Listening to one of the book programmes on Radio 4, and reading a writer’s posting on an internet site I was uneasy with the writers telling the readers what their stories are about. I was uncomfortable with the readers seeming to believe that it was their job to ‘understand’ what the writers were trying to say. It seemed to me that it’s not the job of writers, having written, to persuade their readers of what the writing means. It’s not the job of readers to harmonise their responses to the writing with the intentions of the writer. It’s a subject that came up at a recent Facets of Fiction workshop. What any piece of writing means, or is, or appears to be, does not have to be a matter of agreement between writer and readers, nor, of course, between readers and readers.

The fact that we might, and probably do, have intentions about what our writing should mean, and how it will be received, does not change the fact that once we have finished the job of writing and put the thing into the public domain as a published text, it is entirely in the reader’s eyes, and brain, how it will be interpreted. The reader reads what he or she finds, and responds to it in light of his or her own experiences, of life, and with words. A story means what it means to the reader, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Listening to Radio 4 encounters between readers and writers I get the sense that readers are being congratulated (and writers feeling vindicated) when the interpretations match the intentions. All well and good, we can argue, but is it really? Sure, a writer might have cause to be pleased with himself if a reader has hit on something in a story that was important to the writer, but what is important to the reader, in any piece of reading might be no less important. And if the two diverge, then it might not simply be a matter of the reader being wrong, but rather that the story looks different from the direction from which the reader is coming. It might also be that the writer has revealed things, about life and about his reaction to it that are beyond his own knowledge, things that have not been revealed to him in the writing process, and which might not be accepted by him though revealed to the reader!

It’s tempting, perhaps, to writers, to think of what they have written as being ‘their own,’ but I wonder if this is too prescriptive a claim. We might have ownership of the act of writing, but that doesn’t give us ownership of the act of reading. The two are not so directly connected, not simply different ends of the telescope. Tell it the way it was, and perhaps people see it the way they want to, see it as being the way you wanted to see it. Tell it the way you think it ought to be seen, and they might see it for what it is.

To ‘mark’ the reading as well or poorly done in relation to what the authorial intention was is to diminish the writing, and the reading. Both readers and writers can gain from discovery of the unintentional in what has been written, even if the gain, like many others in life, carries with it a little pain…

Just published, for Kindle and as a paperback, a collection of a dozen essays by the ‘me’ of BHDandMe, drawn from this blog, the Thresholds blog and elsewhere: