It happened again: an author butted into a discussion of his work on the Book Smugglers blog, resulting in the reviewers getting called “bullies” for daring to tell him their own interpretations were valid.
There are -illions of reasons why an author should never intrude into critical discussions of their work, and all the obvious ones—breaching social boundaries, chilling effect on discussion, abuse of power, etc.—have been covered ad nauseam elsewhere. But here’s one that often gets overlooked:
When an author imposes their intentions on readers, it strangles the work.
See, the storyteller’s maxim “show, don’t tell” doesn’t just apply to written text. It applies to the author’s conduct in real life, too. The book does the showing. Any defense, refutation, explanation, or other interference from the author is telling. The book, if it is a good book, will do the showing all on its own. A good book doesn’t need its author to tell the reader how to interpret the story. A very good book is open to multiple interpretations. The author has their own personal interpretation, which may be of interest to certain readers, but that viewpoint should never be imposed on any public critical discussion where the author has not been expressly invited to do so.
Why? Because an interpretation from the author has the ring of the Word of God, and it can easily shut down a lively discussion full of opposing viewpoints. When the author removes the mystery of their intentions, readers tend to stop devising their own interpretations of events, instead accepting whatever the author says because, well, they’re the author. What was once a living text that was debated and attacked and defended then becomes fossilized. Sure, some intrepid readers may refute the author’s explanations and hatch their own, but typically an author’s intrusion into a critical discussion has a deadening effect.
Plus, it just kinda makes the author look like an insecure douchebag.
This is the exact same mechanism that is at play when fledgling writers are told, “Show, don’t tell.” If you tell the reader exactly how to feel or think about something, you’re destroying the magic of reading: the exercise of imagination. If you tell readers how to interpret what they’ve read, you’re destroying the magic of social reading: comparing and contrasting one’s thoughts with others.
Many writers have a knee-jerk reflex to “correct” readings of their work that don’t align precisely with their intentions. Maybe it’s the rabid control freak lurking in our dark little hearts. I’m not above it. I feel a private twinge of dismay when I read an interpretation of my work that conflicts with my intentions (unless it’s favorable, obviously; writers will take any credit for unintended genius). But most of the time the unexpected interpretations amaze and delight me.
When readers have wildly diverse reactions to a character or event or theme in my writing, I know I’m doing something right: I’m not telling them how to think or feel about that thing. Secretly, they’re doing the work for me. They’re using their imaginations and personal experiences to supply their own meaning to those story elements. They’re enriching my work with their own reactions.
That’s alchemy, people. Book (lead) + reader (solvent) = gold.
So, when authors who should know better barge into critical discussions of their work and let their fussy little fingers fly in an ill-advised exegesis about their True Meaning etc. etc., they are not, in fact, enriching the social reading experience. They’re scorching earth. They’re killing a living discussion. They’re reducing the potential artistic richness and aliveness of their novel.
That, personally, is my greatest fear as a creative person. Not harsh critiques—they’re inevitable—but my work dying, whether from neglect or, as above, from too much handsiness and the inability to let go, to let it become its own living entity, forever beyond my control.
I propose that we call such behavior helicopter noveling.