Friday, 18 November 2011
On being understood (or not) - by Rosalie Warren
Do you want to be understood? As an author, I mean, though possibly as a person, too.
I imagine you probably do - as an author, at least, in the sense of wanting to write clearly and cogently and to bring your fictional world alive to your readers. And I think most of us want to feel understood as individuals, at least by our loved ones, at least some of the time.
But on what level do I want my books to be understood? Given all the above... I would still hate it if someone - child or adult - finished one of my books and thought: 'Oh, I see. I get it now. I've sussed her out. I understand what that story was about, what I was supposed to get from it, what the author was trying to say...'
Urrrggghhh. That is not what I want at all.
All this was prompted by an email exchange I had yesterday with a longstanding writer friend - someone who, if anyone does, appreciates my work and has given me lots of good advice and help. She admitted that she had never 'really understood' my first novel, Charity's Child. Good, I said - you weren't meant to. Enjoy it, yes. I hope you found my story interesting and that it perhaps raised a few questions in your mind. But 'understand' it - please God, no!
I don't understand it myself. And I don't think that novels are written to be understood any more than people are born to be understood. Glimpses of comprehension, yes. Sudden insights, and those wonderful moments when a reader points out something about one of your characters that you hadn't seen yourself, or finds a 'theme' in your book that you certainly never intended putting there. That's OK. What's not OK is someone feeling that they've successfully and thoroughly deconstructed you, your work, the whole caboodle. If it were true, it would be somehow demeaning. And I don't believe it ever is true, anyway. If a novel can be deconstructed in that way - if that's all there is to it - then it's not a novel at all but something else.
As a reader, my favourite works of fiction are the ones that leave me satisfied in one sense but, in another, not quite sure. What exactly was going on there? Yes, the plot was tight and well-constructed, the characters were alive and real, the story plausible (if it was meant to be) - the whole thing worked... and yet... I think that's one reason I hated the stuff we did at school. 'What were Hamlet's motives for a, b, c...?' Did Shakespeare know? Are we really meant to know? I'm pretty bad at working out my own motives, let alone anyone else's.
I think, ideally, I would like to be one of those disappearing authors like J. D. Salinger and Harper Lee, who wrote their books and then ducked out of sight. No explanations, and certainly no apologies, if any were needed. I don't like the idea of trying to explain myself as a writer, or of trying to explain my work. (So why am I blogging? Good question, I suppose...)
Answer: I'm a realist, who knows that readers like authors who talk about themselves and their work. And I need company. I need to know there are others out there not too different from me. And I do want to be understood, at least partly, at least some of the time. I need to be told I'm OK; not too different from the rest of the herd, or not to the extent that I'll be cast out...
So I wrote a longish piece to try to explain why I wrote Charity's Child and how the religious stuff in it relates to the slow, uncertain retreat of my personal faith. I also wrote to explain why I made my narrator a young lesbian, when I am straight. These explanations were there as a response to some reviews and comments I had when the book came out - why, as a straight person, had I chosen to write about a gay Christian, and why had I attacked the Christian church? My answer to the latter was, I didn't. Or I didn't set out to, anyway - anything but.
Anyway, with the piece written, what do I do with it now? Post it on my blog, or hide it away in a drawer and let the book (which is to be reissued as an eBook soon) speak for itself? Perhaps I flatter myself that anyone would want to read my explanations, anyway. I'd much rather they read the book! So I think I'll wait a while and see (though if anyone would like to read it, please let me know and I can send it to you).
To broaden the discussion again - do you think authors should explain themselves, or not?