The author isn’t dead – just listening to your comments intently!

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I’m aware that there are people who only write privately, for themselves, and are quite content for their scribbling never to see the light of day. For the rest of us though, I suspect one of the most rewarding aspects of writing is feedback from readers. Praise is good for the ego, and well-founded, well-articulated criticism is always welcome – proving at least someone has felt it worth taking the trouble to comment on your work – kind of a compliment in itself.

When I first embarked on my MA, I would sit in workshops listening to my fellow students discuss my work, stifling my giggles, simply because I couldn’t believe that intelligent, knowledgeable people were analysing my writing in the same way I’d done with the work of “proper writers” all the way through GCSE, A-level and degree. It was one of the things which helped me to take my writing seriously – after all, these people were prepared to take it seriously. Their opinions helped validate my writing. Sometimes they would voice ideas about what the story meant, or a character’s motivation, which had never occurred to me during the writing process. And it would take me back to my A-level days.

Back then, I often thought how handy it would be to resurrect some (often long-dead) author and bring them to class and get them to tell us what they meant when they wrote so-and-so. Then we’d know once and for all and would be able to stop all this speculative pondering about the meaning of the text.

When I got to university, I discovered that actually this wouldn’t have helped. According to some bloke called Roland Barthes, the author was dead. What he or she had set out to do in their novel/play/short story was of no consequence – the text was everything. The meaning had to come from the words on the page, irrespective of what the original writer had set out to do. I sat in lectures chewing my lip and feeling faintly put out about this.

I recognise that interpretation is subjective. Everyone brings their own background and experiences to a text, their own obsessions and prejudices, and this can influence what they believe to be the meaning. You only have to re-read something as a grown-up which you read in your younger days to be made aware of this. Maybe that ending you once thought perfect, years later becomes trite or unbelievable. That character you used to closely identify with seems irritating, or acts in a way which just doesn’t ring true. You suddenly realise that the unsympathetic mother has a point! Even differing periods of adulthood engender differing reading joys (I used to admire Graham Greene, now if I read his stuff I can’t help thinking, ‘Cheer up, mate – might never happen!’).

But I hope we don’t completely discount author intention when reading. It’s fascinating when someone brings a new interpretation to a story you’ve written or ascribes a parallel you’d not intended to illustrate. It’s fantastically rewarding when someone draws from your writing something moving and personal to them.

But sometimes I’d like to reserve the right to say, ‘Ummm, interesting, but I didn’t actually mean that!’

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2 responses »

  1. I think it’s the same with art, Jenny – especially modern art. The artist wants to turn round and say “No, actually I just felt like splashing some paint on the canvas that day – nothing more,”

    • Of course, if someone gives an interpretation of your work which makes you seem way more clever than you in fact are, it’s probably sensible to keep quiet and take the praise! 😉

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