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.
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.