In which I tell you what literature means; okay, not all of literature, but definitely a part of it. From an author’s perspective and a teacher’s perspective. No, really.
This is a meme I’ve seen circulating lately.
I taught lit to eighth graders for eight years and every year I heard the following question: How do you know that’s what the author meant? Here is my answer: It doesn’t matter.
The author is just one element of the whole reading equation. Yes, an author intends to write a story (and by the way, I’m talking fiction here, not like Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal) to tell a story, but we make conscious decisions about that story. How does the character react, how do they grow, what have they learned. Do we put in symbols on purpose? I’m sure some of us do. Some of us end up claiming that we haven’t done anything. I know in my writing I’ve written events or scenes that are based on political events that riled me up, so I added them to my book to show my disapproval. I also know things have appeared in my book that I never knew I put in. In one book in particular I have three chapters in a row that all start in the same manner but then the plot takes them in different directions, which I thought was a cool way to show different viewpoints, but I didn’t know I had done that. In my most recent manuscript, I have a chapter that switches between the villain and one of the heroes and each POV switch shows their reactions to the same events. I didn’t plan that. So yes, I would say most authors just write a story, but upon analysis stuff starts to appear.
When an author releases a book to the public, the book is no longer theirs, by which I mean that they wrote it, but the words are open to interpretation. If it wasn’t, then we wouldn’t argue over the merit of certain books. Once the work is out there, the reader brings his or her own experiences to the story. If I find something meaningful in a novel, then it’s there for me, whether the author meant it or not. The author ceases to be the only one who can give input on a story. I’m pretty sure that most authors love the stories they write, or at least put their souls into them, but they will encounter readers who don’t like the stories. So is the reader wrong? Or is the writer? Neither. They bring their own interpretation.
So if I find something in a story that I believe is a symbol, and I can back it up with evidence from the text (this is the crucial next step), it’s there. It’s this last step that people don’t like about studying literature. Backing things up. It’s easy to simply spout ideas without worrying about proving them, but your ideas don’t hold up unless you have evidence. If I say Huck Finn’s lies are actually good things, I’d better be able to find paragraphs that support what I say (And I can–I know The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn).
So next time you’re tempted to dismiss someone’s interpretation of a text, listen to them instead. Ask them for proof. You might become convinced. And if you’re an author who claims you only written a story, well, you might be wrong. The curtain might be blue because it represents his immense depression. Could also be that they were simply blue.
Books I’m reading now:
The Broken Eye by Brent Weeks