My second semester of sophomore high school English, I had a teacher that loved to analyze the crap out of everything we read. I’ve talked before about sometimes feeling too stupid to understand literary fiction; I wouldn’t be surprised if that course started me down that path. Of course, I went on to pursue an English degree in college anyhow, but given the fact that I can never come up with the right literary references to help me out on things like writing blog posts, I suppose that isn’t a resounding endorsement.
That HS English teacher probably felt like she was teaching us to understand the true theme and message in the books we read, but a little bit then and a lot a bit now, I wonder if this is even possible. Can we really divine the master plan of authors? What is more, does it matter if we can?
My husband and I like to debate this question from time to time. He lands on the “yes, it matters” side. To exaggerate slightly (or a lot, I’ll let him decide), he considers it a failure (of sorts) by the author if readers do not “get” what s/he intended when writing the novel.
I disagree. The best part of reading is when you can connect with the story, the characters, or any combination of those two. If you can come away from a novel and feel that you have gotten something out of it — whether it be joy, growth, knowledge, compassion, understanding, curiosity, meditation, or whatever — then that book was a success. If I come away from a novel that meant one thing to me, but quite another to a different reader, I lean towards believing that the novel is even better because it now has layers that I may not have even known existed.
Author John Green,
my idol, my secret fangirly writer-crush, an author I admire and respect, says this: “The book does not exist for the benefit of the author; the book exists for the benefit of you [the reader]” Sure, some may write for themselves, but if you are writing to publish, then why you originally wrote the story no longer matters. It is now out in the world, where you no longer have control over it.
One argument might be that if no one catches the message you were intending, then perhaps you have not effectively connected with your readers, that what you have crafted falls short of the mark. I suppose I can see this possibility – but ultimately that is a personal issue vs an at-large reader one, isn’t it?
One of my students wrote this in a recent essay:
There is a meaning behind everything. Just an example, take the Soundgarden song “Taree” for example:
“Taree walk out and raise the road
To my tilted shadow
I only know I’ve made it home
When I drown
In your ghost light”
You can pick through this song, and get a thousand meanings out of just this slice of the song. Is it about the loss of a loved one? A heartbroken soul? No, it’s about a side of a mountain that overlooks Puget Sound that had a “Hollywood” style sign overgrown in vines. But Ben Shepherd, the writer was able to put such a spin on his writing, that it paints a vivid image in your head, even if it was inspired by something as simple as a sign. That shows true writing prowess.
There are a lot of music lyrics out there that probably don’t mean anything at all like we think they mean. Recently I posted Pink’s song “Try” and commented on how I didn’t necessarily like the message in the original music video. The lyrics in that song speak to me differently than what she might have been thinking as she wrote the song. I’m glad, actually. Sometimes I don’t want something that means a lot to me for one reason or another to be ruined by authorial intent. In fact, I don’t want to know if William Golding really did write in 56 different symbols within his Lord of the Flies novel like my sophomore English teacher thought because seriously, if he did, then I’m suddenly thinking he wrote a textbook and not a novel and that is just not nearly as cool.
As a writer who hopes that her own novels will be out in the world, I am not bothered a bit if all that I may have intended in my stories does not reach everyone. Just having my first novel out to various beta readers gave me all kinds of joy at what parts especially resonated with each of them. They weren’t all the same parts. I loved this. I write because I love it, but ultimately it is because I hope you will love it, too.
UPDATE: A colleague just posted this goodie from a while back – revised Dr. Seuss titles to reveal subtext. Are these his hidden messages that kids just aren’t getting? Haha!
What do you think? How difficult is it for you if readers don’t “get” what you intended? What if you talked to an author of your favorite novel and found out that his/her purpose or message was not at all what you got out of it? Would that affect your connection with the story? Sound off with these or any other comments you might have!
Here is a song that might fall into “does this match at all with my interpretation?” category. I remember seeing my friend, Jenn, talk of how she saw Fun.’s video of “Some Nights” and thinking “huh”. (Not really a direct quote.) Me too, but guess what? I’m totally cool with that.