Monday, 7 June 2010

Who Owns The Story?

Firstly I'm not sure that owns is the right word here but it feels the most appropriate. And there's a lot of topic here, so I may carry some of this over to next week.

I've recently read a couple of author interviews and over time 'witnessed' a few author meltdowns via the internet about how readers choose to interpret stories.

So who does a story belong to? Who gets to decide what it means?

My own take on this is that once a story is published it 'belongs' to the reader. If a reader chooses to interpret a story in a certain way then I think usually it's either because the author made things too vague allowing the story to be interpreted in that way, the author was influencing the reader in a certain way as a source of misdirection or the author wanted to take advantage of the wishes of the minority of their fans whilst reserving the right to write whatever they want to.

Vagueness - I don't really have a problem with. I like when authors give their readers credit. I want to engage my brain when I read. I want to puzzle things out. I don't like always having everything spelt out for me. For me the joy of reading is engaging your imagination and the more someone chooses to guide you through the specifics the less you get to do that.

Misdirection - I don't really have a problem with. :) For all the above reasons to do with vagueness. I read a LOT. And if an author can get me to think one thing while really something else is happening I love it. Mainly because this increases the re-readability of a story by 100%. To read through a story for the second time and see where you read all the signs wrong, to have the insight of knowing where a story is going, is one of the best parts of reading and it happens so rarely. (Recently read The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner which has one of these moments and I'll hopefully have the review of that up this week - loved it).

I don't have a problem with vagueness or misdirection. If it's done well the reader will 'get it'. If it's done badly it's no use the author throwing their teddies out of the pram if a reader chooses to interpret the story in their own way.

I believe the author should write the story they want to write to the best of their ability. If a fan/group of fans says they want an ethnic character or a gay character or they want a certain couple to end up together* the author should ignore it unless it's organic to the story they were already telling, unless that's where they were already going. You can't please all of the people all of the time and you shouldn't try to, you'll just end up disappointing (and annoying) everybody.

So who does a story belong to? I have a copy of Kitty and the Silver Bullet by Carrie Vaughn to give away to one poster to this thread. Winner to be chosen at random by random number at on Saturday (I add here that as far as I'm aware Carrie Vaughn has never thrown her teddies out of the pram, it just happens that I have two copies of KatSB after accidentally buying a second copy. An occasional hazard of having such a HUGE TBR pile.)

*I admit this is something I'm guilty of as a reader. Sometimes you can't help yourself.


Chris said...

Not entering the contest. :)

You ask the most provocative questions! Hmm.

I'm not sure this is really related to owning the story, per se. We all read differently, experience/interpret reality differently. I think the issue is more to do with authors being upset that the reader experienced the book differently than the author intended and instead of thinking quietly, "Wow, I didn't see that possible interpretation," said author freaks publicly. I don't believe there's a single RIGHT way to experience a book/story, no matter what the author may believe.

LesleyW said...

Chris - Thank you. :) I wasn't really happy with 'owning' but I was trying to get across the sense of entitlement that both the author as the producer of the story, and the reader as the consumer of the story feel.

I love getting the WOW reaction when I'm reading something. I think that experience is something that unites readers, that wanting to share the story you've discovered.

Chris said...

Ah, for some reason your comment made it click for me. :)

Sullivan McPig said...

I think each and every reader 'owns' a story in his/her own way. No two people view a story exactly alike and one of the cool things about reading is discussing books with others who also read it to see how others viewed the story.

As for misdirection:
I do not mind misdirection if it's done in a way that fits the story. I do dislike misdirection when a story is told in first person and suddenly halfway or at the end the lead character pulls a rabbit out of a hat so to speak.
It turns out the (first person) lead character is a firestarter/mind reader/werewolf/etc and has been so for all her/his life.
It's something the lead character knows and lives with every day and should have mentioned before the so called BIG moment. If it is suddenly revealed much later in the story I lose my interest in a story as it's a cheap trick to surprise your reader.

(for the record: a (first person)lead character being one of the aforementioned things but not knowing it him/herself is something I do like as you discover it together with the lead character.)

Hmmm hope that all made sense.

Tracy said...

I'm with you in that the author should write it the way they want to the best of their ability. They have no control over what happens after their work is published - nor should they try to. It's impossible to please everyone and of course direct how they will interpret the story. It's called independent thinking.

Amy Lane said...

Hmm... as a reader, teacher, AND author, I'd have to say the reader owns it-- but she has to have the skills to earn it.

There's a term I use when correcting papers called 'AI'-- Artificial interpretation. It means, "You misunderstood something when you came to this conclusion." An example of this (a guy in college did this--the professor laughed until she nearly wet her pants) is when someone sees Ahab, clinging to Moby Dick at the end of the book, as the triumph of the human spirit rather than a frightening icon of human obsession. There are SO MANY direction signs pointing to an opposite conclusion that, yes, that idea is just butt-ass-wrong.

So, yeah. The reader owns it.

I wrote this poem a while back ( about my 'writing dragon'--and the finale of the poem is about how every piece of writing leaves 'dragon's eggs' in the reader's brain. I stand by that. Once I package my dragon and sent it out, it lays it's eggs, and it's no longer mine.

LSUReader said...

What an interesting point of view. In all the time I’ve been reading (and trust me, it’s been a looong time) I’ve never thought of my favorite hobby with quite that perception: Ownership of the story.

I see it as a joint venture. The author has the vision and tools to deliver a specific product. She/he is the story designer, architect, and engineer; the owner of the plot, characters, and setting. In your column, you said, “For me the joy of reading is engaging your imagination…” That’s it exactly for readers. We invest our imagination and that adds extra layers to the story in a way that makes it personal and adds value. I don’t think I fully own the story, but I’m certainly an investor in this venture (if the author is successful.) My imagination adds to the overall end product. No author can claim that part of the investment. And really, isn’t that what any successful author would want from readers?

booklover0226 said...

I read Sullivan McPig's comment and said, "Oh, yeah, that makes sense; I agree."

Then I read Tracy's comment and said, "Oh, yeah, that makes sense; I agree."

Now, I'm confused with no opinion....

Tracey D

Giada M. said...

I agree with Chris and Sullivan McPig. Even if the author has a precise point of view that he/she wants the reader to understand, each reader is going to interpret the story in different ways.

LesleyW said...

Sullivan - I think it's the cheap trick thing that I find most annoying. As it mainly leaves you feeling manipulated.

Tracy - I think trying to please everyone is a mistake.

Amy - fantastic points. I think you're right in that some readers do completely go off in the wrong direction, seeing things that aren't there.

LesleyW said...

LSUReader - brilliantly put. I like the idea of it being a joint venture. An author without a reader and a reader without an author are nothing.

Booklover - sorry, hope you're not too confused.

Giada - Yeah, if we all interpreted the story in the same way it would be pretty boring.