According to Foster’s argument so far, authors seem to be doing a great many things at once: juggling intertextual references, creating multiple layers of symbolic meaning, following preexisting patterns, and so on. Foster acknowledges that it might be hard to believe that one person could be doing all these things at once, and to say conclusively that authors do this would be incorrect, “or at least misleading.” The reality is that it is, of course, impossible to know what happens inside an author’s head.
Recall that one of the main differences between surface reading and deep reading is that, in the latter category, readers are performing a productive role; they are creating analysis, rather than simply consuming the text. Some of the layers of meaning Foster mentions in this passage are at least partially created by the reader, but are done so in conjunction with the text, and not independent of it.
On the other hand, there are groups of writers who we know made conscious choices in the way they including symbolic, intertextual, archetypical, and ironic meaning; these are called the “Intentionalists,” and many were part of the modernist movement. Authors like James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf are known to have deliberately construct their texts using the techniques Foster has identified (along with others). These choices were conscious and intentional, emerging from the authors’ familiarity with previous eras of literature as well as Greek myth, religion, and psychoanalytic thought.
The Intentionalists were reacting against a period of cultural history known as Romanticism, when people believed that artists should create work organically, according to the natural inspiration of genius. In contrast, the Intentionalists meticulously planned their work, believing that creating powerful art was the result of conscious decisions, not sudden flashes of inspiration.
However, we also have clues that indicate that writers prior to the modernist period also deliberately infused their texts with these many complicated layers of meaning. Before 1900, almost all Western authors would have received extensive education in the classics and the work of poets such as Dante and Shakespeare. Furthermore, writers tend to be “aggressive readers” whose love of literature means they are familiar with a big range of their literary ancestors. Although we can never know exactly how much of what goes into a work is conscious, we should always try to be alert to as many clues as possible. Foster suggests that we probably underestimate how much of what we encounter in a text is the result of deliberate planning on the part of the author.
Foster’s advice to “practice” reading in order to familiarize yourself with intertextuality is a doctrine that most writers have followed enthusiastically. In the past, it was widely held that people learned to write by (literally) copying the work of great authors. As Foster argues in the chapters on Shakespeare and the Bible, quoting and referencing major canonical texts is a way of creating a sense of authority. This point of view supports Foster’s assertion that authors probably do include intertextual references on purpose much of the time.