Wednesday, May 15, 2019

What Readers Put in Books

When Tyler Cowen interviewed Margaret Atwood last month, someone in the audience of course asked her what she thought of the Hulu Handmaid's Tale. Unfortunately the transcript doesn't cover the question and answer period, so I'm working from memory here. The questioner said she didn't like the TV show because it changed too much, for example, they use the main character's name, which does not appear in the book. Atwood said that the name they use was arrived at by noting that of all the names mentioned in the opening scene, only one never appears again; which, she said, never occurred to her, but it's in the book so she didn't mind. The questioner said, I hated that because I thought the whole point was that she was denied her name. Atwood said, "That isn't in the book, it's something the readers put there."

This made me wonder; does this happen with every book that has a community of devoted readers? What have we read into Lord of the Rings, or the Foundation trilogy?

I suppose a more serious example is all the stuff people claim to have read in the Bible, which others deny, like the Trinity.

Anyway this just set me thinking about the relationship between a community of readers and a book, and how it is changed by the people who love it.


G. Verloren said...

This happens with basically everything, really.

One simple and striking example is how different people around the world visually depict Jesus to resemble themselves, heedless of the historical truth. The modern western world thinks of Jesus as a pale White man, when simple critical thinking will reveal that, as a Semite, he must have been substantially darker in complexion.

It may be tied to the tendency of people to misremember and misquote memorable movie scenes. "Luke, I am your father"; "If you build it, they will come"; "Houston, we have a problem"; "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore"; "We're gonna need a bigger boat"; "Mirror, mirror, on the wall"; "Do you feel lucky, punk?" "The whole system is out of order!; et cetera; none of those are the actual spoken lines of dialogue in their respective films. And yet, almost all of us remember the wrong versions.

Compare also to the Mandela Affect, a phenomenon where people develop false memories that seem undeniably real, named for the observation that a great many people mistakenly believed that Nelson Mandela died in the 1980s, and could distinctly "remember" that happening.

The human mind is extremely adept at finding patterns, and extrapolating out from those patterns, even when there's no real pattern to find or expand upon. Our imaginations are biologically primed and ready to fill in the holes in our experiences, memories, and thoughts, by drawing from what we already know.

And so we almost always insert our own imagined details into places where details are otherwise lacking.

If a book fails to plainly name the protagonist, and we miss the fact that the name can be puzzled out logically through subtle context clues, we will overwhelmingly often just invent a plausible explanation for the apparent hole in our information - especially if said explanation also spares us from thinking we made a mistake. It's not that you, as a reader, innocently missed something obscure - it's that the something wasn't there to be missed, and was intentionally excluded, for a plausible seeming and thematically concordant reason. Or so we prefer to believe, anyway...

Shadow said...

I value hearing the author tell us what she intended, but perhaps Atwood went to far telling the reader what she saw in the text isn't there. That's a form of authorial intrusion. The reader has a reason for seeing it there. Perhaps the reader sees what isn't there, but it is meaningful to him none the less. Or perhaps he sees what is there that the author doesn't. The author gets to write fiction; the reader gets to interpret it.

G. Verloren said...


Except the reader specifically approached the author to ask their opinion.

If I go to a chef and ask them how much pepper they put in a dish I just ate, and they say there was no pepper in it at all, that's not an intrustion by the chef on my interpretation of their cuisine. That's just a simple fact: the dish did not contain any pepper, whether I thought I tasted it in the dish or not.

Even if I insist, "No, I clearly tasted pepper!", that doesn't change what actually went into the dish. Maybe it was some other aspect of the dish that resembled pepper, or that happened to evoke pepper in my mind through association, or whatever else. But if there's no pepper in the dish, then my interpretation is simply flawed, and the chef isn't wrong to tell me so because I went out of my way to ask them.

If a reader believes that your book includes something that it doesn't, that's fine. People are allowed to interpret as they wish. But if they then try to verify their interpretation by asking you, the author, why you included some aspect of the work which you actually didn't, and which they only imagined being present, it's not your fault if their interpretation doesn't match the truth.

There's no judgement involved - it's just the old adage of being careful what you wish for. Reality is under no obligation to match your expectations. If you go to an author hoping to have your personal interpretation validated, you had better be prepared to instead discover that it is somehow wrong or flawed. And if you can't handle that possibility, then you're better off not asking for the truth - enjoy the bliss of your ignorance instead.