Emily (takumashii) wrote,

Wiscon: Authorial intent vs. reader response

With Delia Sherman, Vito Excalibur, Ellen Kushner, K. Tempest Bradfor, Debbie Notkin

Since I have been linked on Linkspam, let me add this: I caught about 80% of what was said. I'm missing a lot of the connective tissue between one idea and another. Please take these remarks in that context. Please let me know if you feel you've been misquoted or misrepresented.

VE: This panel was proposed in the wake of RaceFail, when there was a tension between authorial intent and what the reader sees in the book.

EK: I did not participate in RaceFail, I am not equipped to address that --

--Does RaceFail need to be defined?

KTB: RaceFail is a series of conversations that happened on the internet mostly on livejournal spiralling out of a discussion on cultural appropriation. Where AI vs. RR comes in is a post E. Bear made about cult. appropriation, how to write the Other, which was taken to task b/c in THIS book she did THIS. There was a lot of good interesting stuff. Some of it got heated. There were lots of side conversations. It got categorized as RaceFail b/c of a lot of cluelessness, assumptions made b/c of privilege that go along w/ culture and race. Published authors kept hitting that barrier of not checking their own privilege.

VE: This is not a RaceFail panel, but this issue came up of "that's not what I meant to say, you should judge me on what I meant to say and not what I said."

KTB: RaceFail is just the biggest example.

DN: This characterizes a lot of discussions of SF that have nothing to do with various -isms.

EK: Let me lay down my theory. My feeling, my belief as a writer and a performer, writer for actors, is that all art is a collaboration between the artist and the audience. The piece is not complete until the reader reads it -- you throw the ball, but the reader has to catch it. It turns into a third thing, not the text or the reader's experience but the two together. The first story I published, I thought was a light renaissance romance, Jane Yolen said it was so sad she cried and cried. Later I reread it and realized it was about the problems of being a middle-aged women, which at 22 I thought were hilarious. You can intend whatever you want. When it hits the reader the reader owns it and is going to make it what they want. At 22 I thought that if I got all the words in the right order, the reader would have exactly the same experience.

DS: Most writers don't know what they intend to say. I don't. I was at a class talking about Changeling to a group of grad students. They kept asking me questions about the plot. They were talking about a book I didn't recognize. It was a pattern that had been created without my knowing it. When you're writing a plot and these characters, something's going to happen in the interstices that you don't have any control over. People who are interested in that are going to pick up on other things. You've written the book that you intended to write -- and also many other books! You cannot control where your readers' interests are going to lie.

KTB: It's true for me, your subconscious comes out in your writing. You're trying to be all slick writing about yourself, but little things slip in. Justine Larbalestier and Ekaterina Sedia -- other people expose you by reading your books. Talking about the relationship bxt Reason and her grandmother, she realized talking with them that she'd had a difficult relationship w/ her grandmother. She hadn't intended it, but there it was. It came out subconsciously. Preparing for reading a story of mine from Interfitions, I was sitting in Woodhill park w/ Delia. She was saying, your character does all these things b/c she doesn't trust herself to love. I was like, How does Delia know this about me? I hadn't meant that, but there it was. When subconscious stuff gets in there it's not necessarily the best of you. These examples aren't terrible but not everyone's subconscious contains things we want to know about ourselves.

VE: Jack Chalker's books tend to have ungulate human-hybrid prostitutes... Jack Chalker doesn't necessarily know what he's saying about himself.

DN: To take it in a different direction, to say a word for authorial intent. I agree with Ellen that the circuit is not complete until the reader reads it. But I'm not interested in telling beginning writers, don't worry about intent b/c they will misread it anyway. If you go too far in the direction of reader response, you lose something I look for in fiction -- I don't want the author to have a laugh track. But I do like the author to put thought and care and feeling and heart into what they want the book to be.

DS: I'm trying to say that you can do your level best to write the most caringly, beautifully constructed book, every word where it belongs, and you can't control the horizontal and vertical. You can't sit with your hand on the reader's shoulder. It's going to get its knees bruised, it won't be the bright shiny book you sent out there.

VE: How do you send your book out with knee-guards and band-aids? Some authors write ambiguous books, some are more concrete.

EK: I like being ambiguous. It raises the stakes. A lot of fantasy, it's obvious what the politics are. High stakes fantasy means to be about great truths. You cannot control that. The mediocre fantasists can manipulate the truths so that they come out acceptable to their times. To be great you have to feed the harpy your own liver. You KNOW how Tolkien felt about women, and war, and trees. You KNOW what Ursula LeGuin felt about the Dao, and men and women. Those agre great books because they are completely true to the author's vision. That all said -- without disagreeing with Delia, Tempest, Debbie -- I had a weird experience a few years ago. I started a novel, put it aside. A few years later I took it out. It was a classic fantasy w/ a girl wizard, kings, wars. Holy crap! What I am saying in this book, which I believed when I was 23, was scary and horrible. I don't believe what I'm telling myself about what it means to be a grownup. I actually cannot write this thing.

VE: Recently someone made an impassioned eloquent post that what is in Joss Whedon's heart is that he's a rapist. You can think that something is very very obvious and still be wrong about it. How do you deal with the reader response thing, and -- the fact that readers sometimes get it wrong? Based on Firefly it is not reasonable to conclude that Joss rapes his wife.

DN: I don't think that Ellen is talking about an INDIVIDUAL reader of Tolkien or Earthsea. I think she's talking about the books that are so completely true to a writer's glorious side, and skanky embarrassing side, that decades later people are still arguing about them. Any reader can be wrong about anything. I can be wrong about an amazing number of things. There is a reader response that is not an individual reader response. Individual readers are coming from their own histories.

KTB: Nick Mamatas said on his journal, the difference bxt good writers and great writers. Great writers aren't always technically proficient, but they lay it all out there on the page. Stephen King lays it all out there about being an alcoholic and a crazy person. When you have that greatness of writing, that keys something very powerful in readers. When you look at reader response over time as a heaving mass of readers, plural -- you get a very recognizable hit back.

VE: So... if you put it all out there and it resonates among your readers.

KTB: They're not afraid to let their id run loose.

EK: That's a boy thing!

DS: In pop culture, in novels that are done mostly to entertain, there are easy buttons. Ever since there was literature, there are easy buttons that will get a response -- Ick, or yes this is a good reason for despicable actions. Sick children, rape, revenge. Child abuse. This becomes an overfingered coin. It's been cheapened. The early days of Buffy were Joss Whedon mining his liver. It was heartfelt. The later stuff, there's this easy button that he presses in order to do the stuff he wants to do. That distresses me.

VE: Maybe he needs a time-out.

KTB: A box with a saltine.

EK: The liver thing is Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn. Real magic can never be made by offering up someone else's liver. You have to offer up your own and not expect to get it back.

KTB: The overfingered coin. Then you're starting to move into being offensive. It has offended someone. Authorial intent becomes a raging inferno when it's someone saying, you have offended me, and the author says, I didn't mean it.

DN: Going back to the great writers. There are times when the author's response must be, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend you, but that is what is in the book and that is what belongs in the book."

VE: We're running into reader's response to the author's face, which is happening more nowadays.

DS: In Changeling I have a fairy who is on the spectrum, Asperger's. Perseverative behavior, absolutism, inflexibility. It's completely fascinating. So Changelings in the human world are Asperger's. I do a lot of research. I go to the Asperger's Association of New England. I get three responses, from people who have Asperger's and parents and children.

--Are you telling me that I'm not human?

--Cool, I'm really a fairy!

--I was so glad to give my child a book where someone like her has agency in her own world!

VE: There's the element of who gets used as a metaphor. Some kinds of people get used as metaphors more than others. You have to be aware of that.

KTB: And also decide at some point what your response is going to be. A good response is not, "I didn't mean that, you shouldn't think that." Which is what readers sometimes hear. It's very understandable but not correct. I can't imagine that being my emotional response. I try to check my immediate emotional response, because I've been in the position of the reader. You try to step back but it's so hard. The more you write, the more you put in to what you write, the harder it is to step back. You don't just say, Oh well. As far as you're able, you dialogue. If you can come to mutual understanding -- you can go forward. Even if the author says, I'm sorry, that may not be enough. Understanding each other, that may be enough. Not every reader feels comfortable doing it, though.

DN: I think "Let's talk about it" is a better answer than "I'm sorry." I take back what I said.

VE: We covered apologies earlier. 'I'm sorry you--' doesn't really work. You can only apologize for your own behavior, not someone else's. Let's talk about editors. You're not the writer or the reader. How does that work?

DN: The editor is a reader and a gatekeeper. The editor doesn't always have as much gatekeeping power as it appears. As an ed., my job is to read the book as best I can, talk about what works, what doesn't. Do I want to convince the editorial committee to buy it, and can I?

KTB: My job reading slush was to make sure the story did not suck. You're going for stories you love, that speak to you. Sometimes there's an extra step of going back and saying, these are the stories I like. But with my other hats -- woman hat, people of color hat -- look at these stories again. Not every editor can take that step because of time. A lot of editors, reading and writing, are able to read with those hats on straight off. Nonproblematic depictions of LGBT people, disabled people, women, people of color. But a lot of editors don't know they need to look with those hats, or they resist the idea even after they've been told.

DN: As a reader I don't give a damn about authorial intent... there's a feeling underneath it of, the author is trying to do something here, but I'm interested in the experience I am having. I might be curious about the intent, but that's it.

VE: Can you talk about unexpected interpretations of your own work?

EK: Delia has a good story. To me it's endlessly fascinating. People find all kinds of things I was too young to realize I was really saying. You can't control people, even with art. There are characters in my books people love and hate, who are loved by many and hated by many. That's like reality. That's like when you invite someone to a dinner party, and some people love him and some people think he's a total jackass. If you're doing good work people have to react to that, the way they're going to react to it.

VE: We talk about, in slash fandom, there's more stories written about kinda mediocre source material.


DS: Usually very fine novels make very bad movies. Mediocre novels make much better movies. There's more room for the vision of the consumer, who's putting it through his own aesthetic and arriving at something completely different. It's a more interesting movie. If you have really strong vivid characters -- no mise-en-scene, no actor, is going to live up to that.

KTB: Stargate Atlantis was such a horrible show. The Wire was so well-put-together. People might want to write fic about it, but, why would I? This is amazing. You want to see people get it on, but, wanting to see people get it on can happen in my head if what's on screen is satisfying. There's so much that's unsatisfying about bad source material, I want to see Te'la not being pushed to the back of the line. (There's a bit about fanfiction I didn't wholly catch which will be on Tempest's blog.)

VE: What about extratextual stuff like the assertion that Dumbledore is gay. Should we care?

DN: No.

DS: She's announcing that's the backstory in her brain -- it butters not a single parsnip.

VE: That's a limiting definition of "the text." She said it on the record.

EK: The number of times people come in and say, "But it's REALLY this!" Well, show it to me! That's called writing.

KTB: I want to reference the most recent iteration of RaceFail, which is being termed MammothFail, the conversation around Wrede's The Thirteenth Child. In 13th, as I understand it, it's about settlers who come from Europe to America but there's no native Americans. There's just megafauna. The NAs never made it over the land bridge b/c of the ice dragons. So there's a vastly different Asian coastal area b/c they stayed over there. But it's not in the book. Her main character would not have known about it, it's not in her worldview and knowledge. I don't know if it's coming up in later books. It's not that she's trying to say, "Oh, but it's really this." She couldn't find a way to fit it in. Therefore the book became problematic for a lot of people. It's hard to figure out what to do abt a book that's been published. There could've been a point before she wrote it when someone could've said something, but now the book is in the world. What's there for her to do but say, that wasn't my intent.

VE: In this discussion -- she's had this extratextual defense of herself, but also extratextual accusation when she said she made this decision b/c she didn't want to write about savages or gentle in-touch-with-the-land natives, so she decided not to write about them at all.

EK: It's a whole new world! This is fascinating to me. There are things I haven't said in this panel b/c I didn't want them on the internet. I stand by the real writing is the text. But some of us see the other stuff now. 13-year-olds are reading Pat Wrede's book without any idea about all this. If I put something on my LJ, hundreds of people see this, but if hundreds of people were reading my LJ I'd be fucked. Venues are getting bigger, things are getting more interlinked. If I wanted to put in my book, go to my website for more about this -- that would be interesting. Rowling is in a tiny handful of authors who can jump the text. Did not work for most of us. I can't think of any other authors who could make that announcement and everyone would have text for Rowling that's not in her book.

VE: Cat Valente had this music tie-in with her book Palimpsest...

DN: People are saying about Rowling, she never said that, the media made it up.

VE: If she had put that in her book it would have become about Harry Potter and the Dead Gay Headmaster.

DN: Editorial intent and reader response. Years ago Ellen showed me a fragment of Privilege of the Sword. I became invested in a character who's not as important in the book as she was in the fragment. She became more of a foil, less of a main character. So when I saw the manuscript my reaction was, oh shit! This is not the right book, she wrote the wrong book. An editor needs to be able to distinguish her own response from the author's intent, and to ask. The relationship is different before the book is finished.

KTB: This makes me sad b/c if there had been one person who knew Pat Wrede enough and were aware of the possible dangers... I wish that there had been some person, before the book was published, saying this could be a problem. That's why it's important when you're a writer to be aware of the people, when you're sitting around talking about what to write next.

--Someone said, on LJ, she wished that she had called her out... but you don't have to do it publicly.

--Thinking about Dumbledore, why that wasn't in the book, thinking about the responses to RaceFail like "So I'm not allowed to write people of color!" -- are people afraid of criticism in a way they haven't been?

VE: A writer has said that there are things she's afraid of saying, afraid of screwing up her career. Welcome to the new world.

KTB: To the people who are like "I can't write black people!" These people aren't thinking of how to better their writing. They're not understanding it's not about taking something away from them. It's making you sit and think about it. I had a story published last year that originally had some issues which were pointed out to me. A very good friend pointed them out and said, this is a problem. When I was thinking about how to make it better I came up with a whole new layer to the story that let me bring in culture and characterization that hadn't been there before. This is really valuable. You can't do this weird kabuki theatre thing, indicating that a person is bad by having them rape someone. You have to work at characterization. You have to have people from other cultures in your story. You have to do the work, think about who these people are and where they came from.

EK: When is it good enough? When are you sure? You show it to your friends of color and ask, is this okay? Well, who made them god?

KTB: Someone did make me God. Angry Black Woman says! There's no one answer. Surround yourself with people of different backgrounds, who are familiar with cultures not their own who can say, this feels hinky to me.

EK: I love Jo Walton's books, but she gets some Jewish things wrong in them... but in her acknowledgements she thanks people with Hebrew names...

VE: If you write faster than light drives, no one is going to write and say, my best friend is a tachyon engine.

DS: When you're writing, you do diligence. But ultimately you're responsible to your muse. If people read it and are offended -- that's a valid experience, but -- I can't be responsible for the reading experience of all our fans.

KTB: If you try, if you can say, I talked to these people, I did my research, Jo Walton got it wrong but she tried. That can be enough.

EK: But where do you go for your Certificate of Purity?

KTB: There is none, there is no cookie, there's just I tried and I hope you will believe I tried.

VE: We can't talk to your muse. We're going to talk to you.

--This is also relevant to historical fiction, if you're writing a novel about Christopher Marlowe -- what's your due diligence on that?

VE: I'm not sure we have time for that, but --

DS: A great deal has been written about C. Marlowe. A lot of people didn't like him. The fact that he didn't have a problem with being gay. If you have it being absolutely ok to be gay in the 16th century you've got it wrong. Not a single person in that culture was going to feel morally solid about being gay. He was as far as we can tell an unhappy atheist. You only have the text, but we have enough text about certain periods to tell what the context was. When you have debates about whether women have souls, whether pocs are actually human, if you have contemporary people -- the context around it has to be, women may or may not have souls. That has to be taken into consideration if you want to write a historical novel. We're writing modern novels with dressed-up people in them, but that stuff exists. It depends on what novel you're trying to write.

EK: We must all do the best we can. Once the text is out of your hands, it's out of your hands. You can't say, no you're an idiot that's not what I meant. I don't consider it my business to police what I've meant. Do your work and it's done.

--Delia gave us this great metaphor of throwing and catching. With installation art, performance art -- the response of the reader has been part of the art. There's this idea here that you're sending out a pure message that gets distorted. Can't the conversation be the art?

VE: It can be a different piece of art.

--The preamble to Doctorow's Little Brother. He explicitly says that the story is not the point of the story, he's attempting to create the conversation.

EK: I love it. That's an additional bit that I love.

--But it takes energy.

VE: And you don't get paid for it.

--There comes a point where the interpretation crosses a line into complete craziness.

VE: Final thoughts?

DN: I like what If said about the extra quality of the conversation after the book comes out. It's a question of appreciating author intent, reader response, AND the interaction of them.

KTB: There's always a disconnect bxt intent and result. If the result is bad the intent matters more, but it's not the ultimate decider. I hesitate to label certain arguments crazy-land. The judgment on that can be problematic. I go back to, you have to say, if the results and intent are so far apart, writers and readers need to come together. At least you've had a dialogue of respect bxt the two parties.

DS: I believe that most people sit down to write the best book they can, not to offend anybody. If someone is cornered they will bite. Defensive people are never attractive. Taking certain kinds of criticism and not making them public is more useful than making it public where someone feels beleaguered. No one sets out to be a jerk. If there is genuine respect on both sides -- the default position not be, you offended me -- the response not be you're crazy, I did not -- neither of those is a good position to be in. Of course Dumbledore is gay. He's lonely and beleaguered and dies tragically.
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    #1) This is a particularly flattering picture of me! If you are on LiveJournal you can click over to Dreamwidth, or pretend that a panda serving tea…

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