Thursday, August 4, 2011

Who knows more—the writer or the reader?

When I first started writing my novel Come Back for Me, I had no intention of composing a symbolic tale about the Jewish people and their fate in the modern world. I was simply writing the story of an individual Jew who struggles to find happiness after losing everything in the war. Yet now that I have finished the novel, several readers have commented that my novel truly captures the essence of the modern Jewish experience. Of course I am gratified that they view it that way. Perhaps I did unconsciously try to portray something essential about Jewish life in modern times. But I didn’t set out to do that. I just wrote what came naturally to me.

Although my book has yet to hit the marketplace (it’s about to be submitted to publishers by my wonderful agent!), I expect that once it is out in the world at large, readers and critics will offer a variety of interpretations about what the book conveys. Some of what they say might ring true to me. Other interpretations might seem off base. Yet, slowly my opinion will diminish in importance. Once the book is out in the world, it will take on a life of its own.

The question is: do writers understand their own work better than their readers? It reminds me of a humorous story I once heard about the Nobel prize-winning novelist S.Y. Agnon. After attending a lecture about his work given by the esteemed critic Baruch Kurzweil, Agnon apparently exclaimed, “Now I finally understand my own work.” Although Agnon was undoubtedly being ironic, there is a hint of seriousness in his statement. Sometimes authors do not grasp the hidden elements in their own work, perhaps because “art” is partly the result of unconscious forces that emerge in the creative process. It is possible that readers might interpret a work in ways that the writer might never have fathomed. And such interpretations certainly have some validity.

This leads back to my original question about intention. To what extent does a writer control what emerges? My answer would be: almost all of it. A writer might rely on the unconscious for the initial creative burst, but the finished product is based on a high degree of editing, refining, honing, and perfecting. What serious writer doesn’t know the intense labor that goes into each sentence of his work? Often, every word is tried and discarded multiple times. So when it comes to deciphering a writer’s work, a reader can assume that most of what is written is conscious and intentional. But there is still that small bit, that essence, which arises from some unknown place that may even take the writer by surprise. And when it comes to understanding that, surely anything is possible.


  1. Maybe one of the beauties of the written word is that it speaks to each reader in its own, unique way. When one reads something, she sees it through her perspective, her life experiences and biases. It is for that reason that the reader can put a brand new spin on something that the author never considered. That is how movies-based-on-a-book are born.
    How many times do we see a movie and cannot fathom how the text became what we see before us? In childrens' books, how often does the illustrator come back to the author with drawings where the author cannot figure out how the drawings could possibly fit with the prose?
    The written word is, I believe, the result and combination of the author's conscious and unconscious mind, as well as the reader's personal, individual internalization of what was written. Not so easy to decipher, and rather cool, I think.

  2. This is one of the great qualities of books over movies is that it allows the reader to envision, to a degree, their own interpretation of how the characters or settings look. As far as deeper meanings go, you are correct usually the author has something specific in mind, but I do appreciate when readers find a personal meaning in the story that I may not have considered. Though, it does make me wonder how many times English teachers may have interpreted great literary works to their class that may be different than what the author originally had in mind...