Who is the ultimate authority of a piece of fiction? The author? The reader? That professor at the prestigious university? Or nobody? Which interpretation of a piece of fiction is correct? If a reader thinks the book means one thing, but the author meant another, who is correct? Or, more importantly, perhaps - does it even matter?
Scott talked about this subject yesterday, but I'd like to look at it a little from the writer's point-of-view today.
I hope you'll bear with me as I share my own experience. In 2010, I self-published a little novella titled Cinders. The reception for that story was interesting, to say the least. Most readers seemed lukewarm toward it. Some adored it. It was when I sat down with a reading group (no writers present) that some important ideas began to sink in for me. I had been warned in advance that half the group hated the book. I decided to show up anyway. What's the worst that could happen? I would drive home in tears? Sadly, that's what did happen. My ego was wounded that day. The readers who disliked Cinders (hate is a strong word, isn't it?) seemed to dislike it because their expectations were not met. That's what it boiled down to. Some quite literally expected pumpkins and talking mice. Some expected the story to end with a traditional happily-ever-after despite the clear warning on the front, which says: "Happily-ever-after isn't as long as you though." Some were upset that my main character, Christina, was unlikable, weak, and a poor example for empowering women.
I'll admit during this time, I believed there were right answers for my novel and that those readers who disliked it WERE WRONG. I believed it so strongly that I later added an author's note at the beginning of the novel in hopes of altering reader expectations. I remember as I as was driving home, thinking, "I'll show them what the book really means." A bit stupid on my part, I'll admit, because as far as I can remember, those readers didn't seem to care about what the book "really meant." They cared about what it meant to them. Even when I attended another reader group for a different novel, the readers took turns answering questions from the reader guide. Nobody had the same answers. Some of the answers knocked me off my feet. They were interpretations I never intended, and they were as far from incorrect as you can possibly get. To me, the author, they brought new meaning and depth of the book. I realized, then, that I am not the authority of my books.
Giving the World a Story
I will always keep learning and altering my views, but for today I am certain that Truman Capote's quote about finishing a novel (which I interpret to mean publishing it and giving it to the world) is akin to taking your child out back and shooting it. Seem a little dramatic? Perhaps. But the point I want to make here is that when an author decides to give the world their story, they are doing just that - giving the world their story. The child is shot. The story is up for grabs, up for interpretation, even if that means misinterpretation according to the author. And what is the author going to do about that? Publish a "right-answer" guide to go along with the story? I think the magic of stories lies in reader interpretation. Take that away and you lose something essential.
I do not mean to imply, of course, that the author's intention doesn't matter at all. I think it does, but I also know writing a novel is such an involved process that it's impossible for even the author to have all the answers for what they've written. Subconscious comes into play. Other readers giving feedback. Editors. Publishers. The publishing process itself can add elements to the text the author never intended. So, in the end, I believe the author has her own version of the answers, and if that version is more important to a specific reader than anybody else's version, so be it.
I have so much I could keep rambling about on this subject, but let's open it up to you! Who do you think is the ultimate authority of a piece of fiction? And do you think it matters?