The interpretive dance
Last week I wrote some more words in regards to the Death of the Author concept. I remember when I first ran across it I had a knee-jerk negative response, because I’m a bit of a control freak like that where my writing is concerned. You dare propose that my readers know my story better than I do? Preposterous! The themes are mine. The subtext is mine. MINE. My preciousssss.
But over time I mellowed, and had to admit–to reference another franchise–the more I tighten my grip, the more star systems will slip through my fingers. The reality is that the sole way to retain one and only one interpretation of your precious is, like Gollum, to hide it away in the dark. If you’re going to make it public, then here comes the public to interact with your tale, and each of those interactions will have their own spin.
An example of the divergent craziness that happens next is a book’s description of a character, and the picture in our heads we form of what that character looks like. I’m talking about the picture we form in the absence of any illustrations or other visual depictions of that character. Let’s assume for sake of this point that we have an author and five readers who are all able to draw fairly well in a realistic style, and we ask them individually, and without consulting one another, to provide a rendering of the fearsome smuggler Saravia the Bold.
Even if the author has gone into what they think is painstakingly exacting detail on Saravia’s appearance, I would bet you good money that you’re going to end up with five very different depictions of the same character, to the point where it’s entirely possible you’ll get them all together and have a furious author shouting, “What the hell?! Saravia is black!”
Note that while this is an entirely made-up example, there is an actual story of Harlan Ellison publicly chewing out an English student for, in the midst of waxing rhapsodic about all the hidden meanings of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, missing that the character of Ellen is supposed to be black. It happens. Supposedly Ellison was just annoyed that the guy was manufacturing all these things Ellison never actually put into text while missing something he did, but I’m sure the student in question would have been much better off if Ellison were dead, or at least not standing in the back of the auditorium.
So Death of the Author can get pretty awkward at times unless the author is actually unavailable for comment, but there’s another part to it I actually wanted to talk about this time around, which I personally find a much more positive concept. Death of the Author is not just a matter of Word of God being not such a big deal, it also preaches that Life of God (yeah I just made that term up… I think) should be divorced from commentary on the work.
In other words, just because an author happens to be a devout Catholic, we don’t necessarily have to be digging Catholic dogma out of every nook and cranny of the fiction they write. The fallout of the alternative is all around us. We learn that Lewis Carroll might sexually desire underage girls and start looking for signs of that deviancy in the Alice tales. Decades after its publication, Ender’s Game somehow morphs into a treatise chock full of pro-Mormon, anti-gay propaganda.
I’m not saying Author Tracts don’t exist, or that an author’s experiences never influence their work, but there’s a lot of stories out there where the writer wanted nothing more than to tell a story. To have someone read your tale of robots and aliens and then say, “Obviously this is about the writer’s documented problems with impotence”… well… that’d be a little frustrating to endure, don’t you think? Bad enough that you have documented problems with impotence without it being the first thing any critique of your work feels obliged to mention.
Your subconscious mind by definition is out of your control, which is often the argument of critics when an author protests that he didn’t mean things that way. There’s also that thing writers themselves often admit, which is they’re not really sure what their story is about until they’ve finished it (or at least finished a first draft). Sometimes this is a positive, like my experience last week. Sometimes it’s a negative, like that creative writing class I tried to take in college where no one seemed to be able to get past my status as a Theatre major. But the more anyone delves into the subtext of a work, the more risk there is of a kind of verbal version of pareidolia where you’re seeing the Virgin Mary in the toast. Witness an entire collegiate curriculum based on the reading of Moby Dick as political allegory rather than a crazy obsessed guy hunting a whale. If Herman Melville were alive today, would he be crankily interjecting that he had no political motive in mind? That his personal religious beliefs have no bearing on the text? Is it coincidence that Moby Dick was only rediscovered and hailed as a deep (pardon the pun) classic of literature years after Melville had passed from the mortal coil, or the best sort of convenience for those wanting to expound about what the book “really means”?
I’m not against doing so; overthinking fiction, particularly fiction many people would consider shallow pop culture, is one of my favorite hobbies. Whether the actual creatives involved respond with “Dude, no”, or “Oh yeah, we totally meant it that way”, or don’t even respond at all, it can be a fun exercise to fill in the blanks.
The real problems, as usual, come when anyone gets too serious about it. The reader has the potential to inflict just as much bias onto a work as the author does, whether consciously or as a result of that ever ill-defined and unknowable subconscious. And heck, if a story has absolutely nothing to say and invokes no reactions, why does it even exist? What separates it from, say, the instruction sheet for your television?
It’s good for fiction to have meaning. Just try not to let your interpretations get too much in the way of enjoying what’s there.