July 21, 2011

Who Dictates Meaning?

The other day I stumbled across this article at Cracked, which deals with a bunch of books “everyone (including your English teacher) got wrong.” Considering the source, I’m not all that certain of the conclusions (the one about Alice in Wonderland seems particularly out there), but I do know of one that is on the money.  Kind of.

Contrary to everything you’ve ever thought after reading Fahrenheit 451 (or seeing Truffaut’s film version), Ray Bradbury insists that it’s not really about censorship. Rather, it’s about how television would destroy the will and/or ability of the populace at large to read and what that meant for society. At least that’s what Bradbury says now, as he slides into grumpy old man ludditehood. In earlier years, however, he’s played up the censorship angle.

But what Bradbury says the “true” meaning of Fahrenheit 451 isn’t really what I’m interested in. What I’m interested in is who gets to make that decision in the first place: us as readers/viewers, or Bradbury (and Truffaut, for that matter) as the creator?

Take a less literary example, “Uninvited Guest,” from Marillion’s first post-Fish album, Seasons End:

Some fans dealing with the song latched onto this bit of the bridge:
I'm the evil in your bloodstream
I'm the rash upon your skin
And you made a big mistake all right
The day you let me in
And you can fly to the other side of the world
You know you'll only find
I've reserved the seat behind you
We can talk about old times
They concluded that the song was about AIDS, it being a nasty infectious disease with moral overtones (particularly back then). That came as a surprise to Steve Hogarth and John Helmer, who wrote the lyrics. The song’s not about AIDS, it’s about your conscience. But, as I recall, when discussing it, neither H said to the AIDS group "you're wrong" when it came to their interpretation. They seemed to recognize that, once a creator lets a work out into the wild, his interpretation is no more "correct" than any others.

As a reader/viewer/listener, I appreciate that approach. Art is so subjective it's nearly impossible to define the correct reaction to a piece of it. It's one thing to say that my take on, say, Slaughterhouse-5, is in the minority of opinion on the novel (I have no idea if that's true - I just pulled that example out of my ass). It's quite another to say it's "wrong." After all, perceptions of art change through time. Context matters, and all that. It would be odd if we in the 21st Century got the same thing out of the Illiad and the Odyssey as the audiences to whom Homer first told them.

As a writer, it doesn't seem as if I have much choice. Writer of fiction, at any rate. It's not as if I'm trying to persuade readers about a certain topic. I'm just trying to persuade them to keep reading. If someone comes up to me one day, love my work, and thinks "Fine Print" is a parable of man's relationship with nature in the 21st Century (it's not, but that's not important right now), it would be rude beyond belief to say, "thanks, but you're full of shit." Readers are entitled to their opinions, after all.

Which is not to say I'd go so far as to gut this kind of classic call out:

If you're writing nonfiction and a large hunk of your audience don't get what you're trying to say, that's a whole different problem. If I had a judge tell me that the brief I'm filing tomorrow is a parable of man's relationship to nature in the 21st Century, I still can't say "thanks, but you're full of shit." It's up to me to make sure she gets the point I'm trying to make. if she doesn't, what's the point of making it in the first place?

The bottom line, then, is that when it comes to what art is "about," everybody gets to have their own idea and line up however they want. What the creator thinks is an interesting data point, but it's not the last word on the subject.

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