Careful or you'll end up in my novel!
There is a school friend that I catch up with quite often. Let’s call her Eloise. One day we were having a meal together and I asked after another school friend. Let’s call her Georgina. Georgina and I were close at school, but after I moved away we lost touch (that is to say that she kind of deliberately lost touch with me despite my efforts to catch up). I have always been very fond of Georgina and so I ask after her anyway.
So I asked Eloise, ‘how is Georgina?’ and Eloise said that Georgina was appalled that I had used a third friend – let’s call her Gertrude – as the mean girl in my book Walking Naked.
I laughed and laughed. Because frankly, I hadn’t thought of Gertrude in years. I thought it was hilarious that Georgina thought that Gertrude was a mean girl, and had seen her in that role in the book. I thought it was funny, because it actually said a lot more about what Georgina thought about Gertrude than about what I thought of Gertrude.
Then I wondered if Gertrude had read the book too, and whether she saw herself as one of the mean girls, or whether she was appalled that I had written a whole book to say mean things about somebody else!
Which brings me to Roland Barthes. I read about this guy when I was in studying at university over the past few years. He was really influential and the main idea he was famous for got right up my nose. Basically what he says is that writers don’t write meaning – they write texts and readers make meaning.
Here is this quotation from the very famous Barthes essay, The Death of the Author in 1977.
Another very precise example will help to make this clear: recent research (J.-P. Vernant) has demonstrated the constitutively ambiguous nature of Greek tragedy, its texts being woven from words with double meanings that each character understands unilaterally (this perpetual misunderstanding is exactly the “tragic”); there is, however, someone who understands each word in its duplicity and who, in addition, hears the very deafness of the characters speaking in front of him this someone being precisely the reader (or here, the listener). Thus is revealed the total existence of writing: a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. (p 4)
One place. This suggests that the writer of the tragedy who has prepared the script for the actors to utter was not aware of the double meanings of the words he or she has written for the characters to say – as if the tragedy had no design prior to it being heard by the audience.
As if that happened by accident!
And this is why, as someone who has hewn words into meaning, I was a bit cranky about the whole Barthes thing. I make the meaning! I thought. If you read it and you make up your own meaning, then you are reading it wrong, I thought. If you don’t see what I meant then you just don’t get it, I thought.
But what about Georgina? Georgina read a whole new subtext into this book that I wrote. She created a whole new meaning. She read it much differently from the way you might read this book, because she saw Gertrude, and in seeing Gertrude in this book, she has not only read the book differently from you, but has created in her head a whole history and context of the novel that no one else sees – not even me! So maybe there is something in Barthes after all?
It brings up a fundamental question, which is who owns the book? Who owns the meaning? Is Georgina wrong because she saw Gertrude, or are readers allowed to populate books with whomever they want?
Maybe there is no such thing as a misreading?
What do you think, readers and writers out there!?
Do you think it’s possible to read a book ‘wrong’, or do you reserve the right to create your own meaning?