If you’ve been following my musings for any length of time, I have to first apologize if this seems like a re-tread of old territory. I also have to wonder what the hell you’re doing, tracking the errant thoughts of a complete lunatic whose sole obsession seems to be the realm of fiction, but I thank you for the time and will try not to digress any further.
For those not familiar, there’s an analytical toolset that came into a great deal of prominence back in the 1960’s thanks to the philosophy of Post Modernism, a perspective which I tend to view with as much scorn as I can muster. Introduced to the literary world at large in the form of a thesis paper, I refer to ‘Author Death’, presented by French analyst Roland Barthes.
This a guy whose mother should have been acquainted with a fire-sterilized metal coat hangar…
That horrific imagery aside (you’re welcome), Barthes’ toolset here can be boiled down to essentially this: the moment a storyteller or artist completes their work, it no longer belongs to them in any meaningful way, shape or form. It belongs, according to Author Death, to the audience, to anyone who views the work in question. Their interpretations, their takeaways, are given complete and total primacy and importance, and even if those takeaways differ from person to person, they all have equivalent merit. Moreover, according to Barthes, the more people who agree with a particular interpretation or message, the more weight it carries.
It’s like a popularity contest for meaning. I don’t know about you, but that strikes me as a profoundly stupid idea. Could you imagine if, just because a room full of dolts thinks that jumping out a window is a perfectly safe idea, that idea became required action for anyone coming into said room? I know, that isn’t a great correlation, but it’s hyperbole that helps demonstrate my point. Perhaps a better comparison would be having a batch of 25 students read Animal Farm and they all get together and agree that the message or meaning of the story is that pigs are really terrible people.
The issue at play here is what I refer to as the Primacy of Narrative. This is genuinely wonkish territory we’re diving into here, and if you feel compelled to check out, I urge you to reconsider. Reading comprehension is one of those life skills that seems to be sorely lacking in a lot of folks under the age of 45 or so, and even though I’m no English professor, I want to take a swing at imparting a skill upon those reading this.
The Primacy gives us a methodology of figuring out how to approach narrative material and take away meaning from it. There are three steps in the Primacy, each one more relevant than the one that comes before it, and they are as follows:
Interpretation, lesser than
Implication/Inference, lesser than
I would be a terrible philosophical mind indeed if I tried to dismiss entirely the idea that interpretation has any value, because, well, of course it does. Even if a reader is completely off base in their assessment of what various elements within a narrative mean, there is definitive utility in displaying the ability to analyze and find different messages throughout a text. It shows a willingness and ability to at least think critically, analytically, when presented with a given text. I cannot oversell that, friends and neighbors, because I have met people in my life with no capacity for deeper layers of reading comprehension, and it is terrifying. I would liken it to realizing that there’s these human beings who are more simulacrum than genuine thinking entities sharing the world with us, and coming to the awful revelation that there are quite possibly more of them populating the world than there are of folks with that deeper process.
Like waking up in a world of homunculi.
Anyway, the trouble with interpretation essentially lies in the fact that it’s so variable, leaving everything in a kind of fog. This is especially egregious when the original creator of the material is alive and well, and available to question regarding their work and what was intended by it. One of the internet’s most famous examples revolves around a blue sweater, and goes something like this:
The text reads, “He cycled through his available hung shirts and sweaters, finally selecting a simple blue cableknit sweater, given the day’s weather forecast.”
Now, one person reads this and says, “The character clearly is feeling a sense of ennui or depression, as they are subconsciously selecting a color of clothing associated with their current mood. Traditionally, this hue is tied to feelings of sadness.”
Another person reads this passage, and says, “I’d like to note that the character’s bedspread was also described as blue, as well as his vehicle. There’s clearly an importance for this color to the character, and given the tone of the overall narrative, I suspect we are to derive the fact that character X owns a great deal of possessions that are red in hue, this is the author’s subtle way of letting us know that these two characters are diametrically opposed.”
Meanwhile, a third reader takes the time to contact the author themselves, and ask about this. The author says, “No, man, the guy’s sweater was just fucking blue. There was no deeper meaning there. I just wasn’t paying that close of attention to chromatic choices when writing it.”
This, ladies and gents, is why interpretation is at the bottom rung of the Primacy.
Next comes Inference/Implication, which, although often confused with Interpretation, is an entirely different thing. Inferences tend to be more heavy-handed, almost blatant signals coming from the storyteller in question. The underlying message can get mixed up, sure, but it would almost take a steadfast and willing effort to purposely confuse the messaging to get it wrong.
Allegory in fiction, especially fantasy, tends to be of the Inference variety of messaging. C.S. Lewis’s Christian symbolism in the Narnia novels is a classic example of inference in fiction, where the author is not being very subtle about what sort of ideas they are attempting to convey, and it would take a very special case of bullheadedness not to see what he was aiming at.
As a text example here, I offer the following:
“Yes, there’s more than one company that makes wooden baseball bats, and this store carries both Louisville Slugger and Century brands. And you could buy the Century bat for half the price of the Louisville. Me personally, I’d prefer to use a bat that won’t shatter into a thousand tiny wooden shards when it connects with a 100 mile per hour fastball, but it’s your money, so you make the call.”
You see, I haven’t directly said that Century bats are crap, or that Louisville Sluggers are more reliable and valuable. I didn’t go about the message so crudely, but what I was getting at was pretty obvious to anyone with more than three brain cells to rub together.
And finally, there’s clarification. Now, this is when the creator of the material in question comes right out and says exactly what they were getting at, what their intentions were, and leaves nothing to the foggy shroud of ‘Well maybe they meant X, Y or Z’. I’ll not faff you about, folks, the example I’m going to use here is going to piss some people off. Frankly, I don’t give a shit. If you’re offended by the example I put forth here, you’re exactly the sort of person who would wholeheartedly embrace Barthes’ toolset, and I wouldn’t want to spend too much time talking literature with you in the first place.
S.E. Hinton provided the world with a fantastic tale in her novel ‘The Outsiders’. A story focused on alienation, counterculture, and the importance of being true to oneself, it has been required reading for high schoolers for a long time.
Back in 2017, thanks to the absolute dumpster fire that is Twitter, a massive groundswell of folks who had been interpreting the character of Ponyboy as being a closeted homosexual started sharing this perception, first just a few folks with only a handful of followers, and soon enough, it became a hashtag. If you understand anything about the power of hashtags on Twitter, you know that this isn’t always a good thing.
Numerous curious users finally realized that the author herself was on Twitter, and they decided to reach out to Hinton herself and put the question bluntly to her; was Ponyboy intended to be gay? Moreover, many users didn’t even bother asking for this clarification, instead thanking her for her excellent use of subtle messaging to convey this aspect in the character in a popular piece of fiction in a time when such a thing might be considered quite taboo.
But these folks were all in for a rather brutal bit of clarification; “Ponyboy wasn’t gay,” Hinton declared. “That was never my intention, and should not be what you take away from the story. Sorry.” Now, I am paraphrasing here on her end with that second part, but the first three words were a stand-alone Tweet that she put out in response to these folks.
‘Ponyboy wasn’t gay’.
The fucking hurricane of hate that came for this woman at this point would have been unbelievable, but for the fact that this is Twitter we’re talking about. If Twitter were a living person, it’d be a PCP freak running around punching babies and jacking off in front of old nuns and throwing their jizz on the windshields of cop cars. It wasn’t short-lived, either. This Twittermob hounded Hinton for nearly a week, until she finally temporarily set her account to private, and they moved on to other targets.
That’s just madness. When the storyteller themselves comes right out and tells you, ‘X meant X in my story’, then guess what? X meant X. It doesn’t matter that the story is complete, or that readers are ABLE to read into it what they want. This sort of thing is the most egregious example of refusing to accept the reality of clarification, and is selfish in ways that go beyond belief.
Well, maybe not beyond belief; I’ve seen people steal the shoes off of a homeless person.
I cannot sympathize with the sort of person who can see that there is a storyteller who is still alive and perfectly able to clarify what they meant, and who choses to ignore entirely what that storyteller says by way of clarification.
The only point I’m willing to concede to the ‘Interpretation-First’ crowd is as follows: a storyteller may, as a result of subconscious influences and the events of their life spilling without their willing it to do so into their material, end up being unable to perfectly clarify some of their own messaging. The sort of innate, deep seated biases that present themselves as a result of either upbringing or natural mental wiring, can in fact influence a storyteller’s finished material without their having even consciously attempted to insert it. Here, and here alone, the Primacy may have some wiggle room. However, if the storyteller is made aware of the effect, it seems almost inevitable that they would then analyze the events of their own life, and come to the conclusion that they can themselves clarify why they opted to include elements X, Y or Z. In the end, clarification would still return to its rightful place atop the Primacy of Narrative.
Undoubtedly, there will be folks who would say that I’m not being fair to Barthes’ toolset. If you are one of those folks, understand that I don’t care about your love of ‘Death of the Author’, or most of your Postmodernist nonsense. These tools are great for tearing things down, ripping them apart, and seeking out flaws and foibles, but by and large, they offer nothing of substance to repair the flaws, to replace the shortcomings, or give patrons of the arts any meaningful alternatives.
And so that we can avoid any mixed signals, allow me to implement a bit of clarification here of my own- ‘Death of the Author’ is garbage, so far as I’m concerned.