Here’s The Thing: Let’s Talk About Authorial Responsibility

I’m going into this post fully aware that this is not a black-and-white issue. The question of what an author is or is not responsible for when it comes to reader interpretations of his or her book is a much-debated gray area. So while this is my position on the matter, your mileage may definitely vary, and you’re welcome to comment and disagree with me.

For the record, I definitely don’t think authors should be held accountable for every individual interpretation. I don’t blame J.D. Salinger for Mark David Chapman shooting John Lennon or for the fact that a few messed-up dudes in the past few decades have had an affection for Holden Caulfield and killing people. That’s not Salinger’s problem.

At the same time, I don’t believe we can entirely wash our hands of what we create once it goes out to an audience. Nor can we simply let intention become a blanket excuse for shrugging off responsibility.

For example: There’s a prominent author who is known for blocking any Twitter user who mentions that the central relationship in his/her book could be viewed as domestic abuse. We’re not just talking about blocking one or two trolls – we’re talking about blocking loads of people, many of whom are being rationale and not combative.

As a private individual, it’s this person’s right to block who they want. As a professional author, I think it shows a certain lack of authorial responsibility.

The given reasoning seems to be that the author freaks out when their book is linked to domestic abuse because he/she did not intend to depict the relationship as abusive. That the people making this accusation just aren’t reading it correctly, therefore it’s okay for the author to close his/her ears and drown them out.

Malarkey.

What we intend to write and what actually comes across in the writing are two very different things. We don’t always have the necessary distance from our own work to be able to see what’s conveyed on the page, which is why we have CPs and beta readers, agents and editors who can read it go, “Did you mean it to sound this way?”

Here’s where we get down to the crux of my position on the matter: If what we intend to depict does not come across to readers, it is our fault as an author – not the fault of the readers.

Simply going, “Well, I didn’t mean it like that, so you must be looking at it wrong” is a bullshit response.  It’s an infuriating response.

Telling stories is our thing, it’s what we do, and words are the tools we use. It is our responsibility to make sure that the characters and scenes and plots we craft are displaying the tone and message we want them to display. If a few people people don’t get it, that’s one thing, but if dozens, hundreds, thousands don’t…well, then you might have a problem.

For the record, I’m not saying that you have a responsibility to only write happy things or make sure the good guys always win or not promote drugs or sex or blahblahblah. I’m just saying that whatever you’re trying to convey, you have a responsibility to your readers to do everything you can to ensure you are conveying it well and effectively.

If we fuck it up, if we put out something that was meant in one way but comes across entirely different to a significant portion of our readers, then we need to learn, respond and try to fix it in future work. Not stick our fingers in our ears and scream LALALALALA until we can’t hear them anymore.

Like I said at the beginning, this is just my opinion in the matter, but I do think it’s part of our job as writers. Every job has fun parts and difficult parts; this is our difficult parts. We should step up to the challenge and not shy away.

12 thoughts on “Here’s The Thing: Let’s Talk About Authorial Responsibility

  1. I would disagree with you, but I would be wrong. 😀
    I actually completely agree with this. Yes, a few people will not interpret your work the way you intended. But thousands? Yeah, there’s an issue. Road to hell is paved with good intentions. Intention and execution are two different things in life.

    And I think part of the author’s issue is that she has admitted that the books are her fantasy and it freaks her out to think that her fantasy is linked to domestic abuse.

    Well said as always, Becks. 😀

    1. And I think part of the author’s issue is that she has admitted that the books are her fantasy and it freaks her out to think that her fantasy is linked to domestic abuse.

      And I’m sorry that it freaks her out, but the fact that she is just refusing to adequately deal with this interpretation is just a little ridiculous. Writing is your profession. Be a professional.

  2. I agree with you, too. An author should pay attention to multiple interpretations of her work. Readers view novels through their own individual experiences, and an author could learn a lot from those readers if she is willing to listen. As for whether an author should feel some level of responsibility for actions individuals take after reading her books, I think it boils down to whether those actions are a foreseeable consequence of that written work.

    1. Readers view novels through their own individual experiences, and an author could learn a lot from those readers if she is willing to listen.

      Exactly. It’s the lack of willingness to listen that tends to irritate me. Maybe this interpretation of the novel blindsided you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from it.

  3. Interesting. You’re right that writers shouldn’t let possible backlash influence creative direction — we can’t necessarily censor our own work can we?

    But the key for me is awareness. You should be aware of how a scene or detail may be perceived, and own up to it when it’s perceived like that, not run away. If you’re aware of it, then at least you’ve gotten the chance to mull over the “why”… and you’ll have an answer for those who are upset.

    But if the whole story is dependent on that one thing… that’s another problem 😉

    1. You make a good point – you don’t have to change your work or censor yourself, but awareness is crucial. Be aware of how people might take things so you can have a reasonable discussion about it instead of just going, “Nuh UH.”

  4. I view it the same way I view symbolism (which I always hated in school, and still do, with a violent passion)-my interpretation is not yours. You’re always going to have people whose minds are twisted and knotted in ways that yours is not, and you cannot be expected to accept responsibility for the way his or her mind tangles with that issue.

    However, to point specifically to the author you mentioned, it strikes me as immature, kind of like starting flame wars in the comments. So she didn’t see how the central relationship could, in some people’s eyes, be viewed as abusive. She can’t go back and fix it now, but if she LISTENED to what that faction was trying to say, she has the ability to look for it in the future. Sometimes our beta readers just aren’t going to catch that sort of thing. And you have to keep in mind the hundreds (possibly hundreds of thousands) of other readers who view the issue/theme/relationship in the same way the author does. They probably attack those critics and he said/she said/I’m telling Mom! back and forths ensue.

    A.M. Homes, upon the release of her book THE END OF ALICE (which, if you haven’t read it, is excellent) received a deluge of criticism because of the central relationship-a young woman starts corresponding with a convicted pedophile because she wants to find out how he managed to seduce his young charge. Disgusting? Yes. Those critics said she was promoting child abuse. She probably knew that was going to happen (even though it doesn’t, just read the damn book all the way to the end!), and went ahead and had it published anyway. I’m honestly really glad she did, because it’s the kind of book that pushes your boundaries and makes you wonder just where you can take your own writing, if you could be that fearless.

    I guess my point is sometimes, even after you consider how people are going to interpret what you’ve written, you have to go there anyway, because the end result could make you a better, stronger, and far less fearful writer.

    1. You’re always going to have people whose minds are twisted and knotted in ways that yours is not, and you cannot be expected to accept responsibility for the way his or her mind tangles with that issue.

      This is very true – we can’t be held responsible for every single interpretation. And there will always be a few people who weren’t pickin’ up what you were puttin’ down. (i.e., me with every T.S. Elliot poem ever because I NEVER seemed to get it until my professor explained it) But if for every five people telling you everything’s rainbows, there’s one person saying “this relationship felt abusive to me” or “the plot felt really shallow,” you’re doing a disservice to yourself as a writer to not consider their critique and see if you can learn from it. No, you can’t go back and change it, but what we need to do – and what isn’t happening in my example, as you justly pointed out – is at least listen. We’re in a very connected world. We can’t ignore a reader interpretation we don’t agree with and tell them their view, their experience isn’t valid just because that’s “not how we meant it.”

      As for your point about books like THE END OF ALICE, I certainly don’t think Homes should have not put it out there just because some people think it’s promoting child abuse. Like I said toward the end of the post – I don’t agree with censoring topics just because they’re uncomfortable. What I do expect is that authors engage in reasonable discussion about their books and those issues. And from what I’ve read of Homes’ interviews, she sounds perfectly capable of that and willing to deal with the backlash of writing such a controversial topic.

  5. I saw your post on YA Misfits and popped over. It took me awhile to guess which prominent author you were talkign about, but then, I thought oooohhhhh yes, of course!

    Anyway, I’ve enjoyed flipping through your blog!

  6. “…whatever you’re trying to convey, you have a responsibility to your readers to do everything you can to ensure you are conveying it well and effectively.”

    Exactly.

    Yes, people will misinterpret, but if you’ve done your job well, the people grossly misinterpreting your work will be few and far between.

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