Your book no belonga you

Recently, I’ve come across a few writers complaining about idiotic readings of their work. Which is fine I’ve been known to do the same. But one writer went so far as to claim that there is but one true way to read their work, and that they are the only one privy to it, and yet anyone who reads their work differently is deeply stupid. Excuse me?

Your book no belonga you. If you wrote about the nobility of bad bad banksia men and one of your readers chooses to read your book as a racist attack on bad bad banksia men then that’s their reading and nothing you can do or say will change that reading.

You can write whatever you want, but no matter how finely crafted, no matter how clever you are, some reader out there will read it in a way you find completely inexplicable. Like the friend of mine who persists in thinking that Magic or Madness is a thinly veiled autobiography. What now?

You cannot control the way your books are read. Once a book is published it’s no longer yours. It’s out there being read and interpreted and enjoyed and hated and there’s nothing you can do about it. Not a single thing. Your book no belonga you.

And you know what? That’s mostly a deeply cool thing. I especially enjoyed this review of Magic Lessons by Tansy Rayner Roberts because she talked about one of my characters in ways that surprised me. I honestly hadn’t thought of Esmeralda in that way.

One of the greatest delights of being a writer is having readers reveal your books to you in unexpected ways. Sure, I mightn’t agree with some of their interpretations but so what? They probably don’t agree with some of mine. Cause, you know, my books no belonga me.


  1. Little Willow on #

    That is a very cool review.

    Once a person writes a book – a movie – a play – a show – and it is available to – performed for – sold to – shared with the public, then the public “owns” a piece of it and then may interpret it any which way.

    When you publish or perform something creative and/or personal, you give a piece of yourself to the world. It’s no longer just yours, not only bouncing around the confines of your brain, your imagination.

    It’s strange, it’s scary for some, it’s exciting.

  2. hamdraiad on #

    Wise, wise words. I rediscover this again and again when I discuss books with other people. Everybody’s perceptions of a book are coloured by their own life experiences, and sometimes they’re so foreign to me that I’m completely baffled by their interpretations. It’s really fun (even if occasionally frustrating) to find out how somebody else sees soomething.

  3. Rebecca on #

    Magic or Madness is a thinly veiled autobiography.”

    I knew it. Magic is real!

  4. Ted Lemon on #

    Hell, I can’t even craft a two-paragraph email message that can be read unambiguously by fifteen different people. How on earth could you achieve that in something the length of a novel?

    Indeed, as a student of Buddhism, this lack of objectivity to the meaning of any sequence of words is one of six meanings for “self” in the widely misunderstood phrase “no-self.”

    So congrats, now you’re a Roshi. The robes are really cool – enjoy!

  5. Rebecca on #

    argh, buddhism. i just failed a final on that yesterday. i don’t get it, i thought there was no self. gah!

  6. Penni on #

    Oh wow. Was it a kid’s writer or an adult writer (there you go, I got me some prejeduce)?
    I always thought my books were kind of better when other people read them actually. Reviewers see all these sophisticated layers that I didn’t realise were there. I’m much more clever than I am apparently.

  7. lili on #

    it takes a certain kind of arrogance to assume that your book only belongs to you.

    we used to have these arguments at uni, where all the idealistic first years would say “oh, but if you painted a picture and nobody ever saw it and you kept it locked in your garage, it’s still art and you’re still an artist!”

    i disagree. i think that a book (or any kind of art) is what happens when the thing you created meets an audience/reader/viewer. until then it’s just in a vacuum, waiting.

    until there’s a reader, it’s just a bunch of bits of paper with ink on. it’s the reader that turns it into a book.

    twas Ralph Waldo Emerson who said “There is creative reading as well as creative writing.”

  8. Christopher Barzak on #

    Sorry for the interruption. Just wanted to say I think this entry should have been titled: “You book no longa belonga you.” I find this more thrilling for the tongue to say. Go ahead. Try it. I think you’ll find you agree.

  9. Justine on #

    Barzak: You’re completely wrong. It sounds awful. Plus that ain’t kriol.

  10. David Moles on #

    Yes. Thank you. If you only ever want your book to be read the way you think it should be read, then don’t let anybody else read it.

  11. liliya on #

    you’re all right of course. but imagine having your peace-loving beatnik hippie work of art interpreted as a fascist anti-immigration credo and used to back up a racist campaign (for example…) with which you deeply do not agree. Yes, anything you publish no longer belongs to you. But it can be a deeply unpleasant experience to be ‘creatively read’ because although litcritters may argue that the book is divorced from the writer and exists as a thing in itself, open to endless interpretation, many readers who interpret it as they like (not having read Derrida on deconstruction) will still associate whatever meanings they find there with you, the writer.

  12. maria on #

    it’s an interesting concept because it’s certainly true to an extent when you write a piece of music, although the goal for many composers is to get the musicians to play exactly what you wrote. Unless it’s chance music where the performer gets to do what they want within a few parameters set by the composer.

    Of course everything is and should be open to interpretation, but from a technical point of view all the notes, rhythms, tempi and dynamics need to be as specific as possible otherwise you’re horribly disappointed. but in actual fact it’s your own fault if you didn’t write that stuff clearly enough. a bit different to writing a book, wouldn’t you say?

  13. Diana on #

    liliya, i heard a story once of a science fiction writer who was not l ron hubbard who wrote a science fiction book that, independent of him, was taken by a bunch of cultists and used as a basis for their cult, and the members would follow him around to sf conventions and call him a prophet and he was all, ‘plesae go away. it’s just a book.’

    but i don’t know if that’s true or not. i imainge that would be most annoying. i find it anoying when people don’t get my book as is. but if they didn’t get it in such an extreme way, i’d probably go hide in a windowless room without internet access somewhere.

  14. Jeff VanderMeer on #

    You can’t and shouldn’t control it, but it’s certainly legitimate to point out when a particular interpretation is simply and objectively not correct.

    I do love when readers have a different intepretation that still works–I’ve riffed off of those in subsequent fiction. I’ve also learned a lot from those variant interps *about what my intent actually was*. Because I don’t think the writer actually *knows* their full intent when writing a piece. Things enter into the text unbidden.

    But I think the author is entitled to enter into a dialogue about this kind of stuff in certain circumstances. And to say, “No, actually, I did not use an autobiographical element for this.” Or, “No, I did not consciously set out to critique Marxism in my story about the laughing bunnies.”


  15. Christopher Barzak on #

    i wasn’t going for creole. i was going for kid-version caveman, which i must add is a much missed faux syntax. 😉

  16. Dave Bell on #

    I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of a book being partly owned by readers. It seems too personal a thing for other people to mess around with, unlike collective works such as movies and TV series.

    (Yes, I’ve committed fan-fiction.)

    And I’ve never reached the point of wondering what sort of idiot could come up with that reading of my work.

    But, a time or two, I’ve wondered if I want anyone to guess right about my motives.

  17. liliya on #

    Diana, sounds like ‘life of brian’…

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