Author Intention vs Reader Interpretation
So Twitter can sometimes be a bit of a witch hunt, can’t it?
It really depends on which side you’re on; a lot of people will get unnecessarily harassed, but there’s also the case of calling out people who say silly stuff. You could say ‘problematic’, which is what it is, but it’s got to the point where the word is meaningless now.
This topic has been one that spans decades. I even did a few classes on authorship and the ‘death of the author’ because of the opinions on how subjective a text can be when it’s brought out into the world.
As a writer, you get to know that when a story of yours is published, either through traditional publishing, self-publishing, or even just putting up stuff on your blog, it’s going to be interpreted in a different way to you. Know how I know that? Because that human who reads your novel is not the same as you; there are so many factors that makes a human so unique that their view and interpretation of the same things will be vastly different to yours.
A lot of writers, especially incredibly successful authors who may not have a strong connection to their readers (e.g. lack of social media presence, very few signings/event appearances, anonymous writer) seem to have a struggle processing this. There seems to be this discontent with readers interpreting something different to how you, the author, intended it to be. Now of course, you own these characters and this story (which has also been debated, but we won’t get into that) and so you are able to write these characters and this story in any way you see fit. I’ve touched upon this in my post on having a responsibility to represent in your writing, where I explain you shouldn’t be forced to write something you don’t want to, but as a person in power (in that sphere), you should be more open to creating an environment of inclusion and understanding (plus, having characters from minorities isn’t the hardest thing in the world).
However, you should not be bullied into writing something you don’t want to. You’re the writer, if your story is about a group of straight white men, then that’s what it’s about.
But reader interpretation is all about imagination, experience, and relationship. The reader, as a completely separate human from you, will read this text from a different perspective. Interpretation is completely different to canon, and you just have to accept that. You cannot force readers to see your novel how you see it. The majority of the time, your readers will have a very close interpretation to your intention, because that’s how books work. There is a general consensus on the story’s canon; for example, that plot definitely happened because the book is the evidence, or if it says ‘this character has red hair’, then the reader is probably going to picture a person with red hair.
Sometimes, author’s intention and reader’s interpretation can be blurred and also dealt with in a ‘silly’ (problematic) way. And here you’ll find the inspiration for this blog post:
A few days a go, S.E. Hinton, author of the classic and everyone’s set school text, The Outsiders, was asked whether or not two characters had romantic feelings for each other.
The answer is no, which she does state. That really should have been the end of it. Johnny and Dally are interpreted by so many as having romantic feelings that she’s probably heard this a lot; this theory is not news to her. The problem is that she then goes on to have a little dig at the person, clearly annoyed that people have this interpretation for no real reason than it is not in line with her author intention:
S.E. Hinton goes to the point of insulting her readers, calling lgbt romance a ‘weird fantasy’ and even pulling out the ‘I have gay friends’ card.
Oh dear, oh dear.
Things have spiraled out of control. Not only has the author alienated a large part of her audience (who love her book BECAUSE of their interpretation), but she’s also just shown a part of herself that probably wasn’t a good idea to air to the public, especially when you rely on other’s opinion on your book because hey, that’s how you get paid.
Many people on Twitter took to S.E. Hinton’s side and said ‘hang on, they’re her characters, she’s allowed to write them however she wanted’ and yes, this is absolutely right. However, you cannot control a reader’s interpretation. Johnny and Dally, just like Sirius and Lupin, Spock and Kirk, and Dean and Castiel, are not gay and do not have romantic feelings for each other in the text. That is canon, that is what the authors/scriptwriters have said. However, you as a reader can think whatever the Hell you want about those characters. If you consider two characters in media to be in love then why should anyone stop you? These are characters for you to enjoy, it’s why they’ve been written, and just because the story’s canon may disagree with you in that case, does not mean you’re not allowed to think or interpret the text differently. You are not taking over the story or demanding ownership, you are merely enjoying the story in your own way.
Hell, this is what English Literature courses are all about! I spent a whole term during my A-Levels discussing the homoeroticism in Brideshead Revisited and I came to the conclusion that these two men definitely had a lot of sex. If Evelyn Waugh rose from the dead and tweeted that wasn’t his intention, I don’t think English Literature would come to a screaming halt and re-work the whole curriculum, I think they’d just consider his intention to be another interpretation.
What do you think? Are you a writer and have strong thoughts about how you want readers to see your story? Do you like to take Word of God as gospel and like to stay strict to an author’s interpretation?