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?


Nicola Morgan said...

I think we should if we want to but not if we don't. I don't blame readers for wanting to know more, though - for me, one of the great things about a story is that you have so fully engaged with it that you don't want to leave it or stop thinking about it, and part of thinking about something often involves asking questions.

I am someone who wants to ask questions about the books I read and to offer answers for the books I write. Although of course I'm not preaching messages in my books, I am usually trying to say something or suggest something or create a specific meaning, and I'm happy when readers ask about that, either because they want to argue with it or because they want to know if their meaning is the same as my intended one.

But Philip Pullman is much more of your thinking - he won't be drawn on intentions and meanings, believing (I think) that what it means to the reader is all that's necessary and important. I'm too much of a control-freak to take that view!

As to the piece you've written - you should do exactly what you want with it! I'd be interested in it because I'm interested in how writers' minds work. And maybe that's the point: either the story is the story, regardless of the writer's thoughts about it, or the writer's mind adds something to it and is interesting. I think it's a personal response thing, not a right-or-wrong thing.

Really interesting post!

Sue Purkiss said...

This is really interesting, and not something I've thought about before. So I shall go and ask myself some questions!

I think my knee jerk reaction, though, would be that I do want people to understand what I think I was on about - but I'm also delighted when they see something that I hadn't realised was there.

Unknown said...

Brilliant post, and replies - a good discussion.

I do agree that readers can 'see' things in writing and make connections which the writer wasn't consciously aware of, so perhaps a writer is lucky, in that case, to be understood.

I have a vaguely uneasy notion, by contrast, that if my writing is not 'understood', then I have failed. I'm not sure that is correct and I don't think I ever will be sure.

Stroppy Author said...

What an interesting discussion! I am firmly of the view that it doesn't matter if what the reader values in a story is not what the writer intended to be there. Perhaps because I did my PhD on largely anonymous works, so there was no way of getting at the writer's intention or even influences. I think as long as a reader can support their reading of a text it is valid.

I once had a very touching email from Michael Frayn saying that I should have written one of his books as I was clearly much better qualified to do it than he was - I had found more in it in my criticism of it than he had intended to put there. But he didn't say it wasn't a valid reading, and I think every writer puts things into their books they are not aware of.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Rosalie you said... '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?' I think when we are writing in a state of high energy and awareness, thoughts and feelings are quicksilver. And a reader might also be reading in a state of high awareness. So the transfer of what is being written and what is being read, can't be fixed. This is what makes a novel, a work of art, a piece of music so exciting. Great post.

Sue Imgrund said...

Understanding to me implies cognition, or a thought process, which is one way of perceiving the world. Of course there are others, and I'd like to think that my writing can be appreciated by different individuals in different ways - and not just through the "thinking" mode.

Fascinating topic!

Kay Green said...

I don't think many people - especially not children, tax themselves over 'what the author's trying to say' - not with a novel, anyway. When trying to read nuclear physics textbooks, perhaps!

And I agree, the idea of being 'understood' at one gulp is rather alarming. When someone says "oh, I see," in conversation, I immediately worry whether they've 'seen' what I was trying to signal, or something else altogether. Secondly it's just no fun being that simple.

Explanations can be useful sometimes - I read 'The Exorcist' as a teenager (probably because I thought it was a suitably bad and dangerous thing to do). It was rubbish but I accidentally learned a whole lot of very important stuff from the introduction, which was all about the background and the symbolism and things like that so I suppose the 'explanation' was better than the book, in that case.

The books I love most tell me something different every time I read them. That can only be because I've changed since I last read them, which suggests that understanding is something each reader does, each to their own lights. I think there are probably three things to consider, before talking about 'understanding' a novel.

First, what the writer does when they're writing. I tend to do a first draft as a learning process for me. If, at the end of it, I feel as if I've understood something interesting, I'll develop the novel from there.

Second, what the editor does, which is try to get an accurate enough picture of what the author's thinking to work appropriately on the text.

Third, what the reader does which, really, is their own business and can (and probably should) be done without thinking about the author at all.

Linda Strachan said...

Fascinating post.
I am often amused when I hear people asking or telling others what the author meant by this or that, or what the author was trying to say. I have often heard authors saying that it was the furthest thing from their mind. They hadn't considered it.
When I am writing I am trying to understand my characters, their motives and how they would react in a certain situation. But it is my interpretation of their motives, not anyone else's.
People are so complex that if the characters in a book appear real it is because they, too, are complex.

Taking that as a start point it would suggest that each person reading about these characters might interpret their actions and motives slightly differently.
This is because we all bring to every situation in life our own opinions and our own experiences, which make us see the world slightly differently from everyone else.

So do we want to be understood?
I think mostly we do, we want people to understand us and to agree with us, to some extent.
But not completely and utterly, because that is probably impossible and it would leave no mystery or possibility to surprise and delight others when we act out of character.

Rosalie Warren said...

Thank you, everyone, for your comments. You've given me lots to think about that there.