Whose Is It?

Ahh, fan mail…

I’m back into the new story, which just got kicked sideways this morning. Didn’t intend it, but there it is. And this new direction will make it appealing to some readers more than others, as every writing decision always does.

Anyway, I was taking a break while considering how to ride this new course, and through the random miracle of hyperlinks, I happened across this little nugget, a tweet from the novelist Brandon Taylor:

Pls do not tag me in scathing, incomprehensible misreads of my work, lol. People are entitled their experiences with the text but don’t involve me in it, pls!

(This is one of the reasons I’m never on Twitter, by the way. It’s the cattiest, bitchiest platform out there, rhetorically based as it is on nothing but one-liners. It’s nothing but #snark.)

Anyway, it’s an interesting idea. Once the book leaves your hands, it’s not yours any more ever. It belongs, differently, to every reader, who will make their own project of it. Every reader will not merely have a different judgment from one star to five, but will place it into their own category system, will take different life lessons from it, will think it’s “about” different things or “means” different things. It will remind them of different other books. The book becomes a metaphor through which other people think. It’s now theirs, individually, to do with as they wish.

I got a wonderful letter from a friend about my recent novel Trailing Spouse. He wrote, “I read it with great interest, finished it blown away. I think it’s brilliant. I was impressed by your table tennis book; I’m even more impressed with this one. It begs to be published—as a YA, to my mind, but what do I know? I think I’ll lend it to my 17-year old granddaughter, see what she thinks.” I never once had it in my head that Trailing Spouse was YA, but all of my books are hopeful resolutions to difficult stories, and YA is a native market for that. (I watched a podcast last night of three literary novelists talking, and one said that he’d set himself the challenge of writing for once about happiness rather than trauma. The other two almost visibly shuddered. “Oh, I could NEVER do that…”) So my friend made my book a YA book, and I think that’s really nice, though I wouldn’t have done that myself.

When I taught at Duke, we used to speak occasionally of “productive misreadings,” when a student would take a text that seemed to be doing one kind of work and then follow it down an entirely different, but really interesting, path. But I think that ANY good reading of a book is a productive misreading. If the book is so didactic that it can only be interpreted in a single way, then it probably isn’t a very interesting book.

I think that all we can control as writers is how WE think about the work, which is just as much a personal and imperfect reading as anybody else’s. We have no authoritative interpretation, though we naturally have an authorial interpretation. We can only hope for productive misreadings, the fact of our story helping someone else do her own work.

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