I have an odd question for you; how much meaning can you imbue into a text? (By text, I mean any media, be it song, story, memoir, or movie.) How much can you actually insure that the reader will take the meaning you want them to? This is a question I am wholeheartedly unqualified to answer. But I do have an anecdote, about when I was reading way too much into a text.
So, I was sitting at home when my phone buzzed on the counter next to me. Upon opening it, I found that Matt had texted me, asking if I could read something and tell him if it was fantasy enough for Fantasy from the Rock, as the three judges (Matt, Ellen and Erin) were in a deadlock. Of course, my first question was how on earth three people managed to tie. He replied that there was some sort of “electoral college” system to keep him from getting too much power. Fair enough, I get to reading. As I read, I start analyzing it.
I should preface this by saying that I was going through a particularly rough patch romantically at the time -yes I know, nothing out of the ordinary for me two years ago, but still- and so as I continued, I told Matt how the author clearly had unrequited romantic feelings, and how he was clearly in a frustrated state. I just tore into it. At the end, I also told Matt that it was not fantasy. I closed the conversation, happily convinced that I had shown Matt how capable of an analyzer I was.
About twenty minutes later, Matt told me to ‘check a typo’ in The Long Road that people had been telling him about. So I opened the little grey book to the page. And immediately found a poem that had appeared in the text Matt had sent me. Oops. Not only was my analysis completely and utterly wrong, I had been analyzing someone to their face, and basically calling them a frustrated child. So, years later, and many retellings by both me and Matt later, what can we learn from this?
First, never listen to anything I say, I will probably regret it before the day is done. It is well known that my foot ends up so often in my mouth its amazing that I don’t have podophilia.
Second, it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine anything about the author from a work. Writing is innately personal, true, and the stories we tell and how we tell them is intensely personal, but there is enough intellectual engagement that any ‘insight’ into the author’s ‘deeper self’ is easily falsified or obscured, making any attempt to determine something from one text a fruitless task.
Third, analysis is a multi-person endeavour, shaped as much by the reader as by the writer. I would argue that more meaning is created by the reader than by the author. As an example, horoscopes, or fortune cookies. There, they have a wide audience, but often people are able to infer a personalized meaning.
None of this is new at all. It is covered, or at least mentioned, by most English teachers or first year university instructors. But on a personal note, this is where I more fully understood the ideas at play, and how in dense media, such as movies or novels, the creation of deeper meaning is unavoidable. Now, can you still create meaning? Absolutely. But you cannot control the reader. The reader will bring their own bias and problems into the text. The moment it enters the hands of the reader, I would argue that it is your duty to let the story out of your hands. Let them write their fan fiction, let them read strange sexual meaning into a cup, whatever. You, to the reader, should be dead, and let the text live as itself. If you want to discuss the text with a reader, go ahead, but remove your own authority. You may be surprised with what patterns emerge from your own work. And, be conscious of your own readings. Those reveal bias and trends in you, as much as in the author.
I could continue for a few more pages, maybe even write a proper paper on this. Not that I will, it’s summer and I am by far more concerned with walking the dogs and finding new music, and of course my own writing. I could talk about Asimov discussing his book with a critic, or about what I have been finding I have been reading more and more into texts, or how I continue to be a hasty idiot. But I will leave my contribution here for now, dear reader.
- Sam Bauer, your Friendly Neighbourhood Author.