30 September 2009

Subjective Objectivity, or Objective Subjectivity

Hamlet is a muffin.

No, really.

If you subscribe to the theory that readers are the ones who make texts meaningful, that is. And if you decide to read Hamlet as a muffin.

Most of you will probably be directing strange looks at the computer screen right now, and rightly enough. What on earth is she going on about, I hear you say.

All shall be revealed...

See, I was thinking the other day about what happens when we read a text, and what happens when we write a text, and what happens when we read the text we've written, and give it to someone else to read what we've written. Because here's the thing: not everything we hold in mind when we're writing a text makes it onto the page, and not everything we hold in mind when we're reading a text is on the page.

As readers, we inject some meaning into the text. This is, in fact, the basis of the Reader Response theory, which, while I don't agree with all of it, certainly makes more sense to me than the other common theory, New Criticism.

So the question is then, how much of the meaning is put in by the readers, and how much by the authors? Does it matter, for example, if someone reads your work such that your MC looks completely different to how you imaged? What about if they read it as being about something you never considered? About something horrible and derogatory? About something enlightening and meaningful?

If we were to get really post-modern here, we could say that every reader has the right to read our books however they like. But that's problematic: Hamlet isn't a muffin, after all. There's some common ground between what the author envisages, and what the reader does.

Interestingly, the next step my brain took when thinking about this was to apply the concept to notions of objectivity and subjectivity. Postmodernism (in some forms) holds that reality is subjective; there's no objective reality, only what we experience. But as an author, as someone who's had experience putting meaning into a text, and watched people draw something different out, this is my conclusion: It's not reality that's subjective, but rather our perception of it. There are facts, there are events, but as we perceive them we skew them with our opinions, our history, our background.

Back to writing: what are the facts of our story? What are the events, the reality, the stuff that actually happens? And how do we colour that when we describe it, giving it flavour and life?

Go through a few pages of one of your stories: How much of your work is 'reality' (in the context of what actually happens in your story), and how much is 'perception', either yours as the author or a character interpreting an event?

Where do the good stories lie?

And in the end, how much does it matter if our readers get something different out of what we're writing?


Anonymous said...

Ooh this certainly caused me to think, Inky. Being around an academic mom, I have caught bits of Postmodern theory and such, and you really describe it quite well for the beginner's ear. I also agree perfectly with what you say. Especially the muffin bit. That was the most important part...or was that just my perception of what the most important part was?

Yunaleska said...

This is why we have betas. What we think we see in our wip, isn't always the case.

Lady Glamis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lady Glamis said...

Wow. These are deep thoughts. So deep I can't think straight this early in the morning. But I love what you've said!

I remember when I wrote my first novel and had my english teacher read it (back in high school). I was concerned because she said I made it sound like some of my characters were black. I thought, oh no! I didn't intend them to be black, not that I have anything against that. It's just not what I intended.

My teacher told me something I'll never forget. She told me that it didn't matter unless it mattered to the plot and the meaning of the story. She said I might even get more readers that way, keeping it open a little.

Great post, Inky One!

Krispy said...

This is a great post, which has a great hook, btw. Haha. It's always cool, interesting, and sometimes weird to see how different people can interpret the same thing (be it text or an event or a conversation).

My friends and I actually had a less well-thought-out and well-worded discussion about how meaning in text is derived back in the days of high school yore in AP English classes. This was sparked by a reading of an excerpt from Moby Dick, which was prefaced by some analysis of the text. Basically, the analysis made a big ol' hoopla about the deep symbolism in the whale and its color. We were willing to buy most of what they were saying, but we couldn't help but wonder: what if Melville chose to make the whale white because it was a distinct and dramatic color for an unusual whale, not because he was like white is so deep and meaningful.

This eventually lead to our writing random little ficlets, which we then analyzed with all our hard-earned lit skills. It was pretty cool to see what my friends made of writing choices I made and the symbolism they saw in something I put in mostly for the visual it created.

Oh and lastly, this also kind of relates to fandom. Specifically, I'm thinking of the ways fans interpret different relationships between characters, especially when it comes to subtext.

And now my concentration has pooped out, so I will leave it at that. Thanks again. And for the record, I love Hamlet, even if he is a muffin. ;)

Inkblot said...

Scott - Welcome to the blog! I'm glad the description worked for you. And the muffin bit was absolutely the most important bit %-) Bwa ha!

Yuna - Precisely! Well put.

Glam - It's amazing what people can get out of what we write, without us even realising. But I'm glad you liked the post :D

Krispy - I ABSOLUTELY want to try that experiment myself one day. Sounds like a blast! It's funny, but also sad; I think being made to over-analyse books in high school English is what turns a lot of people off reading for pleasure.

And I like your comment on fandom - perhaps that's one of the mysterious X factors that determine how much we like a book - how much we can interpret the interactions between them, how much we can imagine...

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