When Writers Get it Wrong: Interpretation and Authorial Intent

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Every form of art, every bit of media, every story told, it all relies on the reader’s interpretation. That’s just how these things work. Everyone has their own personal lens through which they view these things. Stories do have different depths, of course. Something like George Orwell’s Animal Farm is meant to be analyzed at a far deeper level than the average Jason Statham face-kicking action movie. They both still require interpretation to get their point across to the viewer. Every artist has to leave it up to the viewer to interpret why it’s OK for Jason Statham to kick all those faces off, why his face-kicking cause is a noble one, and why kicking everyone’s face is going to help him achieve his goals. Thing is, it’s impossible to tell how one random person is going to read things. Everyone has their own unique set of experiences, preferences, morals, etc., and that colors they way they absorb this sort of stuff. Everyone’s going to read a story just a little bit differently. All the artist can do is put their content up there and hope the viewer is going to read it the way they expect.

Stories are what the reader reads, not what the writer writes. That’s just the way they work. The writer can use all the pretty prose and flowery phrases available to them when writing the perfect content to get across their point, but no matter how well crafted they are, words on paper are still just words on paper until the reader absorbs them. And readers don’t always read things the way the author intends. Those pesky consumers are always applying their own perspectives to what the artist lays out. It’s a beautiful thing, though. That’s what makes morals hit home, makes art more than just ink on a page or lights on a screen, makes stories apply to you personally. But what happens if the writer intends one thing, and you see another? Or what if the filmmaker intends something simple, while you find something deep and grandiose?

Well, the short answer is that it’s just toooooooo bad for the writer if things come across differently than intended. The relationship between author and viewer is one where the consumer of the material has all the power. The person creating the story does what they can to set up the right content in the proper context, but once it’s in the hands of the reader, it’s really up to them to draw their own meanings out of the story. Everyone creates their own personal canons for what events in a story might mean, what themes are being explored, and what morals are being presented. This means, essentially, that two different people reading the same story can take away entirely different experiences, regardless of what the author intended. And that’s a beautiful thing. If books didn’t work this way, there’d be no need for book clubs, discussion forums, or talking about media at all. Finding out what an author intends can be important to properly analyzing a piece, of course, but that’s pretty much just reading the Cliff’s Notes for the work. Yes, that’ll help you understand it better, but if that’s all you rely on for your interpretation, there’s no way your going to be able to get all that you could out of an artistic work. It’s only by passing it through your own personal filter and finding how something applies to your own experiences that you’ll be able to maximize the themes and greater meanings of a piece.

Essentially, what I’m saying here, is that works can be different or greater than their creators planned for. Think back to a staple of high school english classes, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Pretty famous novel about state-sponsored censorship, where books are banned and the government dedicates entire departments to their destruction. Thing is, according to Mr. Bradbury, that’s not what it’s about at all. It’s really an old man’s get-off-my-lawn screed about how television is going to kill the world of literature. But everything the book presents makes it such a perfect discussion of censorship that it’s hard to not see it in there. That’s how this book has been analyzed and taught for so long. And you know what? Your high school teacher wasn’t wrong. If Fahrenheit 451 speaks of censorship to you, than that’s just what it’s about, in spite of what Bradbury might say.

You see this fairly often when discussing video games. In fact, this topic came up in my mind because of this Saint’s Row project I’m doing. A lot of people who like spending time thinking about video games also like to find plenty of themes and metaphors in there. But video game writers don’t really plan for that. Video game stories aren’t usually meant to be analyzed. They’re meant to create a frame for Master Chief to paint the walls with blood. Video game writers aren’t often thinking about what themes to apply to the full story or what greater message they’re trying to convey. It’s not to hard to find them, though, in spite of however direct the stories might be. Even Saint’s Row, with its absolutely ridiculous stories, has them. Moreover, I was able to find themes applied pretty consistently over the first two games with no obvious hints that the developers intended to include them, while the third game has a very obvious and deliberate theme that the delivery just fell apart on. You can interpret greater meaning in nearly any piece of art, regardless of authorial intent. And however it applies to you, so long as you’re being honest about the work, it’s impossible to be wrong.

Works of art can be greater than those creating them. And that’s a beautiful thing.

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One response to “When Writers Get it Wrong: Interpretation and Authorial Intent

  1. “The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean; not to affect your reader, but to affect him precisely as you wish.”–Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘Virginibus Puerisque’

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