An author’s intent vs. what a reader perceives

On Friday, Dr. McCoy brought up the difficulties Octavia Butler had with her readers’ reactions to Bloodchild, namely the insistence that it was about slavery, even though Butler herself said that it wasn’t. This is something that all writers struggle with; how can I make the themes of my story, poem, etc. clear to readers? How can I be sure that they will understand the message I’m trying to convey?

The answer is, of course, that you can’t. The trouble of creating a work of art is that everyone will get a different interpretation from it. Sometimes, even explicitly stating what the work is supposed to mean won’t change your readers’ minds, as is what happened to Butler with Bloodchild. Once a work is put out into the world, the creator loses control of it. The moment a mind besides your own interprets your work, it has gone through some sort of change. Some creators want different interpretations to be pulled from their work. (It is one of our standards for a “good” work of art!) However, I think that even if a creator puts an enormous amount of effort into making sure every detail points towards the theme or message they want to convey, someone in the world will still pull a different interpretation from it.

This happened to me with a novel I’ve written, though not with the theme. I had thought it was unambiguously clear that the protagonist was a trans man, but when I showed the novel to someone else, they thought he was a cisgender man who liked to wear women’s clothing. Although I’m totally willing to attribute this to a lack of clarity in my own writing, this gets at something I want to point out; what does it mean if someone misunderstands something fundamental about your work (in my case, part of the protagonist’s identity)? How much will that cause the reader to stray from the original intent of the work, and is it even possible to get at the author’s intent if something fundamental has been misunderstood?

And as we’ve heard from our English teachers and professors since forever, as long as you can find contextual evidence to back it up, it’s a valid interpretation. Creators can’t control what people get from their work; they can only control what they put into it. Most of the time, we aren’t lucky enough to have an explicit statement from the creator telling us what they wanted the reader to get from the work, as with the afterword to Bloodchild. There’s a reason we analyze the effects of a technique an author used in our English classes instead of trying to determine why they used those techniques. In this case, the effects supersede the author’s intent. Which raises the question, which is more important? As I said before, most of the time we won’t have an afterword. This tension between a reader’s interpretation and an author’s intent bothers me as both a reader and a writer. We should not ignore what the author intended, but neither should we ignore what the works says to us, no matter how that differs from the author. Different interpretations and talking points are what keep works of art alive past the deaths of their creators.

I brought this up for 431 because I know we’re using works in a way their creators’ didn’t intend. It goes without saying that Shakespeare didn’t intend for Romeo and Juliet to be framed within a class centered around Octavia Butler, just for the fact that he predates Butler by about five centuries. I would love to hear what others think about this tension and what they make of it.

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