Monday, April 23, 2012

Sorry, You're Wrong

Can an author be wrong about his own work?

I ask in part because I overloaded on playoff hockey this weekend (Bruins live! Penguins, Red Wings, Canucks, out!) and never quite organized my thoughts enough to follow up on Friday's post, but also because of a statement made by one of the people in my writer's group on Sunday.

The incident in Writer's Circle occurred when one gentleman was discussing something new he is working on. It's creepy. It's edgy. It's got a post-apocalyptic feel to it, and it involves bugs, the breakdown of civilization, and chaos vs. order. Nice and cheery. While talking about it on Sunday he mentioned Lord of the Flies and how, while preparing for work as an English teacher he read a ton of material about the book. He said, and I quote: "Where I think everyone got it wrong – where I think even the writer got it wrong – was…" and he proceeded to tell us where William Golding got it wrong.

I am not an argumentative person. I'd like to say it's because I'm too analytical, but the truth is I'm just not prone to arguments, period. Anyway, my mouth started to open and I drew a breath and prepared to make a statement, to argue – and then I shut my mouth. This was not the time to argue the point – we were already bumping up against our time limit and we still had at least two people left to read their pieces. It would have been a good discussion to have, and maybe we will some day, but yesterday was not the right time.

What I was going to say, in a huff of righteous indignation, was this: An author can't be wrong in his interpretation of his work. It's impossible, and the simple reason is this: there's only one person who can be in an author's head (not counting, of course, all the characters crowded in there) when a book is being written. I wasn't in Golding's head when he wrote Lord of the Flies, and neither was my Writing Circle member. It's fine for him to say, "I think most of the interpretations got it wrong." It's fine for him to say, "I think it's really about THIS", but I don't believe any reader or critic can say, "he's got it wrong" when it comes to discussions of what a novel is about. It reminds me of this scene from Back to School, where Rodney Dangerfield's character hires Kurt Vonnegut to write an English paper on…Kurt Vonnegut, and gets this response (Language warning! and yes, if you're not familiar with the movie, Vonnegut did make an appearance):

I've talked off and on about the interpretation thing before and I realize you can't control what other people think. Some will love it, some will hate it, some will say, "meh." But don't tell me what I was thinking when I wrote it (speculate all you want, I guess. Speculation is fun, but don't pass it off as gospel, because you don't know. You can't know. You may see things in it that the author didn't, and maybe the author would say, "Hey, you may be right on that, maybe that was in the back of my head at the time." But he's not wrong.

What do you think?


  1. It's so hard to be critical of another writer's work because like you say, what one person feels, another may not. I hear Twilight getting bashed left and right, and while I agree Stephenie Meyer made some mistakes, how many of the people bashing her book have ever gotten a book deal or had oodles of fans drooling over their work? :)

    1. The vitriol directed at Twilight and Stephanie Meyer boggles my mind. I'd be curious to go back in time and see what people were saying about Rowling when Harry Potter took off. All I remember is everyone was reading and talking about the books, I wasn't interested in the writing thing at the time.

  2. I have to agree with you in that I don't think an author can be wrong in his/her own interpretation of his/her own writing! Even readers with different interpretations may not agree, but still, I don't even think they can be wrong because it's all subjective. Different people can get something completely different out of the same piece of work, and I think that's part of the beauty of it.

  3. I don't think you can say an author got it wrong as far as what he was thinking. But I think an author can think they wrote a book that does "A" for people and it actually does "B". Just like someone can think they are nice person when really they are crass. You get what I mean.

  4. Yeah, that's a pretty brazen statement. I'm not sure I could have kept my mouth shut after that. In fact, I probably would have made a face and said something like, "You think what?" It's a shame you guys didn't have enough time to go into it. I'm sure that would've been an interesting discussion. :)

  5. I must confess I thought that guy was pretty arrogant. I'd like to have been a fly on the if you'd been able to open up that discussion.

  6. Thanks for all the comments. In a lot of ways, I don't know if you can ever say anyone is wrong when it comes to what they get out of a book. If 500 people read a book, you could potentially get 500 different answers to the question "What does this mean?" How can I say you're wrong? But if you're the author, there's no way I can tell you what you *meant* to say.

    Donna - it's funny, because I didn't read it as 'arrogant', either because of his delivery or because I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, but I can definitely see where it would come off that way.

    One other thing that occurs to me - I think it's okay to say an author is wrong on his or her conclusions about something. He could have said, "I think Golding was wrong in what he said about society" for example, because you can then point out why you think he was wrong, or where he made errors. But to say he was wrong in what he meant just doesn't work for me.

  7. I don't think I've ever heard anyone say that an author was wrong about what they meant their own work to be about--I have to agree with Donna, that's a pretty arrogant claim. I do think there are moments when a writer can start trying to write about one thing and end up writing about another, or misjudge how their work will be interpreted, but only the author can know what their own intentions were.

  8. I totally agree. Like we say at my house-- An OPINION can't be wrong!

  9. I agree with you, the only person who knows what was going through the author's head is the author. The only way readers know is if the author does a huge write-up ABOUT what he was thinking. And even then, we could misinterpret what the author means.

  10. Absolutely! I agree. That said, I think all writers can learn from other works and by speculating and evaluating how those works could have been better. Nothing is ever going to be perfect, so why not learn from what others have done, but without the critical edge? Does that make sense?

  11. I think the point of being an author is to do whatever you want so no, an author can never be wrong. That's the beauty of being one. I would have to passionately disagree with Writing Group Member (henceforth known as WGM). I kind of find his comment so absurd that it is hilarious, in its way. But I think you're right that it is not worth arguing over. Some people will never get it.


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