentional-necessity/). In that post, I claimed that “in the age of self-referencing and meta-fiction, the intentional fallacy is essentially already committed by the authors themselves. The author has already done the probing for the reader, so the reader doesn’t necessarily have to do any extra work.”

But, at that point in the semester, we hadn’t really started reading Wallace’s fiction quite yet, only a few of his non-fiction essays. Now having read a pretty substantial amount of both, I’m having trouble completely agreeing with my earlier comments. My issue with my previous post arises in the fact that making such a statement as “the necessary fallacy is built right into Wallace’s own text,” seems to completely conflate all of Wallace’s writings, fiction and non-. But can we? When we talk of the Intentional Fallacy and the death of the author, is there a different in terms of Wallace’s (or anybody’s) fiction or nonfiction?

At first glance it sure seems like it to me. My previous comments were based on Wallace’s non-fiction pieces, and after reading more of his non-fiction I do still stand by the assertion that in his non-fiction essays, Wallace writes himself right into the text. Therefore, no probing beyond the text is even necessary, meaning no commitment of the intentional fallacy is possible and “the whole question seems sort of arcane” (GE, 144). Wallace’s footnotes in his non-fiction are like T.S. Eliot’s notes as mentioned in “The Intentional Fallacy” (16). Because they are a part of the text itself, the information they provide is not considered “external” (IF, 10) evidence.

But, what can we say about his fiction? Just because DFW is not writing about himself, we don’t have to immediately claim that the work has no author. But I’m not sure we can claim that the self-referencing and meta-fiction that occurs in the Wallace’s fiction allows us to gain insight into Wallace’s intention in the same way the self-referencing in his non-fiction clearly illuminates all of his inner thoughts. Yes, the narrator in “Westward” talks to the reader just as Wallace talks to the reader in “A Supposedly Fun Thing,” but analyzing the intention of the narrator in the fiction and DFW in the non-fiction will be two completely different things. Might we need to, as Wimsatt and Beardsley say, separate the narrator of “Westward” from DFW himself?

All this being said, though it doesn’t seem like it, I still don’t completely agree with “The Intentional Fallacy” or the idea of the death of the author. I am definitely one of those “civilians who [knows] in [my] gut that writing is an act of communication between one human being and another” (GE, 144). I guess my point is that by reading “Greatly Exaggerated” in the midst of several hundreds of pages of non-fiction where DFW talks directly to the reader, it is easy to be convinced that, of course, the author is not dead; he is on this page talking to me about this time he went on a cruise. But, I do think it’s important to remember that the issue maybe different regarding fiction. And I say “maybe” because I don’t really know. That’s why I wanted to bring this up. Is there a difference? What do you think?

Is it really that fallacious?

David Foster Wallace is split in regards to the intentional fallacy. Part of him believes that commission of the intentional fallacy should be avoided at all costs. However, this does not fully encompass Wallace’s opinion in the matter. Wallace also indicates a belief that the author may have a place in the interpretation and criticism of her work. This becomes particularly evident when Wallace discusses his own work.

Wallace, as an academic, believes that commission of the intentional fallacy is dangerous.  When discussing John Updike his friends, who seem to universally despise Updike, Wallace states, “there’s not going to be any profit in appealing to the intentional fallacy” (Wallace 53).  Additionally, Wallace brings up the intentional fallacy in “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky,” pointing out that Frank’s biography of Dostoevsky “commits [the intentional fallacy] all over the place” (Wallace 259).  Even in regards to his own work, Wallace states “once I’m done with the thing, I’m basically dead, and probably the text’s dead; it becomes simply language, and language lives not just in but “through” the reader. The reader becomes God, for all textual purposes” (McCaffery 141).  All this points to a belief that a look to intention and an examination of the author of a work is poor literary criticism.  Wallace believes that the theory of the intentional fallacy has significant merit in the literary world.

Wallace is not fully in the camp of Wimsatt and Beardsley, however.  Even while pointing out Frank’s commission of the intentional fallacy, Wallace forgives him for it.  He points out that Frank “maintains […] maximum restraint and objectivity” and that Frank only appeals to the historical record when the facts “contradict certain assumptions [a] critic has made” (Wallace 259).  Wallace argues that Frank’s work is so well done, as well as an “assault on lit theory’s premises” (Wallace 259).  Wallace posits that Frank’s work offers a counterpoint to New Criticism and the intentional fallacy, demonstrating that, at the very least, the current “fad” of theory should not be taken as indisputable.  More tellingly, perhaps, is his invitation in the interview of his readers to commit the intentional fallacy.  When asked about Broom of the System, Wallace has this to say:

Think of “The Broom of the System” as the sensitive tale of a sensitive young WASP who’s just had this mid-life crisis that’s moved him from coldly cerebral analytic math to a coldly cerebral take on fiction and Austin-Wittgenstein-Derridean literary theory, which also shifted his existential dread from a fear that he was just a 98.6 calculating machine to a fear that he was nothing but a linguistic construct. This WASP’s written a lot of straight humor, and loves gags, so he decides to write a coded autobio that’s also a funny little post-structural gag: so you get Lenore, a character in a story who’s terribly afraid that she’s really nothing more than a character in a story. (McCaffery 142)

With this long self-description, Wallace is begging his readers to commit the intentional fallacy.  He wants his readers to examine his work through the lens of the man David Foster Wallace and his perspective and intentions; essentially, Wallace wants his readers to give into the temptation to commit the intentional fallacy.

Wallace wants to have his cake and eat it too.  He wants to appeal to the intentional fallacy at times, as it provides a good perspective.  He’s just not sold on the idea that it’s the only way to examine a work. Continue reading