Posted by: Matt | October 29, 2007

Author or Reader?

The recent fuss over Dumbeldore has me thinking about a related topic. As for Dumbeldore himself, I really couldn’t care less. I don’t care if he is heterosexual or homosexual. In fact to me he really is neither. It doesn’t matter, it has no bearing on the story whatsoever. Unless a book explicitly states a characters sexual orientation I never even consider it, it just doesn’t matter to me.

What I do want to know is who determines the meaning of a story? The author or the reader? Who determines what a novel is attempting to say about the world, about life? There are many instances of readers interpreting a book a certain way and the author denying that was his/her intent. But who is correct, is it the person from who’s mind the story flows or the person who takes the time to consume each word? Each reader has a personal history in which they try to fit the story and that might change depending on what is happening in their life when they read the book. We all know our moods and situations change. The same thing can surely be said of the author as well. So let me know. Author or reader?

Oh and to make this more interesting, no fence sitting, I want one or the other… πŸ™‚

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Responses

  1. I think it is the author(intriguing question!)
    After all it is the author who has the idea for the book and who puts it together.
    Even though we readers may interpret it completely differently according to our histories and moods; the author has the ultimate word.

  2. Ultimately, I think it’s the reader’s version that counts because I seldom REALLY know what the author intended. I interpret a novel in a way that it makes sense and is meaningful to me…if the author disagrees with my interpretation, I’m just stubborn enough not to want to know about it so that my “version” of the story is not ruined for me.

  3. I would have to agree with Sam on this one and choose the side of the reader. Case in point – movies. How many times have you ever watched a movie and thought about how different the movie was from the book? I think the reason for this is because the director of the movie is giving his, and only his, interpretation of how he saw the book – even if that differs from how you saw it.
    I would almost have a hard time reading novels if the opposite were true. My favorite part of digging into a great book is seeing how I can relate to certain characters and experiencing emotions that are personal to me based on the story.
    I think that books can be universally recognized as being good, but in the end this is because the novel produces reactions of similar strength among all readers and not because readers see the vision in the same way.

  4. Yep. I’m with Sam too. I realize every author has a “vision” when he’s writing. But in the end, I think it’s really the reader’s version that counts. When an author writes a book, he leaves in the hands of the reader. That should give the reader then power to think or feel about it however he wants to.

  5. When I was an English major in college, I used to have a discussion on this very topic at least once a month. Some of those discussions would get pretty heated too. My own opinion on this matter usually tends to change depending on what day and mood you happen to catch me. Today, I think I’ll say the reader. What the author intends when he sits down to write a story may not be what results when someone sits down to read it. No matter how good an author is, there are always holes which the reader will fill in with their imagination. In fact, that’s one of the best things about reading. It is, for instance, why I myself dislike seeing pictures of characters on the cover: because they never look like how they do in my imagination.

    By the same token though, I think we owe to the author and to the stories we read to be responsible readers. It’s irresponsible, in my opinion, to make a story where there isn’t one. In other words, if you view a story a certain way, it’s your duty as a responsible reader to make sure there’s textual evidence to back up your claim. Otherwise, you do the story and its author an injustice.

    That said, I think the hoopla around Dumbledore is absolutely unnecessary and crazy. Who cares if Dumbledore was gay? Why does it matter now that the series is finished? The cynical voice in my head wonders why, after the series is finished, Rowling chose to “out” Dumbledore now? Increased book sales, anyone?

  6. I really had to think about this. I first felt the author, because I know so many authors feel misinterpreted. But then for that very reason, I’m turning around and saying the reader, because so many authors are misinterpreted! I also agree with J.S. Peyton above in that I think as readers we owe it to authors not to make a story where there isn’t one.

  7. I don’t feel that either the author or the reader as the “ultimate” last word on a book, or any higher authority on saying that a work is. There is no such thing as an ultimate verdict. The best books stand up to numerous readings, and as long as either the writer or the reader can point to a text and present a reasoned perspective, that’s all that can or should be asked.

  8. merrimerri – Part of me agrees with you completely, the author is the creator thus they are the ones who have the final say. They may have written it purely for themselves, so to them it doesn’t matter what other people think it means.

    Sam Houston – But most of me agrees with you Sam. I have a hard time interpreting books often times. And many times I wonder if the author had any sort of central theme or meaning at all.

    Kevin – Relating something to ourselves is definitely an important reason I think we all pick up a book. We want something that has meaning for our lives.

    Stephanie – I tend to agree that once a work leaves the author’s hands it is no longer for them to interpret. Which is another reason I don’t care what Rowling says about Dumbledore’s sexual preference. For him he might be gay but for me… well I don’t read the Harry Potter series so I guess he isn’t anything to me.

  9. For works of fiction, I think neither the author nor the reader could have the final say. Reader can try discerning the author’s meaning, wrestling with the evidence and viewpoint from the book. As reader, the most I can do is to seek an answer in the treacherous realm of my own imagination.

  10. J.S. Peyton – I agree, readers certainly do not have the right to create something that is not there. I’m not sure how this fits into the realm of fan-fiction or if it even does. That of course is not “official” lore if you will. It seems to me that if Rowling wanted Dumbledore to be gay she should have alluded to it in the books or it comes off as almost cowardly, having it come after the books have all been released and evaluated.

    gentle reader – It might be difficult but I imagine it is important that an author realize that the reader will not always come to the same conclusion and will have a different interpretation of the story.

    imani – Ah, you have taken the third road, the “none of the above”! πŸ˜‰

    Matt – Sounds like you agree with imani…

  11. What can I say, I just can’t buy into undue reverence of either author or reader when it comes to a book. I don’t think that revering the author depends on knowing his “intentions” because when an author discusses his book he is giving his interpretation of his efforts as well. I don’t think that readers have any leg up because they did not create the original product which they’re experiencing, or making popular. Whatever holes there are for the author, certainly there are as many for the reader, and both are equipped with the imagination to fill them.

    I guess, in the end, I do not feel that I “own” the work I read, but that it is being shared between me and the author, and there is a give and take on both ends.

    It seems to me that if Rowling wanted Dumbledore to be gay she should have alluded to it in the books or it comes off as almost cowardly, having it come after the books have all been released and evaluated.

    This is an opinion that has often confused me. Many writers often have a fuller mental idea of what their characters are, compared to what gets written on the page. Why is the writer obligated to include everything they imagined if the story doesn’t demand it? Because, in this case, it was a matter of sexual orientation (and more pertinently, that he was gay, because I will never believe it would be a matter for discussion if he was straight)?

    If one read the interview reports one learns that the two instances where it came up, the script for the new movie and the question given by an audience member, both held the assumption that Dumbledore was straight. (I think this is being forgotten, that she was specifically asked about Dumbledore’s love life.) And I bet most of the Harry Potter readership, if asked, would have made the assumption that he was straight. Yet what evidence is there in the book to support that? In fact Dumbledore typically fits into the closeted older gay gent, and charges that he simply seemed to readers “asexual” is also a pretty common description of closeted gays.

    I can understand how a reader could say she would not allow it to consciously impact her reader experience, because she didn’t see it there, and she carefully read it etc.. When all’s said is done you have to work with the text. But it always bemuses (or amuses) me when readers display the sort of possessive relationship to books they often disapprove in authors. Surely the creators have as much a right to the text as the audience? They should just slave over the thing for months and years and then satisfy themselves by keeping mum and collecting royalties? :p

  12. I could not care less if Dumbledore was gay, straight, or liked sheep. In fact, the one thing I find really disconcerting nowadays is how you’re supposed to announce your sexuality. Like it’s anyone’s business. (Although I can see why its come about).

    And I think the reader is the ultimate authority. How often can you question the author? Although you do owe it to your author to read the book and not read something into it that truly isn’t there. But most books have a lot of wiggle room.

  13. I’m actually pretty hard on the author. In this whole Dumbledore debacle I found it pretty silly simply because we had an author trying to “patch” her novels after the fact. As soon as the book has been printed anything that falls outside of the realm of the black and white text is fan-fiction as far as I’m concerned – even if the author is the one saying it. This is why good writing is so important to a novel. Everything that you want to transmit to readers has to be explicitly written down on paper or it doesn’t exist.
    Just as an example, imagine if Tolkien came back and said Frodo was the Christ character and Sam was supposed to represent Satan. Nowhere in the book is anything like that written down and it would be strange to try and alter the story after everyone has read it. I, as the reader, could hate Sam’s character and thus equate him to Satan, but that doesn’t mean everyone else feels the same way. πŸ™‚
    In this instance though, I think most of the controversy is because Dumbledore was said to be gay. If Rowling had said something like, “Oh yeah, he’s a crappy wizard,” I don’t think we would even be discussing this.

  14. imani – I understand what you are saying with, “Many writers often have a fuller mental idea of what their characters are, compared to what gets written on the page. Why is the writer obligated to include everything they imagined if the story doesn’t demand it?” I think my point, though I probably did not express it very well if at all, is that she is certainly entitled to believe that Dumbledore is gay but if this is never explicitly stated in written text than the reader has every right to claim that he is heterosexual or asexual or whatever else. Now I suppose she could in the future write a book in which he is most definitely gay, then I would have to look at it differently.

    Carrie K – I have often wondered why some people find it necessary to declare there sexual preference. I don’t believe I have ever told anyone my sexual preference.

    Kevin – I have to say I agree with you and I believe somewhere here in the comments I made some similar points about fan-fiction.

  15. I think both matter equally. It’s up to the author to provide the information she wants in her story. If she wants Dumbledore to be gay, then he is, and it then becomes the reader’s job to decide how to take that. I can decide whether I think Dumbledore has been abstinent all his life, whether he had a secret affair with Harry’s dad, whether he’s dating Viktor Krum, etc. I can add these extraneous details all I want, and no author can do anything about it. Telling something about a character after the story is published is an odd way of handing a reader new information that the reader can choose to ignore or choose to work into previous understanding. A reader can choose to go back and reread the books, with great attention to Dumbledore, and put all sorts of interpretations on his behavior and words. And I’m sure some will. Or a reader can do as I do, and just shrug and not care, because since we know nothing of the personal relationships of any of the teachers through the books, it doesn’t matter to me. Dumbledore’s sexuality, or any character’s sexuality, only matters to me if it’s in some way relevant to the story.

  16. What a great question! I think the reader gets to say what the story means. But I also sort of agree with Imani. No on gets the ultimate say because there is none. We only each have our own interpretations and none of them are 100% right, even the author’s. That’s one of the best things about books I think.


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