I’m currently in a class called Literary Theory and Criticism, and one of the big topics we’ve been talking about lately is the questions- where does literature get its meaning from?
We concluded that there are three places a piece of literature might get it’s meaning from.
- The Author
- The Work
- The Reader
There was, however, a lot of discussion around which of these things is the most influential.
There’s a rather famous story about Ray Bradbury (the author of the classic- Farenheit 451) stating that during a lecture he once gave to a class of college students, he stated that the theme of his book was the dangers of television. At which point, a student from the back of the class stood up and yelled, “No, it’s about censorship!” The class dissolved into an argument with the author about the true theme of his novel and Bradbury stormed out, swearing he would never lecture again.
Now, whether or not this story is true is not the point of this post. The story, true or not, brings up an interesting point about the relationship between a work, its author, and its readers.
Literature has long inspired its readers- from the very first novels to the now famous YA trilogies and series. The stories and the characters become a part of the reader’s life for a time, and the impact can be profound. What makes it even more impactful and lasting, is when a group of readers gather together to discuss the book and share in their love of the work. Some gather to critique a piece- to delve into the hidden motives of their favorite characters- to dream up elaborate backstories the author never wrote, to imagine crossovers and wonder how the story relates to their real lives. These are the tasks of Literary Critiques.
Today we call these groups Fandoms.
It didn’t dawn on me until just the other day how eerily similar the two are. Fans who are a part of the fandom for a particular work spend hours coming up with theories and putting them on the internet, interacting and discussing ideas with other fans, creating crossovers between works and characters, and even bringing ideas to the author’s attention.
This happened recently with the Harry Potter fandom and a brilliant new theory surrounding Dumbledore and the Tale of the Three Brothers from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Check out the story here. One of the most interesting parts of this, I think, is that the author J.K. Rowling has publicly endorsed the theory. And this is far from the first time she has done so.
I would be willing to bet that if asked the question- “who has the most power over the meaning of a story- the author, the work, or the reader?” J.K.R would side with the readers. She has allowed the fandom to run wild with theories and ideas about the Harry Potter series, when she could have easily put her foot down and attempted to dictate what it is she intended to be the original meaning for the story. J.K.R is a prime example of an author who recognizes that once a work is set in the hands of a reader, it is within the reader’s rights to interpret the work any way they wish. And the interpretations will vary- greatly- based on gender, race, social and political affiliations, etc. Once a work is released from the hands of the author, it begins to take on a life of it’s own.
The fan who originally came up with the theory may not have realized it, but what occurred when that theory hit the internet was an act of Literary Criticism. They took an established work, put it under a slightly different light to give attention to a new interpretation, and presented the idea to the fandom via the internet. There are hundreds of thousands of these theories floating around for every work created, this one just happened to be the spark that grew into a flame and a fire.
The Author/The Work
I’m lumping these two together for the sake of this post becoming ridiculously long and rambly. Some would argue that though readers and fans may interpret a work in different ways, it is up to the discretion of the author to decide what is canon. These people would probably also say that the author, not the reader, is the most important part in establishing the meaning of a work.
I will agree with them that the author does have a responsibility to present a work to the best of their ability- to make their meaning clear and to communicate something intentionally.
However, at what point does a work created with such a specific purpose and agenda cease to be literature, and become something more like propaganda or a textbook?
This point was brought up in my class, specifically in the terms of George Orwell’s two most famous works, 1984 and Animal Farm. Most high school students have to read them at some point during their four years, and at this point everyone pretty much expects what they’re going to hear the teacher say. Animal Farm is based on the Russian Revolution. Orwell made that abundantly clear in his text, almost painfully so. 1984 is about the dangers of a society based on propaganda and fear media and a controlling, totalitarian government. I remember my own classes on these books. We talked ourselves in circles around these books- each student stating essentially the above, in slightly different phrasing. In short, we were incredibly bored.
The texts of these two books, as examples, have been so dissected and analyzed over the years, that it’s difficult to see the beauty of them anymore. It’s nearly impossible to see them as much more than textbooks- far from literature.
Is it possible for an author to over communicate their purpose in a piece of literature? George Orwell may be a bit of an extreme example, but the question raises others and, to be honest, I don’t really have an answer. I don’t think Orwell would be too pleased with that Harry Potter Fan Theory situation happening to one of his books though.
So what’s the answer?
I’m not sure there is one. Who has more power over the meaning of a work- the readers and fandoms, or the authors and their works? And then, what happens after an author dies and is no longer around to defend their original meaning? Is the meaning set free… or does it become lost?
Maybe that’s a discussion for another day.