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Careful or you'll end up in my novel!

Feb 13,2013
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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?

Feb 16,2013
anonymous's picture

I never 'got' Catcher in the Rye either. I often think songwriters must get this more than anyone. Everyone interprets the song to their own life experiences which are often vastly different to what the writer had in mind. 

Feb 14,2013

To my counting friend (sorry, you didn't leave a name), consider, though, a book like "The Catcher in the Rye". I read that book over and over as a teen, and every time I threw my hands up, wondering what all the fuss was about. I've always found it really boring. As a reader unfamiliar with the social norms in 1951, essentially I couldn't count. Not everyone is going to be able to 'count' - have the knowledge and context to understand the point the writer is trying to make. It just means their reading (like my reading of Catcher in the Rye) is not going to be as rich or interesting. Being able to 'count' is a learned thing. It's not innate.


Feb 14,2013
anonymous's picture

I agree with Barthes but it still gets under my skin as the author when someone, in my opinion, reads my book "wrong." I feel like a text is a living thing that constantly changes its meaning depending on who is reading it and once I've let it go, released it into the world, I have no rights to how some one feels about it or interprets it. And whenever we pick up a book, each reader is bringing a whole set of their own baggage and history to the experience. It can be delightful to get feedback from readers who enjoyed the book who say: "I thought this or that great thing about this or that great thing in the book." And as the author you think: "Wow! I never thought of that, I never saw it that way, and I wrote the dang thing! This reader is a genius!" But being human, I can't help but be defensive when I feel someone has read my book "wrong" which usually results in them being displeased with the experience. Kind of like being a parent/spouse/best friend...."Yes, maybe you think my significant other is this or that but I live with him've met my S.O. for one day, so you don't know anything about it!" Which isn't true at all, right?  We've all been around other people's children or at an office party or wherever and found one particular person to be irritating and thought: "Is it just me? Why do I get this feeling about this person that no one else feels?" The world we live in, the music we find meaning in, the people we like or dislike, the places we've found inspirational or boring, is all very subjective. Life is subjective, reading is subjective, and when the journey ends and you turn the last page, you feel what you feel and saw what you saw.  It's all legit interpretation, even if, as the author, someone else's legit interpretation stings.

Feb 13,2013
anonymous's picture

Since I dont understand a word that Barthes said, surely this means that 'The Death of the Author' is meaningless?

Trite, I know.

In seriousness, it makes zero sense. If I wrote a book consisting entirely of sequential numbers from zero to one hundred, it would be obvious that I intended it to be a book about counting to one hundred. However if it is read by someone who cannot count (hmm is that even possible?) it would be a book about meaningless words.

I wonder which would be correct?

Feb 13,2013

You're absolutely right, Craig, and I was secretly delighted that "Georgina" had taken the time to read the novel, even if it was only to find fault.


Feb 13,2013
anonymous's picture

Thought provoking as always Alyssa.

I'm not sure whether this is true for everyone but as I get older, I've come to appreciate that people view the world through their own "filter". Two people can respond to the exact same thing differently, whether it is a shared problem or a piece of music, a work of art or, in your case, a novel.

The way I see it, authors hope to attract our attention long enough to read their work. While they may be aiming to educate us or entertain us (or preferrably both), how the reader processes the words on the page is entirely up to them, particularly as there is often no absolute right or wrong.

Perhaps the best way to look at it is to be grateful for your talent as an author and for the readers who have have allowed you into their world. It's no small achievement...


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