“Each book was a world unto itself, and in it I took refuge.”
When you become a published author, you very quickly get used to readers interpreting what you write in a way that is not what you had intended. Although this is disconcerting at first, in reality it is fine, and indeed it is perfectly normal. It is part and parcel of the process of writing and reading – the book (or blog) no longer ‘belongs’ to you once it is published – it belongs to your readers instead. As an author you don’t have any right to demand that your readers interpret your writing in a particular way, although it’s never nice to see them getting it totally wrong. Sometimes, particularly for the non-fiction author, these unexpected interpretations act as a signal that you didn’t express yourself very well, or that you could make your book better, as I explained here. Although it is natural to be defensive about ‘your book’, this precious thing that you have spent so much time creating, it is all just part and parcel of the job of being a writer. You must grow a thick skin or give up writing altogether.
When my book Getting the Buggers to Behave was first published, a reader got in touch. The email went something like this: “I read your book, I followed your advice, I waited for silence, and I was still waiting twenty minutes later.” My reader’s interpretation of my advice wasn’t what I meant, so I got in touch and explained in a bit more detail. (I later met the person who had emailed me, and interviewed him for a book, so there was a lovely bit of serendipity about that email.) Luckily for me, as a non-fiction author I also have the chance to edit the way I express my advice in each new edition, to clarify my intent for my readers. The book is in its fifth edition now, and although it is still essentially the same book, I have added lots of new ideas and made many tweaks as I’ve gone along. Ever since the book was published, I have also been told by a handful of people that I am blaming teachers for the behaviour of their students. I’m not, but I can’t find a better way to express that I’m not, and in the end some people just make what they want to see out of what they read. If hundreds of thousands of people find your book useful, you’d be a fool to worry about a tiny minority of dissatisfied commentators.
While in non fiction, interpretations can vary, in fiction the effect is magnified hundred fold. Stories are works of the imagination, rather than works of fact. What can you ever truly ‘know’ for sure about a story? A story essentially creates a fictional context in and of itself, especially if it is in the science fiction or fantasy genres. The only facts that really exist within a story are the details of the plot, the names of the characters, and the specific words and images that the author uses. However, even these are often wide open to interpretation. If you’ve read Gone Girl, you will know just how easy it is to be fooled by an unreliable narrator. Characterisation is also a difficult area in which to find ‘facts’, because people’s motivations are so complex, unless you focus on the details of what a character looks like. Thankfully authors often leave the reader to imagine a character’s appearance for his or herself, which is why films of the book so often disappoint – I mean, Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher? Seriously?
When you read a piece of writing, you sometimes need to know what certain words mean, to help you understand it. However, luckily for us authors, a lot of readers can work these out from the writing itself, rather than having to look them up as they go along. Someone asked me recently whether a person could understand Macbeth better if they knew what a ‘thane’ was. Obviously they could, but if the meaning was not clear from the sets, the costumes and the dialogue, then the director (and indeed Shakespeare) probably didn’t do a very good job of staging/writing the play. The flow of knowledge in fiction works in two directions – the reader can learn lots of things from the story, as well as learning things to help them understand the story before or after. One fact that we do know for sure about published writing, because it’s printed in the front of the book, is the date on which it was first published, and who it was written by. We might also be able to find out something about the author her or himself. This can inform our reading of a book, but even here, we can easily be fooled – George Eliot and Robert Galbraith being handy cases in point.
If you are ‘into’ the study of literature (which by definition I am, having done my BEd in English and Drama) interpreting books will typically be interesting to you. You want to try and find out what a story really means by picking the story apart, and analysing the details that surround it. You might look at the author’s life and the history that was going on at the time the book was written. You might try to explore alternative interpretations, and make parallels with world events. But, just as with non fiction, as readers we tend to overlay all this with our personal visions of the world. We start to feel that we ‘know’ what the author ‘meant’ by x, y or z, or that we understand the allusions they are making. We start to believe that the author was writing social commentary that said a, b or c, or making a particular political statement. We give ‘evidence’ to prove our ideas in the form of quotes and imagery. In reality the author might have meant nothing at all by what we are analysing, or perhaps those allusions happened subconsciously during the act of writing. It is all too easy to start presenting our own interpretations as ‘facts’ to our students, and to forget to let them do enough of their own interpreting for themselves.
I guess the only person who can ever truly know for sure what they meant when they wrote something is the author (and, speaking as an author, sometimes even I don’t have a clue what I’m saying when I write). Yesterday I was told by someone that one of my blog posts was about an American author called Doug Lemov. My correspondent was so sure that my blog post was about this, that apparently he uses it as an example with students (how flattering it is to be quoted as a source!). Unfortunately, given that I’ve never actually read any of Doug Lemov’s books, it can’t possibly have been about him. I can’t remember what the blog was about, but it looks to me like I was thinking about a vision of standardised and ‘evidence based’ education that doesn’t take account of context. My reader is very welcome to make that interpretation, as I explained in the first paragraph of this blog, but in this instance I am a first hand source, and that interpretation is just plain wrong. Anyway, we are very lucky these days, in that we can contact authors over the Internet, via email or on social media. Many authors will happily respond to polite reader queries. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if we did this to Shakespeare. And I imagine him looking up from his manuscript and going: “Don’t be daft, of course I didn’t mean that.”