Last time, I wrote about artistic purity and how the divide between popularity and meaning was muddy and not really worth all the kerfuffle. There is, though, one facet of the argument I neglected shamefully. Namely: When writing for a commercial market, where does the intention of the author end?
This is an argument that fuels much of the self-publishing vs. traditional publishing debate. Self-publishing proponents hold that one of the major advantages of self-publishing is that the author retains creative control, without all those editors telling you how to present your creative vision.
Traditionally published writers mostly insist that the self-publishing crowd have grossly misunderstood the purpose of an editor. I mostly agree with the trad publishers on this one, but the self-publishers have a good point. An editor, even one who supports your creative vision and artistic autonomy all the way, will suggest changes ranging from word choice to removing or rewriting entire scenes or chapters.
Self-publishers also hire editors, but they have the option to ignore every suggestion that the editor makes, without it affecting whether the book gets published.
But we’ll get back to that concept. Let’s step back to basics: What do both self-published and traditionally published authors do?
Ask friends for advice.
Talk to other authors, and discuss favourite and particularly hated tropes.
If you, as an author, talk through a tough scene with a friend and that friend suggests a solution that you then use, is that book entirely your creative output anymore? What if your friend suggests several solutions, but you reject most of them? Does the fact that you have veto power over those ideas mean you retain your creative control, or does the fact that you were influenced by someone outside yourself override that?
I’ve known authors who refused to read books in their genre while they write. Generally, it’s because they are either concerned about their voice being influenced by similar stories, or about accidentally copying elements of other stories.
I’ve also known authors who refuse to read in their genre ever, for those reasons.
I sort of get the first group. I know when I read a book I connect with, it tends to stick around in my head and influence my daily life for a while. I get not wanting to have one’s writing affected by that, at the very least to avoid extra editing work later.
To the second group, I ask: What made you want to write in your genre in the first place? Didn’t you once read voraciously in the genre? So, isn’t the damage already done? You’ve already been influenced by other authors; now you’re just limiting who you’ve been influenced by. Do you still keep up with genre changes and conventions in other ways? Do you feel it necessary to keep up with genre conventions?
I mean, if it works for you as an author, then far be it from me to tell you you’re wrong. Honestly, if you’re one of those people, I’d love you to chip in in the comments! I feel like my interpretation of the thought process is simplistic, and I’d love a more fleshed-out idea of it.
Back to the editors, and since their functions are very similar, I’ll include beta readers in this discussion. I’ve seen a lot of arguments, especially online, between authors who insist that beta readers and editors are a necessity for any book that the author intends to release to the public, and authors who insist that having someone else read the work and make suggestions muddies the creative waters, and that they’re entirely unnecessary.
I fall in the previous camp, as you can probably guess. I mean, I’ve gone back to read over drafts and had no idea what I was going on about myself. I like the security of having someone else read over things just to make sure that the things I think I said and the things I actually said line up. Preferably several people.
But that’s probably not what most people who dislike editors are concerned about. Let’s look at the concept of the ‘director’s cut’, or ‘author’s edition’.
Every so often, something will be released, get popular, and then a different version will be released. Often it’s a longer version, released now it’s been established that the audience will be interested enough to spend more time on the story. Let’s take the first Alien movie, for an example. The director’s cut of Alien contained more scenes than the theatrical version, and most of the extra scenes were exposition on the Alien and its biology. The tradeoff here is that, in the director’s cut, more curiosity is satisfied, some of the twists have better foreshadowing, and it’s a little easier to understand what the Alien is doing in certain scenes. Plus, some of the characters are better developed. However, the theatrical release is tenser, has better pacing, and having less information does enhance the horror elements.
In cases like this, the quality isn’t actually affected that much – it all comes down to the preference of the audience. But if you were asked to discuss the Alien movie, which one would you choose as your reference?
This problem is quite common when studying literature. Ask a Shakespeare scholar about the quarto or folio versions of King Lear sometime – trust me, it’s educational. The basic idea is that there are scenes that got rearranged and added, and nobody can quite figure out which edits were made by Shakespeare and which weren’t, not to mention which versions came first, and how to decide on a definitive edition to teach and study. Similarly, Franz Kafka’s famous novel, The Trial, was published posthumously by his friends, who didn’t know what order he’d wanted the chapters in, and so they made a best guess. On one hand, what if we’re reading it entirely out of order. Would that change how we interpreted the novel? Given The Trial is written so that none of the chapters rely heavily on information from previous chapters, and the fact that the entire book is based on confusing and esoteric government structures, with the reader meant to feel bewildered by the ‘logic’ of the court, it may be that reading the chapters out of order actually enhances Kafka’s message. We can’t tell if Kafka would have approved of our reading of the book, but I’m not really sure it matters what Kafka thinks. After all, every person will interpret every book slightly differently, so nobody really gets the ‘intended message’ 100% accurately anyway. I’ve always seen the study of literature as being more about the discussion than about being ‘right’, so it’s always seemed fairly natural to me that the author’s intended message may guide the audience, but if the audience finds other things in there (whether the author intended them or not), that can be just as interesting and valid for discussion. If you watch a movie that was intended to be serious, but instead comes across as funny (for whatever reason: the acting, the writing …), do you say that the intention of the piece was more important, or do you try to dissect why the piece failed to deliver on that intention?
That’s the thing – when you have a book in a commercial market, it’s read, interpreted, discussed and re-interpreted by so many readers that it’s sort of inevitable that the message gets lost along the way, at least a little bit.
But here’s the thing: This entire blog post is relying on the idea that the writer wants their book to be published commercially and to some sort of acclaim, whether that’s popular or niche, either for being ‘entertaining’ or being a thematically sound work with a profound message. None of this is going to matter a lick to the person who posts on a blog and is happy with the occasional viewer dropping in, browsing and leaving a comment, nor to the person whose art is only for their inner circle, or for their own reading. As well it shouldn’t – at that point, the audience ceases to be a consideration.
Perhaps it’s just my own perspective, but I’m honestly having trouble thinking of a situation where the intent behind releasing art is for commercial success or to reach readers outside the artist’s immediate circle where the audience can’t be a consideration in the decision-making process. As someone who believes that the author’s intent only matters so far as the audience received it, I’m predisposed to believe that the audience’s perspective should always matter in these cases, even though I know that’s not a universal truth. In some ways, I can feel a little self-serving for that belief. I mean, I’m essentially discounting the author’s intent in order to allow my interpretations of art to take precedence – or at least, dismissing the idea that the author’s intent can be more important than the collective interpretations of the readers. This feels reasonable to me, but I can see why it would rankle a lot of authors. Authors work hard on their creations, and many of them put a lot of effort into crafting subtext in their stories. It’s hard to then be told that doesn’t matter, especially when you find the replacement interpretation wrong or insulting.
Not to mention the amount of time high schools spend asking us “yes, but what did the author mean by this?”, which kind of ingrains the idea that the author always has conscious thematic ownership of the text. The fact that an idea is taken for granted doesn’t always mean it’s incorrect, but it does make it hard to examine the idea later.
In short: I have no idea how to go about answering this question, and I’ve just spent the better part of an essay explaining why. Personally, I think the author needs to be aware of their message but also aware of how it’s transmitted to others, even if that means changing their original vision based on feedback. My artistic freedom is useful to me only as far as it helps me get my point across, and no further, and there is a certain artistic freedom in taking feedback and then deciding what to do with it. Where that line falls for others, I don’t know. But it would be interesting to find out!
(Translation: Please comment! Being a nerd is more fun with other people.)