Should an author explain his meaning entirely? As a reader, I like to know that I’m on track, but if an author tells you what to think, do you, the reader, lose something in the process? Can you still see beyond the author’s words or not?
At the end of the school year, I ask my senior English students to choose either a play or short novel to read outside of class before presenting a creative project about it during the last week of school. I have two shelves in my classroom loaded with perhaps twenty plays and one hundred second-hand novels for them to choose from. They have a few days to pick one, or I get to choose for them.
One young man came back two days later, having finished reading the play Doubt by John Patrick Shanley. I didn’t have to ask what he thought. He blurted that the playwright gave it all away in the three-page preface, and he was frustrated that there wasn’t more to the story. He complained that he didn’t have to think. “Oh, I’ll have a lot to say on this assignment, Mrs. N. Did the guy think he could just pick a social justice issue and explain it away?” Trust me, there was more to his rant, but I mulled over this age-old issue again.
Can an author or playwright say too much? Is it their prerogative as creator? As a reader, I like to know I’m on track, nor do I want to misread something in complete ignorance, but should an author explain his meaning entirely? My student obviously reacted to being told what to think. It was as if a freedom was taken from him.
In his foreword to the 60th anniversary edition of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Neil Gaiman writes:
If someone tells you what a story is about, they are probably right. If they tell you that that is all the story is about, they are very definitely wrong.
Any story is about a host of things. It is about the author; it is about the world the author sees and deals with and lives in; it is about the words chosen and the way those words are deployed; it is about the story itself and what happens in the story; it is about the people in the story; it is polemic; it is opinion.
An author’s opinions of what a story is about are always valid and are always true: the author was there, after all, when the book was written. She came up with each word and knows why she used that word instead of another. But an author is a creature of her time, and even she cannot see everything that her book is about.
Mr. Gaiman favors an author’s freedom, a freedom that is limited by its authorial nature. Yet he also clearly sees that a reader’s experience adds meaning. If, then, an author tells you what to think, do you, the reader, lose something in the process? Can you still see beyond the author’s words or not?
Many authors actually clarify this for us and do explain their intent. Some outright refuse to do so. But the ones I favor are the authors who teach us about not telling. Walter Wangerin, Jr. directly addresses his readers in his Afterword to The Book of the Dun Cow. I must say I like the very idea of an afterword for that very reason. He refuses to allow his fiction to be deemed an allegory, a “this-means-that” mentality. He would rather invite experience than be reductive:
But a good novel is first of all an event; as distinguished from the continuous rush of many sensations and the messy overlapping experiences of our daily lives, it is a composed experience in which all sensations are tightly related, for which there is a beginning and an ending, within which the reader’s proceedings and interpretations are shaped for a while by the internal Integrity of all the elements of the narrative meaning develops from and must follow the reader’s experience. Meaning, therefore, springs from the relationship between the reader and the writing.
The delightful irony, of course, is that Mr. Wangerin tells us the meaning rests with the reader when we have just consulted him for input by reading the Afterword. He is teaching us how to solicit meaning for ourselves, though this is but one author’s view.
The very next week my classes read Death of a Salesman aloud. My students were incisive. They were positive that Arthur Miller targeted the American Dream, the shallow roots of greed and pride, and perhaps men who are weak fathers. Maybe the play also addressed family culture post-World War II too. Then I handed them Miller’s essay “Tragedy and the Common Man” for reading homework. I did not explain that his essay was written in response to his critics in 1949. At that time, the pressing question for Miller was how to define a tragic hero in mid-century America.
When we returned to discussion the next day, our responses varied. Overall my students appreciated his argument that tragic heroes can be common people. Miller explains: “I think the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of characters who are ready to lay down their lives, if need be, to secure one thing—their sense of personal dignity.” The flaw of the modern tragic character is his unwillingness to remain passive. With that in hand, my students aptly analyzed Willy Loman and his so-similar son, Happy.
They did wonder, though, why Miller felt he had to say so much. Miller himself addresses that question at the end of the essay. He saw that many of his critics lumped tragedy with pessimism and were simply ignorant about the tragic-hero archetype. His essay righted that wrong, for Miller said victory must be possible, hope must be present for the modern hero.
Miller’s context gave us, his readers, a clear interpretation. I don’t think it limited the play’s meaning. I would argue that it refined it. And that is probably why I can never entirely agree with Reader Response literary theory. The reader and his experience are needed, but he can’t truly know everything. Historical and authorial context add to our interpretation. How can a story mean whatever we want it to? I am not able to ignore an author who presents a framework for us, even if it does appear restrictive. Creators like Mr. Shanley and Miller have a right to interpret their own words and context, and I’m inclined to say it is our duty as readers to include their explanation as part of our reader experience.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “Man Writing a Letter” (1662-65) by Gabriel Metsu, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.