In my video reading poems from Inside a Writer’s Head, one of the poems prompted me to think of the authorial intent vs readers’ interpretation debate. This tends to be primarily in the realm of written work, but it could also apply to shows, movies, and other media.
In this post, I’m going to focus on my views as it relates to my own work, as that is the main application for me.
My take is a middle-ground, mixed perspective. There is support for both sides, and historically which side prevails has flip-flopped. For a long time before the recent rise of fanfiction authorial intent was king and readers’ interpretation was of lesser importance or didn’t matter at all. What the author meant by their work was what mattered, not how you or I interpreted the work to mean or convey.
I don’t think there is a dichotomy or that we have to pick one.
Both what the author intends and what the readers interpret in a given work matter. They’re both important and give insight into the work.
For example, if I employ heavy color-driven symbolism in a work to speak to characters’ emotional states or journeys, that’s my intent. If you read that story and don’t pick up on the symbolism, you’ll interpret the story based on what you did pick up on, possibly including other symbols I didn’t intend. Someone else could pick up the color symbolism and interpret it differently than I intended. There is support for all of these. None of these is “right” and the others “wrong” per se.
Everyone has different experiences, different perspectives that they bring to a work. What I bring as the author is not the same as what any of my readers bring.
Because of this, there will be different interpretations of a work. What speaks to me in a book may not speak to you. What I think is the most important part of my story may not be the most important part to you. I can hinge the plot on it, but there could be subtle elements that give a reader argument for something else being more of a driving factor.
My main point in that is art is not cut and dry or straightforward. It speaks to people in different ways based on the influences in their lives that change their perspective.
When I was twelve I got into fanfiction, both reading and writing it. That has undoubtedly influenced my perspective on this debate.
I’ve read fanfics in which I really enjoyed an unconventional take of a character and fanfics in which I really hated it. It adds so much depth to a work to see the characters in different contexts or interpreted differently or in situations they didn’t experience in canon.
Additionally, it gives writers practice maintaining consistent characters of all stripes. It is largely an outpouring of love for a given work, and it’s hard work. Sometimes fanfiction is harder to write than original work, becuase of the confines of the existing work. Keeping characters to bounds set by someone else is difficult.
Lastly, I’ve come to see fanfiction as comparable to free advertising. I have found new books, shows, and other work because of fanfiction. I’ve read fanfiction that was not obviously branded as such by the title that was fantastic and sparked interest in the characters and where they came from. And it was done for free. No one paid that writer to spend their time and effort on fanfiction. They chose to do it because they love the characters and the original work.
I can see and understand both sides of this debate in large part because I’ve written and interacted with original and derivative works.
As far as my own work goes, it’s open to interpretation. I have what I intended, but you have what you bring to my work and may take away something else. I’d love to hear about that. I want to be open about what I intend as well as open to readers’ interpretations.