Discussion: Authorial intent or the reader’s interpretation, what matters more?

authorial intent

I read this really great discussion post by Aentee @ Read At Midnight about authorial intent VS. the reader’s interpretationThis 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. 

hemingway quote

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? 


11 thoughts on “Discussion: Authorial intent or the reader’s interpretation, what matters more?

  1. ariastuckinwonderland says:

    Such a great post! 🙂
    I think one of the reason why people view literature in different ways is because people have different experiences. A person who has the same experience as that of what’s happening in the book would have a different view on that book as someone who hasn’t. Also, it really depends on how the author wrote the book. Some authors intend their books to be a bit ambiguous. They want you to question what the moralities are of these characters. And I actually tend to like those rather than an author telling me what their character is like. That definitely throws me off a book almost instantly where the author describes each and every quality of a character.

    Regarding Fifty Shades, I think the reason why people dislike it is because of it being unnatural and because of their own view on abuse and sex. I do not think it was abuse. But I do believe that Ana was a stupid character who made very poor decisions. I’m not victim blaming here because Ana is not a victim. She chose it. She was never forced in any of the situation she was in. There are some books like Speak where the main character was really raped and she had to struggle with that. She did not choose to be raped. She did not chose to be abused but it happened anyway, which is totally opposite to what happened with Ana. I know both are different, but I think you guys get where I’m getting at here.

    Alright… This has gone far too long. Haha. Again, great post!! Looking forward to more.


    • Anette @ Anette Reads says:

      Yeah, I like ambiguous books too, they’re more interesting than the straight-forward ones. I like characters that hover on the edge between good and evil, or exist somewhere in the grey zone, like Severus Snape, he’s a great character. Though what I don’t like about how Snape is portrayed is that the final book implies that he was a good person after all, which he definitely wasn’t. And even though JKR has said that he wasn’t (which is good) the book still ends up implying it. Whyyyy Harry, why?

      Haha, I see we have the complete opposite opinion on Fifty Shades. I read half of the first book (I couldn’t force myself to read more) and the entire thing is just filled to the brim of my notes and scribbles detailing the abuse and manipulation I found there. Abuse doesn’t always contain physical force, a lot of the time there’s emotional manipulation and pressuring, like the whole “if you don’t do this then I’ll leave you” type of thing. I think of real women like this and I can’t believe these books are telling readers it’s supposed to be romantic :/ I think this book is written extremely unclearly, with little awareness of how it comes across.

      Liked by 1 person

      • ariastuckinwonderland says:

        I honestly dont think its romantic at all. And there were some parts of the book wherein Ana has reigns over the situation. She wasn’t exactly the helplesss type you know. She was just stupid to give Christian a chance to beat her up because he good looking. I did not agree with everything that book stood for. There are better plotted eroticas out there. But i seriously dont think there was any abuse involved if it was consented. She didnt agree to the things in paper as discussed, but she didnt exactly steered away from Christian either until the end of the book. But I do understans where you’re coming from. 🙂 And the writing i think was just too poor and not intentionally vague which is actually what caused a lot of the problem with her book. I would never touch those again though. Hehe. There are better eroticas out there if i want to read one.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. hermionefowl says:

    I completely agree with you, the reader definitely matters more. When it comes to a character changing, I can understand the authors getting upset when the readers attack them, because it’s their character. But as far as all the other stuff, every reader reads differently, and the author is just another reader who has read it in a particular way. Great post! 🙂


  3. fiddlerblue says:

    Oh wow, this is a very good argument Anette, I love the way you conveyed your opinion about this matter. I must admit, I stand somewhere in the middle about this issue. I agree that a book is open to different interpretations because readers have unique minds and opinions, which I believe is the beauty of fiction and story telling in general. However, I also understand an author’s frustration when her work is interpreted differently from how it’s intended to be. I love the discussions that stems out of it and I love how each side justifies their stand.
    I haven’t read 50 Shades so I wasn’t familiar with the argument you referred to, but I remembered reading a lot about JK Rowling trying to convince the fans that Draco Malfoy is not someone to admire, and how she finds it appalling that he’s popular. I liked Draco and, even if he was quite rude to Harry and his friends, there were instances that he acted normal and human. So it didn’t sit well with me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Anette @ Anette Reads says:

      Like I said in another comment, I completely understand an author’s frustrations with being misunderstood. Of course that’s not a good feeling, but at the end of the day, if the majority misunderstood then the author could have, and should have, conveyed it better.

      Oh, good point about Draco Malfoy! I’ve been feeling uncomfortable with the idea of him being irredeemable too. I mean, he was still a child all throughout the books, and even though he was a bully that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have potential to ever redeem himself. I also see that he was manipulated by Voldemort and the Death Eaters, so I think JKR is being too hard on him. Though I do agree with her that he’s not an ideal boyfriend to all the fangirls that worship him, haha.

      Liked by 1 person

      • fiddlerblue says:

        Exactly! I think by the end of the book, he was feeling rather guilty and foolish about his behaviour, but it’s just his character to be too scared to immediately do the right thing.


      • Anette @ Anette Reads says:

        Yeah, that’s how I see it too. And the epilogue shows that while he and Harry will never be best friends, they have an understandable and perhaps some mutual respect for each other. I think Draco became a better man in the end and that he learned something from the final battle.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. mudandstars says:

    This was such an interesting post, and I really agree with the points you’ve raised.
    There is an essay I read at uni called The Death of the Author which states that the intention of the author is invalid and that the reader’s interpretation is the true meaning of a text. I’m not sure I agree with that 100% – I think that authorial intent does matter (and is valid), but I don’t think the author’s words are the final say. I think that everyone will have a different interpretation of a book, and that nobody is ‘right’ per se… (including the author) – all opinions are valid, and how a reader views a book is just as important as what the author meant when they wrote it.
    Your MA thesis sounds really interesting, and I can completely see that reading of Katniss making sense. As you said, different interpretations of literature are what make fiction interesting. It would make for a very dry and boring book-blogging community if we all interpreted books in a prescriptive way laid out by the person who wrote them! Great post 🙂


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