Whose Story is it Anyway?

When thinking about ownership in the context of literature, I can honestly say that I am at a crossroads. While I would agree that the author should maintain ownership over their ideas and the ways that they are interpreted, I also feel like the reader deserves some creative room for interpretation. In other words, I don’t think it’s entirely on the part of the author to dictate how their story is understood, because that limits the creativity of the reader, however the author wrote the story with a purpose, which they also deserve to maintain. I would equally agree that it is the job of both the reader and the author to meet in the middle to develop an understanding of how a story should be interpreted. Which brings me to the philosophical question, does the reader read for the author or does the author write for the reader?

Recently there have been two separate incidents that sparked my interest in this debate. The first one was Octavia Butler’s BloodchildShe begins the afterword to this story by saying “It amazes me that some people have seen Bloodchild as a story of slavery.” That statement made me flat out annoyed at first because it was as if she knew it was about slavery but insisted on ignoring it and instead criticizing anyone who may have made that assessment. After reading the rest of the afterword, I gained a better understanding of what she wanted the story to be about, however I cannot understand why she could not see how Bloodchild could be interpreted as a slave narrative. By entirely writing off that idea, she took away full creative control from the reader, which maybe in her defense, gave her ownership over her own story.

Personally I see the other themes that Butler was representing in Bloodchild but I see them in connection with the slave narrative being told. This is my perspective lens based on the training that I have had, which includes the reading of Butler’s Kindred, which she admitted was in fact a slave narrative. Knowing her to be the author of works of that nature, I can admit that I may have gone in assuming that this would fall under the same umbrella. The only point of contention that I have with this is that I feel like Butler leads you to that assumption with her writing in Bloodchild. While it is important for the author to lead the reader to the conclusion they are drawing, it is also important to steer them away from the wrong conclusion. If not, then the story is open to interpretation, which is usually fine, except in the case of Butler who insists on outwardly denying that slavery can be seen in the story.

The second incident that has sparked my interest in this debate is a conversation that I had with one of my history professors this semester. We are reading a book for class called The Origins of the Urban Crisis by Thomas Sugrue. The book contains great historical facts and sets the premise for a larger discussion on the origin of poverty and inequality in Detroit, however it is poorly written in my opinion. It does not tell a story that is accessible to all readers. Sugrue is an author that writes specifically to historians and really no one else. His book is so dense with information that any non-historian who tried to read it, would be bored into a stupor.

I particularly have a problem with this style of information-overload writing in history because I believe that history books should be readable for the general population because they contain valuable information. If the information is being missed because the book is too difficult to get through, then nothing was accomplished. This brings me back to my original question, does the author write for the reader or does the reader read for the author? Instead of writing a history that anyone who wanted to learn could read, Sugrue chose to write to historians. In result of this historians tend to like Sugrue because his works are catered to them. It is even more troubling that when I brought this to the attention of my professor, she responded “this book has many awards so historians would disagree with your claim that the book is poorly written.” That just further proved my claim that the same historians reading this book would agree that it was a great book but still left no room for the average reader to engage. In this instance Sugrue took full control over the interpretation and audience of his book.

I read to cultivate thought and expand my horizon which is why I prefer to have some say in the way that I interpret certain works. Of course every author writes with a purpose, because they also care to be creative, but I would like the same respect as a reader. This is a complicated concept because its almost impossible to be 100% equal in the writing and reading of the same story, but if both parties try, I believe the message of the story comes across way stronger.


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