I read this really great discussion post by Aentee @ Read At Midnight about authorial intent VS. the reader’s interpretation. This happens to be a topic I’m very passionate about, so I left my opinions on it in a comment on her post, but I also realized I wanted to contribute to the discussion on my blog. So this is a kind of reply to the discussion Aentee started.
What we’re talking about here is whether or not the author’s intent with a story matters more than the reader’s interpretation of it. From having studied literature, I know some critics say no it doesn’t matter, and some say yes it does matter. Me? I usually say it doesn’t.
What comes to mind right away is Fifty Shades of Grey, where the author says there’s no abuse, but plenty of readers clearly disagree. Readers have come with incredibly in-depth analyses to support their claims, there have even been great professionally published articles that explore the ways in which this book is misogynistic. To dispute these claims, other readers who don’t see the abuse tend to try and shut these interpretations down by saying “oh, but E.L. James didn’t intend to write Christian as an abuser, so your opinion is wrong.”
The question is, does E.L. James’ intent really invalidate all these articles and analyses, that often are so well supported by textual evidence? I say most definitely not. It might not be what she meant, but in the end, if people can find evidence to support their claims then their claims are even more valid than her intent. Her work has to speak for itself.
Now, this isn’t supposed to be a debate about Fifty Shades of Grey, it was just an example of authorial intent VS. reader interpretation and how much it can differ.
Different interpretations is something you’re going to have to expect, and be able to handle gracefully, when you set your work free into the world. Remind me, wasn’t there some drama on twitter a while ago where Cassandra Clare got into arguments with fans who didn’t see her book the same way she did? I’m pretty sure I saw some of that. Yikes.
In her post, Aentee asked: “As fans, are we right to feel disappointed when the characters we love end up unrecognisable?” And yes, fans definitely have the right to feel disappointed when they feel a character becomes unrecognizable for no discernible reason. If they can back up their claim that the character development makes no sense, then it’s valid and “the author knows their characters better that the readers” isn’t an argument that can be used to shoot that down. Of course there are interpretations that are completely ridiculous and not based on facts or real observations, but I’m not talking about those. Once again, I’m talking about opinions that have been backed up with evidence found in the source material.
So yes, fans have every right to feel that way. Actually, authors “lose” their stories when they publish them. The work has a life of its own now. We are reading a piece of fiction, not looking into the author’s brain. The author can no longer say “oh no, this is what I meant, you’re wrong” because the author’s intent doesn’t matter. The reader or viewer interpretation is what matters, because at the end of the day, that’s what on the page or on the screen. If there’s evidence then it’s valid, and the author can’t tell someone they’re wrong unless they got actual facts about the story wrong. Of course, an author has the right to explain themselves and talk about why they chose to write what they did, but it’s the “you’re wrong” they no longer have the right to say. If you as a reader feel the character development is not believable, then that’s your right. The author might disagree but that’s life. If they wrote something that no one interprets the way they intended then the author just has to accept that their writing is unclear.
Another example of a popular authorial intent VS. audience interpretation discussion is Dean Winchester from the CW show Supernatural. If you look online, you will find heaps of detailed interpretations of him as a bisexual character. They look at everything from his interactions with men (not just Castiel, but “Dr. Sexy”, that passing soldier, and that one cute police man, to name just a few) to his hyper-masculine upbringing that could have resulted in him repressing such urges to the lighting in a scene mimicking the color of the bisexuality flag (my personal favorite because it’s so subtle yet so telling).
Why shouldn’t these interpretations be valid? Because it’s “not canon”? Pah! Doesn’t matter. It’s a reading of a character’s sexuality, a reading that can be backed up in an essay that could probably be as long as my 92 page MA thesis if you so please. So what if it isn’t stated clearly in the show? What happened to “show, don’t tell” that authors and readers scream about all the time? If it’s on the screen then it’s on the screen. It’s 100% valid. I like it, I see it, I’m convinced. I’m on board.
I also always read Katniss Everdeen as a character who’s on the asexual and aromantic spectrum. I wrote an MA thesis to back that up. That’s a valid interpretation, but I also don’t knock interpretations that claim she’s head over heels for Peeta and wants to ride him like a bull, because if you want to you can see that in the text too. It’s just not what I see.
I think this is the beauty of fiction, the fact that it can be interpreted in so many different ways, in ways that can be really thought-provoking. Maybe it’s because I have an MA in literature and I’m used to some pretty hardcore analyzing, but I love that people can have so many different opinions about a piece of fiction, be it a book, a movie, or a TV show. Keep on reading deeply into things, I love it, I’ll read all your analyses with great interest!
This turned out a bit longer than I’d initially planned. I hope it was coherent because it’s 1:30 am and I just wrote this now. Let me know if you even read this and what you think about this discussion. I’d love to hear your opinions on this! What camp are you in? Yay authorial intent or nay authorial intent?