by Lynn Rosen
My husband likes to joke that he is my translator. Sometimes I say something and I think I’m being perfectly clear, and yet my message doesn’t get across. That’s when he jumps in and says: “What she means is…”
Of course he doesn’t always get it right. Plenty of books, such as the huge bestseller Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus by John Gray, have told us that men and women have a hard time understanding each other, even though each one thinks they are making their point perfectly well.
But what about authors and readers? Do they understand each other?
I will never forget the moment in a college literature class when we were passionately discussing our interpretation of a classic novel we had been reading, and I had the sudden concern that we might be getting it wrong. I raised my hand and asked the professor: “How do we know this is what the author meant?” His response: “Does it matter?”
Authors write their books in isolation, and then send them out into the world on a wing and a prayer, as it were. A wing, hoping their work will travel far and wide, and a prayer, hoping readers will find and embrace it. But once the book leaves the author’s hands, how can they control how a reader will interpret their words? They can’t. Even though we have many wonderful opportunities to go hear authors read and to ask them what they meant by certain things they wrote, in the end, it’s the reader and the book alone together during the reading experience, and the author cannot control or determine what any reader might make of their words.
I once saw a curious reader try to find out what an author meant at an event with the wonderfully-talented Jayne Anne Phillips who was talking about her brilliant book, Lark & Termite. There is a good deal of ambiguity at the end of the book, and this reader really wanted to pin things down. “When this happened,” the reader asked the author, alluding to a particular scene, “did you mean this or this?” she asked, describing her two possible interpretations. Phillips looked at the reader, considered the question, and smiled. “I’m not going to tell you,” she replied.
In a recent conversation I had with author Martha Cooley about her terrific novel The Archivist, we were discussing the ambiguous ending of that book, and Cooley replied that it was fully intentional. “I like ambiguity,” she said. “It draws the reader into the book.”
The idea of the reader having an active role in interpreting the meaning of a work of literature, not just being a passive recipient of plot, is appealing. Referring back to the question I asked my college professor way back when, it turns out there is no wrong or right. It’s all up to me. And I love that.