From Author’s Hands to Reader’s Minds

posted in: On writing | 2

I have been musing lately on how my books come across to others. I wrote them. Until they were published they were mine. Now, of course, they belong to whoever bought them and my opinion of what I wrote hardly matters anymore. But I still find it intriguing. Quite a few people have left reviews of my work, some good, some scathing. It’s fascinating how people have interpreted my intention, or missed the point I was trying to make. Does this mean I didn’t write it well enough? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just that people interpret what they read according to their own lights. I commented on the difference between intention and perception when I talked about the evolution of The Iron Admiral books.

“If I were to write the book again maybe it wouldn’t be what they call ‘instalove’, something many people criticized. I think love at first sight is real, but maybe I would emphasize that Saahren’s immediate reaction to Allysha’s talents was that she could be invaluable to him in a fight against the Ptorix – and that evolved over a short time into something more. That dual thing – utility and love – was meant to be there but didn’t come across as well as I’d wanted.”

The interesting thing is I received a comment on that article saying what I’d wanted came across to that reader just fine. Which goes to show it’s all about how the reader interprets the words.

May I quote from the redoubtable Professor Tolkien, whose book has been read by many, many more folk than will ever venture into my works.

This is from the foreword of my own much-battered India-paper edition of The Lord of the Rings, published in 1969, printed in 1974.

“The Lord of the Rings has been read by many people since it finally appeared in print fifteen years ago; and I should like to say something here with reference to the many opinions or guesses that I have received or have read concerning the motives and meaning of the tale. The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them. As a guide I had only my own feelings for what is appealing or moving, and for many the guide was inevitably often at fault. Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer. But even from the points of view of many who have enjoyed my story there is much that fails to please. It is perhaps not possible in a long tale to please everybody at all points, nor to displease everybody at the same points; for I find from the letters that I have received that the passages or chapters that are to some a blemish are all by others specially approved. The most critical reader of all, myself, now finds many defects, minor and major, but being fortunately under no obligation either to review the book or to write it again, he will pass over these in silence, except one that has been noted by others: the book is too short.

As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical. As the story grew it put down roots (into the past) and threw out unexpected branches:
but its main theme was settled from the outset by the inevitable choice of the Ring as the link between it and The Hobbit. The crucial chapter, ‘The Shadow of the Past’, is one of the oldest parts of the tale. It was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster, and from that point the story would have developed along essentially the same lines, if that disaster had been averted. Its sources are things long before in mind, or in some cases already written, and little or nothing in it was modified by the war that began in 1939 or its sequels.

The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dur would not have been destroyed but occupied. Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth. In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves.

Other arrangements could be devised according to the tastes or views of those who like allegory or topical reference. But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

There’s got to be something in there for everyone to ponder.

2 Responses

  1. Melisse Aires

    I think there is love at first sight. Instalove is pretty popular nowadays!

    My mom got on a bus full of Marines in WWII and sat next to my dad, the only sailor. He looked safe, and also was very good looking. He told his father through the window, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.” A Marine stole his sea kit, Mom gave him $20 to get a new one, along with her sorority house address. When he got back to Seattle six months later he paid her back. They got married after 3 months of dating, before he shipped out again. 57 years, four kids. 🙂

    • Greta

      Something similar happened to my brother. He and I went to a concert, he saw a mate with two girls in his car. We all went for a drink somewhere, my brother went off with one of the girls and that weekend he brought her home to meet our mother. “I’m going to marry her,” he said. Mum was unimpressed but he did marry her.

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