Should We Really Ask The Author?

Shutterstock / Den Dubinko © author

I’ve long harboured ambitions to be an author, and so I’m semi-permanently looking at available creative writing courses.

While conducting one of my usual trawls, I found this article from Times Higher Education (reading require a subscription). It makes an interesting argument — aimed ostensibly at students studying literature, but relevant to any fiction fan or reviewer.

If you’re reading/studying a book or a poem and come across something you don’t quite understand, why not just get in touch with the author and ask what they meant?

“This isn’t the 18th century,” the article says. “Email and phones exist.”


On the surface, getting in touch with an author might seem like a good idea. And one that we would support here at the “Friend”. After all, we run our regular “Writer Of The Week series, where we ask some of our contributors about their inspiration, and the reasons behind some of their creative choices.

But I would argue that’s not quite what this article is suggesting. And what it’s suggesting removes a very important part of the reading experience: interpretation.

What do you think?

Here’s the scenario:

You’re in the middle of your latest holiday read and you encounter something you don’t quite understand. It could be anything: a character’s motivation, obscure literary allusions, a theme you can’t nail down.

So you fire off an email to A. N. Author.

“What did that bit in the middle with the elephant mean?”

Here’s the trouble with the answer you’ll get (if you get an answer!): they’ll tell you what they meant.

At that stage, you can’t argue they didn’t mean it. Or that they meant something else.

So how much room does that leave for your opinion?

What about what you think and feel? And what a literary work means to you, or resonates with your experience?

“Knowing” what a book is about — what the author intended it to mean — makes these things difficult to reconcile.

And there goes some of the magic of reading.

All in good time

I’ll admit that some of the “negative” impact I’m predicting here is a result of immediacy.

If you learn about the author’s intentions years after you’ve read something, it might lead to a reinterpretation on your part — but it’s unlikely to shake the opinions and feelings you formed at the time of reading.

This is a bit like seeing a film adaptation of a book after reading it; no matter what actor plays your favourite character, you’re unlikely to see them differently when you go back to it. Likewise, if you see the adaptation first, you’re going to struggle not to see Sean Bean in your head every time that character comes up.

But if you’re reading and simply MUST know what the bit in the middle with the elephant meant, that’s when the trouble starts.

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Iain McDonald

Iain is Digital Content Editor at the "Friend", making him responsible for managing flow of interesting and entertaining content on the magazine's website and social media channels.