All Your Literature Are Belong to Us: Interpretation/Reception and Ownership

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I’ve become interested in the last few months with the idea of intellectual ownership of written materials.  In part this is because of the ways some fiction authors (and others) have responded to criticism and interpretation in the last few years elsewhere and on this blog.  Setting aside instances where someone intentionally spams a book’s page with negative reviews, it seems to me that for some authors there is a critical disconnect between the act of creation and the life as the creator.  That is that these individuals believe they have ownership over interpretation after the moment it leaves their hands and becomes a publicly accessible (purchasable) object.  As a writer, I can understand the impulse to want to avoid negative criticism and even to say “I am not X,” but responding to criticism or interpretations is not usually a skill writers have learned how to do (or that they can learn how to do without stepping on toes).  They become “problems.”

I think it’s important for fiction authors–published or otherwise–to understand that they don’t
own interpretation of their work.  What happens to your novels or short stories after the public has access to it is simply beyond an author’s control.  The public will read subgenres and “messages” or “themes” into a work, and they will do so without consideration of the author’s intent (often because intent is difficult to know, even if it is declared).  Some may even write that they hate someone’s work, and might do so in ways that authors normally wouldn’t (perhaps because we understand as writers what other writers hope for in negative reviews:  constructive criticism).

There’s very little an author can do about these interpretations and receptions (unless an unethical activity has occurred, obviously).  In most cases, authors shouldn’t try to do anything about these things.  They should leave it alone.  Why?  Because we’ve learned that authors often turn into jackasses when they respond to criticism or interpretations.  They go on the attack, telling critics (amateurs or professionals) how wrong they are.  Sometimes they tell these critics that they are idiots, and in rare occurrences, they send their fans on a rampage against the offending person.  None of these things are good for an author’s career, unless they’ve built that career on controversy.

But there’s also the underlying assumption in these moments that there is such a thing as a correct interpretation or reception.  The problem in such an assumption is that it limits (or tries to limit) how readers relate to a text.  To tell them that a text is not “science fiction” or “New Weird” (or that their criticism is misguided) is to tell them that their experience is wrong and, in part, not as valuable.  It neuters the reader’s experience (or can), and neutering readers is like blasting one’s bone-marrow with radiation:  an author might get what they want out of it (i.e., the correct “reading”), but they’ve still done so by smashing the readers (cells) that fed the author’s popularity (blood).

The fact of the matter is:  you do not own interpretation or reception, particularly when such ownership flies in the face of reason(ability).  Your work is not “yours” once it hits the reader-stream.  Trying to control readers is both futile and bad news.  Putting that in your head when you begin writing is for the best, because it sets in motion the will to avoid response to criticism and to interpretation, and the subsequent jackass moments such responses often create.  This is not to suggest that there are no purely wrong interpretations/receptions.  To call a book “fantasy” when it is clearly a non-fiction book is a complete failure of a reader to understand genre.  But readers can take care of that, and often do (even on Amazon).  It’s okay to let things go and acknowledge that your control ends when a reader reads a work.


It occurs to me that all of the above is complicated by writers who are also critics (both pathways are nearly inseparable).  But I’ll save that for another time, I suppose.

What do you think about all of this?  Let me know in the comments.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.

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