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Authors & Audiences: A Tricky Relationship

July 3, 2012

It seems pretty straightforward to say that a book belongs to an author.  When we talk about a book we say, “Hemingway’s masterpiece: The Sun Also Rises” or “Tim O’Brien’s The Things they Carried.”  That apostrophe-s, as we all know, denotes possession. It’s not uncommon for an author to think of their characters, books, and universes, with some degree of seriousness, as their children.  A book, after all, is almost completely a product on the author, and in many ways, I can see the children parallel.  But — if we’re going to milk this “books and character are the author’s children” metaphor for all its worth — this relationship fundamentally changes when the book gets a job, becomes financially independent, starts dating, and grows up.  In literal words, when the book is published.

When a book is published the audience is introduced, and to some extent a book belongs to an author less.  It enters the public sphere, and with that the public sphere enters a world that used to belong exclusively to the writer.  For the first time (with the exception of publishers — new people are connecting with the characters, being moved by the plot and emotional journey, and in other ways making the author’s book part of their personal experiences.  This is a big transition, but a book has to grow up.

Readers have a fascinating power and I think the word “interpret” and its variations are the key to unlocking the source of the power of the readers.  All audiences— and all critics— are interpreters.  When an audience takes a story in; they will read a text and filter it through their own personal experience.  Based on these experiences they will see something — and it’s never quite the same in each case — in it.  They can determine how valuable that something is, but more importantly, they can determine what that something is.  In this, the audience has the power to decide what the book means.

It’s easy to see things between the lines of the page that the author didn’t necessarily intend to put there.  It can be as founded as an examination of the way morality of the unintended consequences in Middlemarch or as wish-fulfilling as an relationship dream of “OMG, HARRY AND HERMIONE BELONG TOGETHER.”  Critics, academics, and careful readers will analyze content and keep it grounded enough to the actual text to keep their readings believable, but even they still take a text and reshape it through their eyes, and derive meaning from it that — intentional or not on the author’s part — was not explicit.

Therefore, as interpreters, audiences are taking ownership of a text. Whether their interpretations are right or wrong, academically founded or a teenage romantic rewriting of an ending, the power of the audience is to decide what is before, after, and between the lines.  But this power of interpretation is often in contention with the author’s control over a world that, once, existed only in their heads and private pages.   However right they are in their own heads, and however convincing an argument they can make, a reader can completely miss the mark.  They can get something entirely wrong.  Or something that the author believes is entirely wrong.  And if the author is alive, and this reading gains popularity, it can put the author in the position where their once-private universe isn’t being read the right way.

To use a real-life example, when the Lord of the Rings trilogy was analyzed, J.R.R. Tolkien vehemently denied there being anything topical or allegorical about his books, whether it was to the history of Europe, Industrialism, World Wars I or II, or Christianity.  He said that Middle Earth was Middle Earth, and in no way related to anything of modern Western civilization.  This seems a little bit unfair of a thing to say, considering Tolkien himself was of modern Western civilization, but what really bothers me about this statement is how much it limits the reader’s ability to interpret a work.  I can see why Tolkien was wary of allegory.  As someone who built one of the largest and most intricate fantasy worlds in the history of literature, it must have felt reductive to his work for someone to say that the whole story meant just one or even three things.  That said, for Tolkien to say anything along the lines of, “My story is just a story, and has no allegories, metaphors, or allusions to the world I live in and wrote it out of,” is equally reductive.  Maybe it doesn’t seem reductive to tell a critic their reading is wrong, so let’s make this example a little more human: imagine if a Holocaust Survivor read Sauron as Hitler? Maybe he took comfort in the complete evil and ultimate downfall of “The Red Eye,” at the hands of those he oppressed.   It seems to me, that in saying what a book is not — or even in saying what it is — an author limits the reader, and therefore limits the impact the text can have on that reader, and thus he inadvertently reduces the possible scope of his writing.

If I were an author, I would never want to say anything that would sever the personal or emotional connection between my reader and my work. Which is why, I think, so many of them remain mum about their work.  When asked about endings, their quote is usually something unsatisfying about it being left up to the audience to decide what happens after that ambiguous final sentence that leads to torrents of debates, fan fiction, interpretations, and (in some more passionate cases), arguments, counter-arguments, yelling, fights and mayhem.  Or as James Joyce once answered, “”I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”

In the world of literature, it is not usually expected that there is a right or wrong answer to things, but I’m going to go ahead and say that, in this case, Joyce’s and my hypothetical-author’s answers were right to remain cryptic and to act otherwise would be wrong. This is a pretty sweeping statement, and of course, as with all sweeping statements, there are exceptions.  But after a text is written and completed, I think the author has to watch their tongue.  With the internet making fan-bases more connected, fan-theories more prominent, and authors far more accessible, this is a challenging task.  They are constantly barraged with questions and with websites Good Reads and Twitter allowing unmoderated access between authors and their fans, the content that authors disclose outside of their books is rivaling the importance of what they say inside. Do you remember when the news broke that Dumbledore was gay?  Despite the power of the audiences, authors are authorities on their work, and when they give answers, it’s hard, sometimes even impossible to argue.  (Some even refer to information an author gives about a work of fiction outside of that work as the Word of God.) But every answer an author gives eliminates the possibility of what else the answer could be.



Bonus Question:

What is your best theory?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 3, 2012 1:51 pm

    Great article! I tend to fall into the side of the audience having power vs. the author for a lot of the reasons you stated. I’ve always found the Dumbledore was Gay thing fascinating because what J.K. Rowling actually said was “I always thought of Dumbledore as gay” (paraphrasing). It implies that the character has a life of his own and that she can interpret as well as the audience. Obviously issues of sexuality, especially in relation to a beloved children’s book, made that case for more emotionally charged, but I never really saw what the problem was. Another case of writer vs. audience opinion (also having to do with sexuality, actually) is the recent interview with Grant Morrison in Playboy in which he said there was a gayness inherit to Batman, but he never said the character WAS gay since he never canonically did anything homosexual. Morrison is highlighting what the conflict between what the reader brings to Batman and how the actual character behaves.

    • jtrbsarah permalink*
      July 3, 2012 2:08 pm

      I actually have a few problems with Rowling’s announcement. If you skim the article, you’ll understand why. It’s not just the Dumbledore part so much as she tells the audience what Petunia was too afraid to say to Harry (something that I think, if she was too afraid to say it, the audience should never know), and who Neville marries after the end of the book.

      As for Dumbledore, she even says that “I would have announced this years ago” and gives a whole history of his love-life, so it doesn’t feel like it’s up to the audience anymore. I also don’t understand why she’d have ANNOUNCED it rather than been more forward with it in her actual writing.

  2. Marge Cohen permalink
    July 4, 2012 5:53 am

    Sarah, you are amazing!! Wow!

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