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What does the author *really* mean?

Recent radio silence occurred while I was travelling in the US. To get us going again, here’s a post which originally appeared on my Patreon in March 2020.

A few years ago, my nephew shared a language meme from The Language Nerds on Facebook: a Venn diagram of “What the Author Meant and What Your Teacher Thinks the Author Meant”.   

It’s funny on the face of it – we all wrestled with analysis of poems, plays and novels at school. Joss Whedon, in the musical commentary for Dr Horrible’s Sing-along Blog, lamented the fannish tendency to forensically analyse Buffy the Vampire Slayer, singing that nobody asked the caveman why red ochre was used instead of white ochre to paint the moose. (I paraphrase).

I understand that the whole idea of analysis can get a bit much and it may feel like people are sometimes just making this all up as they go along.

But let me tell you a secret. Sometimes I put motifs in very deliberately, meant to symbolise an idea or a theme. And then nobody notices those and seizes upon other patterns that I didn’t think were there.

Does this make the analysis wrong?

Hell no.

The fuller answer is that writers, like readers, are influenced by their subconscious mind and some things might appear in a story (or in a series of stories) more by osmosis than design. Some things are deliberate and some are undercurrents swirling to the surface, being expressed without making any conscious decision to do so.

At the same time, the reader also brings their own baggage, their experience of ways of interpreting the world: and since that’s the filter they bring, that’s what they see. 

As a writer, I can’t say that the reader’s filters are not there or not valid – the very act of reading is a creative act in itself. It’s the combination of the writer’s intentions (both obvious and unconscious) and the reader’s filter, which makes reading a strangely individual as well as collective experience. It even makes it a different experience to the same reader at different stages of their lives. (Theatre is much the same, though with a bigger pool of interpreters with different directors and actors etc, even when it’s the same script.)

So I guess sometimes I mean the curtains are blue, and sometimes I mean the curtains are blue but my background feelings mean that I associate blue curtains with blue emotions and the cutting out of the light in a deep emotional way, and sometimes I meant the curtains are just blue damnit but the reader associates that with melancholy and that’s a tone they’re picking up in (or applying to) the story too.

And all of this means that, if you can substantiate your interpretation with examples from the text, well then, you just go for it.

Frankly, it’s what people do with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Those texts are open to multiple readings and, as I always say, every interpretation is a valid interpretation and the writer’s opinion (or even original conscious intent) is not the last word. 

Blogger Ann at Straw Into Gold has also written on this topic (at about the time this meme was doing the rounds in March 2019) and is much more annoyed about it than I am. It’s a good read.

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