Literature has at times been theorized in terms of a message passing from author to reader, and this has often been done by reference to general theories of language use: the work is the vehicle of intentions that are realized (or not) in the reader's responses; the work is a “speech act” that operates on the reader and causes his or her responses. Although this article argues that such theorizations mistake the role of communication in literature, it suggests that they nonetheless reflect prevalent ways of talking about literary texts, which should be investigated as tactically useful techniques employed in discourse between readers (and nonreaders) of those texts. Drawing on the work of a range of thinkers, notably Quentin Skinner and Jerome McGann, this article then proposes an alternative application of the concepts of authorial intention and speech act to the genesis of literary works. This is followed by a study of early contributions to the public controversy over The Satanic Verses, in which Lena Jayyusi's analysis of moral action descriptions is used to draw attention to commentators' ideological attempts to structure this novel as a speech-like action carried out by its author Salman Rushdie.

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