Musical notation—the notes on the paper that a musician reads to learn and perform a piece—is a sort of shorthand. It’s a set of instructions telling the performer which notes to play in what order and for how long each and how to phrase and inflect those notes and melodies. No matter how detailed the composer’s instructions, notation remains a shorthand and there is never enough information on the page to answer every performance question a player might have. Also, two competent musicians (or groups of musicians) can play the same piece of music from the same printed music, and the performances can differ drastically but both performances will be “correct” because, as I say, the printed music (the “score”) is a shorthand and there’s a lot of interpretation necessary on the part of the musician(s) to bring the piece to life. Different interpretations of individual works are entirely valid. This explains why I have multiple versions of Bartok’s string quartets and Bach’s solo violin music on my CD shelf at home; every group or performer interprets the instructions of Bartok or Bach in a unique way.
I’m going to claim that reading a book or a story is a lot like performing a piece of music from a printed score. Not because the written word is a shorthand (though some semioticians will say that it is, and they might be right), but because each reader interprets the written word in a unique way. Each of us brings our own culture, our own reading history, our own social awareness, our own prejudices, etc with us when we sit down to read. We make value judgments and critical decisions about art based as much on who we are as individuals as we do based on the work of art itself. The process of reading a book is more than just allowing some stranger to tell us a story; the process also includes us actively applying our personalities, beliefs and knowledge to the text as we go along. Sometimes the text will change our personalities, beliefs and knowledge. Sometimes, too, our personalities, beliefs and knowledge will make the text into something that the author wouldn’t recognize.
I’m going to claim that this transformation of the text by the reader during the act of reading is very common and is entirely valid. I’m going to further claim that a reader who dislikes a text because he misunderstands what the author meant is reading correctly. I’m going to also claim that a reader who likes a text through a misunderstanding of what the author meant is also reading correctly.
Those last two claims might be objectionable, but I’m willing to bet that we’ve all done those things and not known it. I’m willing to bet that most of us misunderstand what an author meant in at least one important passage of every book we read. Usually, I think, we know when we don’t get what they’re getting at and just move along but sometimes we don’t know that we don’t know and so we create a unique interpretation of the text. That’s neither good nor bad; it’s just the way it is.
The thing is, when you are alone with a text, you are alone with the text. The author is not there. The text is not the author. You cannot, I don’t think, reconstruct the author or his intent from the text. There’s no way of knowing what the author was thinking, what the author had read and is alluding to or reacting against, what was just on the author’s mind when he sat down to write. I’m reading the letters of Flannery O’Connor and also the letters of Anton Chekhov, and I’m constantly amused by their complaints that readers are misinterpreting their stories. Because readers aren’t misinterpreting, they’re merely interpreting. Readers are free to disagree or to invent their own meanings for a novel or a story because reading is—or should be—a creative act.
In general, then, the author and what he had in mind when he wrote are not the least bit important to the reader. The reader has the text and nothing more. This is what I by-and-large believe. I think. Four of my friends and I went to see Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” a few weeks ago. I was unfamiliar with the play and after we watched it my friends and I went to a bar to drink and argue about the possible meanings of the work. Was Shakespeare for or against populist movements? Was Shakespeare in favor of the nobility forming the ruling class, or wasn’t he? Did Shakespeare see Coriolanus as a hero, a villain, or something else? There is no real way to tell simply from the text. I admit that I have since cheated, and have read up a bit on what was going on in England when Shakespeare was writing this play, but even with that contextual information, it remains unclear what old Billy S was thinking. Eventually I have to admit that what Billy Shakes had in mind is unknowable, and I have to make up my own mind about the play, based on who I am and what I bring to the play when I see/read it. So we authors, then, once we’ve written a story and handed it to the reader, are politely invited to leave the room and stay out of it. No matter how loud we shout at them, the reader can’t hear us anyway; the noise the book itself makes will drown us out. Besides, they don’t want our opinions about the book. They just want the book.