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You written the best book possible. It gets you an agent, then after a little more tinkering it nets you a good deal with a leading publisher. After that it hits the shelves and climbs the book sales charts. You’re a published author now.

Then it happens;

It could be on your first book tour,

Or when you decided to check out the forums dedicated to your masterpiece,

Or in a review from a local newspaper.

The speaker describes in loving detail some aspect of the book and then you do a double take.

Did I just read/hear that?

Did some interpret the dog as an extension of man’s need to exploit all living things under an antiquated patriarchal structure?

Say what now? It’s just a bloody dog!

It’s the main characters pet.

That is it.

Nothing more and nothing less.

But not for the reader. He has gone and injected symbolism into your work. You try to refute it by writing letters, sending emails, twittering to anyone who will listen, but it’s too late. The dog has become more than just a dog.

You write a sequel where you put a very long scene of the dog licking himself.

“That should do it!” you say to yourself. Out loud. Your wife looks at you askance from the kitchen with a look that screams I fear for your sanity, sweety.

Months later the forums explode with discussion of whether or not the fact that the dog licked himself left to right is/was more significant than the colors of the rug which somehow are a clue to the meaning of life.


As writers we endeavor to inject meaning into our works. Nothing brings us more joy (besides the paychecks) the way readers unwrap the subtle layers of word play. But sometimes they go too far. They either unravel the whole tapestry with rusty scissors or seem to be reading a completely different book. The more you shout “It’s just a dog!” the more they say “but it got to mean something!

There is really nothing you can do about it except write a short paragraph in a blog saying, “This is what it means” and praying that most readers will get it.


Because as I learned in my philosophy of art class so many years before, no piece of art is complete until it meets its audience. A book is just a book until someone reads it. Reading is a deeply personal experience, a conversation between author and reader and like any conversation everything said is open to interpretation.


People walk around with a set of prejudices, some conscious, most unconscious. As their eyes lift the words from the page an into their mind, their brains try to order these words in ways that fit their preconceptions. They want/need your words to fit these preexisting notions.

At least they like what you wrote and are willing to read it.

Don’t let it get it to you.

It get’s worse when they completely misunderstand and hate you for it.

Or use it to attack something that has nothing to do with you or your work.

Go back to writing your next book and keep cashing those paychecks. Because your wife is right, you are insane. But you’re the kind of loony that pays the bills, so who cares.

And now a word from our sponsor(s):


  1. Oh, I agree but also there’s also the fact that an author has preconceived ideas in their subconscious that they just take for granted.

    The recent flame wars in fantasy are proof of this. I’ll quote an interview in from China Mieville.

    GR: In January 2009, the blogosphere erupted into a heated discussion about race, racism, and cultural appropriation in science fiction and fantasy (a flame war so vast it is now dubbed RaceFail ’09). Inevitably, a writer must create characters with identities and experiences different from his or her own. If writing within a fantasy world, should the writer maintain politically correct standards established by our real world? How do you address race (in relation to human or nonhuman sets of characters) in your work?

    Yes, I heard about RaceFail ’09 some time after the event, and rather regret not having been there while it was going on. The category of Political Correctness is so nebulous that it’s rarely very helpful, particularly because it is often used disgracefully as a stick with which to beat anti-racists or progressives. In the broader sense, I absolutely do think that the implicit politics of our narratives, whether we are consciously “meaning” them or not, matter, and that therefore we should be as thoughtful about them as possible. That doesn’t mean we’ll always succeed in political perspicacity—which doesn’t mean the same thing as tiptoeing —but we should try. So for example: If you have a world in which Orcs are evil, and you depict them as evil, I don’t know how that maps onto the question of “political correctness.” However, the point is not that you’re misrepresenting Orcs (if you invented this world, that’s how Orcs are), but that you have replicated the logic of racism, which is that large groups of people are “defined” by an abstract supposedly essential element called “race,” whatever else you were doing or intended. And that’s not an innocent thing to do. Maybe you have a race of female vampires who destroy men’s strength. They really do operate like that in your world. But I think you’re kidding yourself if you think that that idea just appeared ex nihilo in your head and has nothing to do with the incredibly strong, and incredibly patriarchal, anxiety about the destructive power of women’s sexuality in our very real world. These things are not reducible to our “intent”—we all inherit all kinds of bits and pieces of cultural bumf, plenty of them racist and sexist and homophobic, because that’s how our world works, so how could you avoid it?

    So I’d suggest that one should be open-eyed about the facts that the categories with which we think and write and read, are not innocent, and that we should do our best not to use them to replicate the worst aspects of the cultural bumf that put them in our heads in the first place. Does that mean being politically correct? If that is deemed to mean being conscious of and careful about the political ramifications of our writing, then surely that’s the only decent way to proceed.

  2. Now you gone an injected a well reasoned argument into this.


    I’ll have to think about this before I fire off a reply.

    Well done sir, well done!

  3. That thing from Mieville really makes you think, hey?

  4. It does.

    • bigwords88
    • Posted August 30, 2009 at 2:38 pm
    • Permalink

    If I happen to write in passing about an interesting tattoo, or a specific way to open an oyster, or the order in which a character makes a meal, then I’m meant to nod when a reader turns up with heavy symbolism attached to the words? Uh… No. I’ve always held the belief that reducing text (as in colleges and univerities) is synonomous with intellectual bankruptcy.

    It’s all very well reading something with an eye on authorial intent, but to go looking for something that isn’t there is asking for trouble. If it was the case that every single book had hidden meanings, then I guess the conspiracy theorists who love putting various people on the grassy knol will have a lot of fun.

    There’s a old saying which people really should remember: “Sometimes a train is just a train, and a tunnel is just a tunnel…”

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  2. […] Somebody, somewhere will disagree: Specially on the interwebs. It’s the nature of the beast. Know how to separate the genuine concerns/critiques from those that use your work as a straw man for their views. […]

  3. […] have to admit that when I was younger, I was one of those readers that interpreted the poem literally.  A younger self read the passage full of longing and melancholy for choices not made, […]

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