That Deeper Meaning Nonsense

When people admire art,* they often want to know what the artist meant by it. I get that. I do it myself. But honestly I don't really like "explaining" my art.

* I'm including books in this.

Part of it is plain old fear. If I have to explain it, it means I didn't do a good job of it, right? Or what if I explain it, and they don't like the deeper meaning of it, and therefore don't like the work? Orson Scott Card's Homecoming Saga is really thought-provoking science fiction, for example, but I know people who stop liking it when they find out it's patterned on the Book of Mormon.

Should that matter? Should the author's interpretation of what they wrote affect MY interpretation?

Shortly after it was published, someone wrote a review of my story "Pawn's Gambit". He really liked it (and I was bouncing for a few days after reading it), but here's what he got out of it:
We come to understand the true meaning of family, of love, of sacrifice. We have all had our differences with the ones we love, but even when we dislike our family we still do whatever it takes.
When I read that, I was all ==> O_o.

I mean, I see how he got that out of the story, but I can't say that's what I was trying to say. I can't say I was trying to say anything, really. It was just a fun adventure.

Does that invalidate his opinion? This is what the story meant to him. And like I said, he's not pulling it out of thin air. There IS family, love, and sacrifice in the story. There IS a father trying to rescue his daughter, even though his daughter wants nothing to do with him.

And who says I didn't mean all that, at least subconsciously? Fatherhood is something that's very dear to my heart, and a common theme in many of my favorite movies. So if it comes out in what I write -- even when I don't intend it -- I'm not surprised.

So what matters more? The author's intention, or what the reader brings into the text? Have you ever changed your opinion of a story because you found out the author didn't mean at all what you thought?


vic caswell said...

individual interpretation is actually one of my favorite things about the arts.
with every new reaction, opinion, interpretation, meaning- the work of art GROWS into something bigger than the intentions of one person.
music is a great example. ever sctoll through the comments on a youtube video of one of your fave songs? (overlooking the innane comments:) ) usually, you can find that the song makes one person think of their father who passed, another of their broken relationship, another of butterflies... whatever. there is something beautiful about the reactions of people to art. it's so personal- kindred and diverse at the same time.
(sorry, i didn't mean to makes such a long comment!)

Adam Heine said...

No worries, aspiring. You make a great point. I think it's a little weirder in the narrative arts because, supposedly, we're already trying to explain something with words (as opposed to visual or aural art that attempts to express things without words, or with words as only one of many ingredients). Yet our words have multiple meanings too.

vic caswell said...

(just real quick!)
true adam! but it's been happening forever. look at religious texts. i think the biggest reason there are so many different religious beliefs are because of this very phenomenon. people can read the very same words, and come away with completely different interpretations. :) it's just wired in our brains to think as individuals- it's society that tries to make us conform.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

If I have to explain it, it means I didn't do a good job of it, right?

This is exactly right for me. If someone is asking me what I meant by something, or worse, conjecturing that this really is a manifestation of some deep, dark [insert RL tidbit here], I feel like I've failed as a writer to communicate. Or more accurately, think I need to go back and rewrite so that it is clearer.

However, I second aspiring's opinion that when my art touches something deep within someone else, pulls out the meaning from within them, that's when I feel like I got it right, regardless of whether their interpretation is what I "meant" for them to get out of it.

A friend of mine recently read my book and gushed about it (which is expected, I mean, she's my friend, right?). Then she said something I didn't expect. "This book!" she says. "It's all about ME!"

Well, yes. Exactly. :)

jjdebenedictis said...

What makes a book powerful to a person is their own sense of connection to it, and that's individual.

Likewise, the imagery in books is DIY; the reader's mind might form an image or an understanding inspired by what the writer said, but everyone's synapses fire slightly differently.

I think the writer has to write as potently as they can, and then realize they lose control of the story when it unfolds in another person's head. At that point, the story becomes half what the writer created and half what the reader's imagination did.

Michael LaRocca said...

I've had readers tell me meanings for my work which weren't in my mind when I was writing it but which I've accepted as equally valid. That's one of the unexpected (for me) joys of publication. And, of course, email. Nobody's felt motivated to send me a good old-fashioned letter. I have met readers in person, but I try my best to avoid it. That's why I write intead of lecture.