A discussion of the “ownership” of a range of the abstractions that fictional texts generate (and are, of course, composed of) is in progress over on John Scalzi’s blog. Legally, of course, authors own the copyright to their work, and that includes the work’s characters. But what does such ownership mean as far as interpreting the work and its characters’ personalities, traits, behavior, feelings, and beliefs go (which some participants in the discussion seem to asserting)? I’m a fiction writer, a critic, and a person who’s been reading novels for nearly half a century. And so I require of myself a single answer to the question that I can make comfortable sense of in all three roles.
Reading a discussion provoked by JK Rowling’s revelation that her character, Dumbledore, was in the privacy of the author’s own mind (but nowhere else) gay, I can’t help thinking of a complaint made to me at WisCon by a fan who’d read Alanya to Alanya and was annoyed when she discovered near the end of the novel that the protagonist, Kay Zeldin, has blonde hair. All through the novel she imagined Kay as a brunette, and the detail of the blonde hair at the end of the book seriously jarred her image of the protagonist. It’s a minor detail, right? But she was justified in her annoyance. As it turns out, I had deleted a passage in the first chapter that revealed Kay’s hair color. When I did that, I ought to have either inserted the detail somewhere else in that chapter or deleted all later mentions of it. The omission of such a trivial detail early on meant that the narrative encouraged readers to invent supply the detail of the protagonist's hair color for themselves, since texts constantly invite readers to invent omitted trivial details for themselves. (This does not hold, of course, for significant details, where the author might have legitimate reasons for deliberately withholding the information.)
Now imagine that I had deleted all mention of Kay’s hair color from the Marq’ssan Cycle and then remarked publicly that in fact, Kay is a blonde. Because that detail wasn’t in the book, it would simply be my Kay Zeldin who was blonde, not the Kay Zeldin. Fans of the Marq’ssan Cycle might have found such a revelation interesting, but I couldn’t expect that it would in any way stand as a corrective to whatever image they had formed of her.
Is Dumbledore’s gayness a trivial detail? Rowling is treating it as such. I haven’t read the books, but by all accounts, the detail does not register (much less reverberate) in the books. (Whether such a detail can reasonably be considered trivial is another matter.)
As a fiction writer, I learned fairly early that most readers pick up on some details and not others, and how they do that will create wildly different interpretations. Since almost no readers will ever get everything, I long ago saw that I can either write down to readers (to try to make sure they get what I want them to get) and stifle their imaginative engagement with the fiction, or aim high for the “ideal” reader—someone prone to snatch up the allusions and subtle hints and stories lurking below the surface—and be satisfied with whatever the best readers come up with. I chose the latter, though I’ve been told many times that it’s a mistake to “set the bar too high.” I figure, though, that if I’m willing to live with the consequences, it’s no big deal.
I used to get exercised over people actually making up details that weren’t in my fiction as part of their interpretation, but not even that bothers me now. Changing the “facts” of a story to flesh out an interpretation may be poor critical technique, but in one sense, it’s merely an artifact of reading. The author can only put so much down on the page—unless, of course, they overwrite to the point of not allowing the reader a single imaginative thought that they haven’t dictated, as certain sf writers (whom I can’t stand to read myself) regularly do. A huge part of the pleasure of reading is taking the bones of story, world, and characters offered by the text and putting flesh on them. Is it any surprise that while creating the story, world, and characters in their imaginations readers write over some of what the text actually gives them?
I have a vivid memory of the August, 1991 weekend I wrote “Motherhood, Etc.” I was still giggling from writing the last scene early Sunday morning when I printed out two copies and gave them to my two first readers, who’d been reading the New York Times down in the living room. Discreetly I retired upstairs to my office, to clean up the mess of reference books and marked-up rough drafts that always attend the scene of writing. About an hour later, it sounded like WWIII had erupted on the first floor of the house. Nervously I ventured downstairs to find my first readers standing on opposite sides of the work table in the kitchen, one of them shouting, the other responding with sniping, sarcastic cracks that only exacerbated the shouter’s rage. Such disagreement about my fiction wasn’t in any way unusual. But I was struck by how elaborately the one shouting had constructed a network of inferences that created a subtext that outraged his ideological sensibilities, rendering my character, Pat, a moral monster and the men trying to control Pat the Good Guys whom the narrative openly dissed. To my astonishment, that reader actually exhorted me not to send the story out on the grounds of its immorality.
As a critic, I often pick up on implications, connections, and subtexts in stories that other readers don’t see and sometimes even the writers themselves have missed. It’s not unusual, though, for an author to tell me that my reading has helped them to see aspects of the work they weren’t conscious of but were, nevertheless, unconsciously intended. (Yes, even the most conscious writers rely heavily on their unconscious processes as they write.) As a writer, I know that I often learn things about my work some time after I finish composing it. Oh! I will say to myself: so that’s what that story was about. If I’m lucky, I will learn those things before it gets into print and tweak the story appropriately. It’s a very odd feeling, discovering meanings and resonances that you did not intend, for always, at the moment of writing, you feel as though you’re the God of the world you’re bringing into existence—all-knowing, all-powerful, in perfect command of the material. It’s a necessary illusion, since it would be impossible to shape the narrative without it. But it’s still an illusion, for all that (as most writers know as soon as they walk away from the keyboard or put their pen down).
As a reader, I learned long ago that the story I read will often prove shockingly different from the story others read. Later, I realized that the story I read in 1970 won’t be the same when I read it again, years later. This should come as a surprise to no one. Fiction is something that created in people’s heads, and there’d be something wrong with us if our mental processes were always and ever the same and never altered with experience or shifts in context. The written text allows the reader to participate in this creation. Although the writer provides the written text that allows that creation to take place, the good writer does not try to restrict the reader’s imaginative engagement with the work but instead attempts to trigger and facilitate it. (Samuel R. Delany says that the text provokes the reader to “remember,” and that successful descriptions work on readers’ memories.)
Until the writer gives the fictional text to someone else to read, it’s solely and totally her property. Imaginative (as opposed to legal) ownership is breached as soon as others read the text, though not seriously, since the text remains provisional right up until the point of official publication. On publication, however, since anyone can read the text, anyone can participate in the imaginative construction the text not only invites but also demands. The results of that imaginative construction won’t always be felicitous. But post-publication, in any discussion of the text, the writer’s voice will carry only as much weight as another reader’s (and probably less than some critics’). That will be the case even if the writer supplements the fictional text with another text or even rewrites the book and publishes a revised edition. “Director’s cuts” of films distributed a year or more after the studio has released the original version don’t erase the original (unless its material existence has been thoroughly eradicated); rather, they add another version that may or may not supplant the original version some time in the future. When rival editions of the same novel exist (as is the case, for instance, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), a variety of factors will determine which version predominates, and even then, the matter may not be settled definitively as long as both versions continue to be available in print. Imaginative "ownership" or authority (which is what I think this discussion is really about) is never simple and is always open to contestation.
From my point of view, it's a Good Thing we can't nail interpretive authority in any definitive way. It's what makes the conversation we cherish possible.