Once upon a time, I caught an issue of BBC Book Club on radio four. I was driving back from somewhere. There was a writer whose name I didn’t know, who seemed to be talking sense about a book I hadn’t read.
It got me thinking though, about whether or not an author ought to be talking about his work as this guy was. Though he staved off some questions, prevaricated about others, and was vague with his answers, I got the sense that he was being questioned in a way that suggested his readers were looking to have their response to his writing, well, to put it crudely, marked! As if there might be a right answer to the questions being raised. As if their responses might be the right responses.
Now as a writer I understand that it’s gratifying to have someone ‘get’ what you have been trying to do, but that isn’t to say that there is right and a wrong reading of a book. There is the reading you, as a reader make. There is the writing you as a writer wrote. The two do not have to mesh perfectly. For a start, there is that element of what you have written that you weren’t consciously aware of. There is that element of it that you executed less than perfectly – even you! And whatever it is that the reader brings to a reading – which must not be dismissed as irrelevant, or less important – is of its very nature, new, and individual, as creatively and artistically original, and intrinsic to the reading as the artist’s element – will shift that focus slightly, will perceive it differently.
The underlying assumptions about the discussion, it seemed to me, were that there was a right and a wrong, a permissible and a forbidden, that the work, though it had been floated free, out in the world, was still somehow the writer’s to define, and circumscribe, and sit in authority over. Sure, there were elements of ambiguity that he allowed, that he claimed to have intended, but in the discussion I heard, he was delineating the boundaries of where these were.
As I listened, my irritation increased.
Several weeks later I got involved in a conversation about favourite poems and poets, and someone mentioned a series of essays they had read by a fairly high profile academic and writer, or perhaps that should be, a writer and academic. Each essay had taken a specific poem from a well known poet and subjected it to an analysis. I haven’t read the essays, so can’t comment on them, nor make assumptions about what they claimed to be, though one thing struck me, which was that what they couldn’t be (though ones like them might be thought of that way by their writers and readers) was a definitive analysis. What such essays can capture is only (and only here is a quasi-nym for merely) their writer’s version of what the poem is about. Now, this may be a useful thing to know, if the scales fall from your eyes, and you exclaim, ah yes! (or, perhaps better still, ah no!) and the, or perhaps I should say, a meaning of the poem is suddenly revealed.
The fact is though, that I had found myself at the other end of the telescope I’d been looking down – metaphorically – when I’d been listening to that BBC Book Club author. Both authors and readers, and probably more especially what we might call professional readers, might have a particular interest in asserting a particular reading of a work, but the text remains the text, and is open to interpretation; and the interpretation you or I make is our experience of the work – until the author, or the academic, or the reader down the road, comes along and changes our opinion. That’s why the discussion, even when it irritates the hell out of us, is worth taking part in.