I Prefer My Authors Dead

Originally posted on March 17, 2011 at 3:37 PM

No, this is not some creepy, horrific, horror-creeper creep-fest. I love my authors alive, too. And I don’t mean to make light of those who have come before us. It’s just that, well… you can’t ask dead authors questions, that’s all.

And people do ask living authors questions, which is fine – most of the time. By all means, milk them for their knowledge. Everyone in any field should be so lucky as to get an opportunity to talk craft with an expert. This doesn’t bother me. Except when I hear a question like this, “Did you intend for the color of Falula’s shirt to symbolize her inner turmoil?”

Omg. Why would you ever ask an author if they intended for their book to carry a certain motif/symbolism/theme?

You see it enough to ask, don’t you? So it’s there. Who cares if they planned it? What difference does it make?

Any author worth his/her salt knows that people will see things in his/her book that he/she never planned to be seen. Maybe that they never even wanted to be seen. This is the value of interpretation. Otherwise, we would use a different word. Like maybe uncovering. Which is so High School English, isn’t it?

There are no rights and wrongs here. As an adult reader-by-choice, there are no tests for you to fail, essays for you to “get right,” or spur of the moment questions you must be prepared to answer in front of your peers.

I had this one English prof at UT who taught contemporary literature by authors such as Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, Lorrie Moore, and Don DeLillo. That was by far the most difficult class I’ve ever taken. It was the closest I came (ironically, it was also the very last class I took) to ruining my 4.0 GPA that I’d worked so hard for. I squeaked by with an A, but I’m pretty sure the fluid I was sweating during that semester was thicker and redder than water. But hey, I learned a lot.

The professor told us a story about how he was lucky enough to have dinner with Don DeLillo, which is, to be fair, a pretty huge deal. I know I would be cleaning house. But then he proceeded to tell us that he and the author stayed up till some ungodly hour discussing DeLillo’s books. And Professor Nameless was so excited to finally ask DeLillo if the deeper thematic considerations he’d been teaching to college students all these years were indeed intended by the author.

If you ask me, that takes all the fun out of it.

Each reader brings their own set of ideas, values, and backgrounds to the story. And furthermore, each reader has that right. I believe we should all be able to read a book and decide what the different parts of it mean to us, free of someone else’s preconceptions of such – even if that someone is the creator.

I might be in the minority here; I’m not sure. What do you think? Does it matter if the reader’s interpretation matches up with what the author’s intentions? Does seeing something unintended mean it isn’t there? Does that devalue the author’s work? You know my thoughts; what are yours?

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