As someone who spends a lot of time doing literary criticism I spend a lot of time thinking about how different readers react differently to the same book. That is, after all, important if you are writing reviews. In the last couple of days I have noticed two very interesting blog essays which impinge on this issue.
The first essay is by Dimitra Fimi, and it talks about how authors such as Tolkien and Rowling have tried (largely in vain, I suspect) to control how their work is interpreted by the reader.
Fimi contrasts the control-freakery of these writers with the more relaxed approach of other fantasy writers such as Catherine Fisher (whose work I really need to read). Part of this, of course, will be a result of personality differences between authors. However, Fimi speculates that it is also a result of differences in the amount of worldbuilding done.
Fisher’s books are intrusion fantasies, and so are set in our world. Tolkien, on the other hand, is famous for obsessive subcreation (a term he coined) of a secondary world. Rowling is somewhere in between. Her books are ostensibly set in our world, but much of the action takes place away from the mundane, making the books something like an alternate history. Fimi suggests that the more work a writer has put into subcreation, the more likely they are to want to exert control over how their creation is understood by readers.
Of course worlds are not the only thing that writers create. They also create characters, and that too can result in conflict with readers. I was immediately reminded of the way that Neil Gaiman is often accused of transphobia over A Game of You. Neil, who is wonderfully supportive of trans people, is understandably upset about this. In the paper I wrote for Finncon last year I tried to explain how a certain type of reader (trans women) were much more likely to react badly to the book than other readers. Reader perspective is important, and authors can’t possibly control how every type of reader will see their work.
Which brings me to the other essay. Lucy Allen, whose blog is mainly about mediaeval books, has been musing about why queer readings of books tend to be dismissed as fanciful even when they have as much scholarship backing them up as other interpretations of the text.
I see very much the same sort of thing in reactions to attempts to do LGBT history. There is a common assumption that queer people didn’t exist in the past, and that any history of such people must be (to use an accusation often thrown at book reviews) “reading something into the text that simply isn’t there”.
The answer, I think, is that cis-het readers are primed to not see queer people. We are brought up to not talk about such things. Unless someone is specifically tuned to the sort of clues that queer people are used to seeing, they won’t see the queer aspects of the text, and will be surprised, even shocked, to see them highlighted. That’s especially so if the reader has been primed to regard queer people as disgusting.
All of this has implications for the campaign for diversity in books. As I have probably said here before, although publishers are now very keen to have books with trans content (because we are flavor of the month), what they want is books written for cis people about trans people. They want books that cis readers will find comfortable. I’m sure the same sort of problem applies books set in non-white cultures.
The point of diversity in books is to provide books that a wide variety of different readers can relate to. That means that the books have to appeal directly to those readers.
I guess my point is that authors can’t control how their books are read, because there will always be readers who have very different life experiences to their own. The more real diversity we get in publishing, the more obvious that will become.