Monday is an arbitrary day for fresh starts, a lot like New Year’s Eve. Without some sort of marker some of us (hand raised) would never make change. So each Monday I make a lot of promises about starting the week off with positivity and not arguing and nitpicking. And that lasts until I slip onto social media at five a.m. I’ve gotten better, in accordance with my 2018 resolution, at letting things go. Better but not great.
This morning I did just that: let go. And an hour later, I wondered if I’d made a mistake. (Someone reading this probably thinks so)
Sometimes letting go is the mature thing, the grown up alternative to Fighting on the Internet. But sometimes it’s a response to being exhausted by the world, worn thin in the middle by so many perilous moments, and struggles that bullseye out beyond what we feel we can ever possibly manage or control.
A writer, though – novelists, journalists, genre writers, essayists, memoirists, bloggers – cannot get tired, not in times like these. And we have it a bit easier than some because our ability to manage what seems unfathomable comes from our passion: to write. We can speak, have a voice, even have the honor of speaking for others, through our words.
So a Tweet in my feed this morning, from a well-known and well-respected (respected by me) author, was something I let go. Even after I committed the mortal sin of reading the comments.
Then I read the papers, feeling that low-level grim fear at what’s happening in the world today. The Tweet and the comments gnawed at the back of my mind. I scrolled through what friends and colleagues worried over for the day. It still gnawed at me, the responses especially.
Here is the text of the Tweet.
(I’m not linking it or the account; the point of this is not to doxx, shame, or antagonise. It’s not about disrespect, just disagreement)
In response to someone defending an author’s frustration:
‘But he was kind of wrong. He was right when he said. “It’s about…” He was wrong when he said “It was only about… and it wasn’t about…” If anyone, even the writer, tells you that something only means one thing, they are ALWAYS wrong. Because nothing only means one thing.’
The first line is so curious, because the whole statement establishes a flexibility, doesn’t it? Reader is not wrong, author is not wrong. Second line…eh. I don’t agree. If I write something about something, that’s what it’s about. A cigar is just a cigar. I happen to like a crisp Cuban. If you see a penis in all this, well, okay. I meant cigar. Agree to disagree (unless you’re Freud).
Skip to the end: ‘Because nothing only means one thing’. True. Fine. The book meant something different to someone else. But it’s not what the author meant. If I sat and wrote all the things everyone else thinks my stories mean, it would be the literary equivalent of MC Escher’s hands drawing each other. I am the native speaker. My readers are the linguists, interpreting and translating. Some words have no equivalent in others’ language. Second and third spiritual editions change phrasing. But the origin is mine.
Now back up a bit: ‘And it wasn’t about…’ This is where it all slips for me. Where it gets uncomfortable.
An author can write their truth. But they are not allowed to say their book means this thing, or does not mean this thing, or that it only means one thing? But it’s their book. They created it, independently and with a passion for something; a theme, a message. A meaning. And a not-meaning.
And this is where the road disappeared for me and there were dead faces in the water and Sam and Frodo were the furthest from the Shire they’d ever been.
I read the comments with a growing tightness in my chest, in the pit of my stomach. Words like ‘co-author’ and ‘co-creator’ were used to describe readers. ‘I become the co-creator of a work when I consume it,‘ to paraphrase one.
‘An author is NOTHING without a reader. Nothing.’.
‘The author-god is dead’.
‘A book never belongs to the author’.
Whoa. Just hold the door a moment.
I flinched at the hostile language that followed. Someone in a sidebar conversation elsewhere proposed the abolishing of copyright so books could be freed, opened up to anyone and everyone for altering to their satisfaction. It felt vaguely like being told someone was considering taking my children away, that they’d decided my children didn’t really belong to me. That I don’t even know my children’s names. My personal, visceral experiences were no longer mine. The general response felt…amputating.
A relationship between author and reader, between any creator and their patrons is so sacred. We make something from ourselves and give it to be shared, considered, enjoyed, discarded, condemned, or (hopefully) shared again. And we do the giving fully awake to this, accepting the vulnerability and consequences. But we give the thing that we have to give, that we have conceived of.
No one can tell me what I meant when I wrote my last novel. It really does have one meaning, for the record. What the reader takes from it may not be that meaning, but I refuse to budge on the intent. I refuse to be wrong. Subjective interpretation doesn’t change what’s in my soul.
No one ‘co-creates’ a work by reading it. I know a Michelin-starred chef who would swat unrestrained with a kitchen towel at the suggestion that, by eating his food, I have ‘co-created’ it. I’m lucky I can pull off toast, so there’s an arrogance to me claiming my digestive process contributed to the wholeness or whatever of his five-star food. My enjoyment of the experience, however, is mine. Personal, wonderful, and separate. That is where my access to his art has meaning.
What concerned me most in the snowballing comments – grown increasingly frothy over those arrogant authors, was the blindness to a (hopefully unintentional) subtext.
The author whose work prompted the initial defense is a man. The author weighing in on an author’s limitations in defining their work? The majority of commentors insisting co-creation and dismantling of the Authorarchy? You guessed it.
Maybe I’m the Girl Who Cried Oppression, and there’s no real pattern here – I’m just over-sensitive and conditioned in a McCarthy-Era red-menace fashion. In my twenties I felt very certain that some things just would never happen in my country, in my lifetime. Now they’ve happened, they continue to happen. Two decades on, I’m vigilant, perhaps overly so. Maybe not.
We debate a great deal over rights and the self, but there’s developed a selectiveness about who deserves these things. This is a time for voices, for the Writer as he and she has historically stood: A voice. A voice with a message, a meaning, a warning. A subversive voice, a passionate and fearless voice. As a woman in an era where ‘Grab ‘em by the pussy’ and ‘You have to treat them like shit’ are not universally condemned statements, the mere suggestion that I don’t have meaning, that my voice can be wrong, altered, silenced, is a terror. It’s another one of those things I naively used to believe couldn’t happen. I’m speaking up this time. If Margaret Atwood is going to have Handmaid’s Tale explained to her, things have gone a touch too far.
I don’t care if I’ve written a book about politics or dragons; I know what I mean. I know why. I don’t submit to anyone’s relativism or ownership, no matter how allegedly well-intentioned. No means no, plain and simple.
If your take-away from my book is that it’s a veiled treatise on the New World Order and shadow governments and a warning that Reptilians have infiltrated our societies, fine. Great. Interesting take and I’d love to hear why. But that’s not what I was saying. What I was saying doesn’t cease to matter or exist, lose value because someone else experienced it differently.
My identity is. It’s not dictated to me.
Don’t hem when I speak, don’t clear your throat over me. Don’t interrupt before I’m done. And for the love of all things, do not explain myself to me.
When we say ‘author’, that’s not a faceless legion of homogenized automatons any more than ‘reader’. Readers are diverse, discerning, complex, and varied. Writers are similarly colored. We are women, LGBTQ+, men buckling under the toil of societal expectations about masculinity. Abuse survivors. Parents of children lost to politicized tragedies. Persons with diabilities who suffer their life struggles being made into a throwaway theme, a box-tick. And a lot of these cross-sections of the writing world are painfully experienced in voicelessness, in no one listening, or having what they mean explained to them by someone who cannot know their story.
Instead of explaining, telling, maybe it’s time to listen.