Who Owns Fiction?


Last December in a blog post I wrote for the CSFF Blog Tour of The Charlatan’s Boy, in which I discussed belief and unbelief, author Jonathan Rogers became somewhat exercised over the thought that I was comparing his fantasy folk known as Feechie with angels.

Here’s his comment:

Well, Becky, when you put a book out there, it’s out there, and you can’t control what happens to it. As Sally Apokedak has told me, it belongs to everybody. I would have never drawn the connection between feechiefolks and angels. But the feechies belong to anybody who will read about them, I reckon. Thanks for giving them lots of thought.

In response, Sally Apokedak explained that Jonathan’s comment was spurred by a Facebook discussion that ended with differing opinions about who “owned” the character.

Here’s part of what Sally said in that exchange:

I say Grady [the protagonist in The Charlatan’s Boy] belongs to me. 🙂 You are not allowed to keep ownership of him. When I read a book the characters become my friends and I have very strong feelings about them. Once Grady’s published he is out in the world and you can’t coddle him and keep him as your little pet boy any more. He’s out there interacting with the readers. You gave birth to him, but he keeps growing after he leaves you.

I’ll admit, I dismissed the discussion because I though Jonathan had misunderstood my post(!) but I was more inclined to agree with Sally than Jonathan.

No actual pictures of feechie exist but here's one of Feechie Swamp Stew compliments of Donita K. Paul

And yet, I most certainly didn’t want Jonathan thinking I was comparing his fantasy feechies to angels. I knew better and didn’t like the idea that he thought otherwise based on my article.

Last Friday over at Spec Faith, the subject again cropped up, and suddenly I saw things in a different light. One of the visitors there claimed that guest novelist Kathy Tyers’ work Firebird was racist. He went on to say that Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was racist, that, in both cases, the authors may not have intended to write a racist work, but they did anyway.

In other words, he took the extreme position that a writer’s intention did not matter at all. Rather there is some standard apart from what the author thinks he is saying against which the reader can measure a work and determine what he actually said. And that standard? Apparently whatever the reader “got out of it.”

Suddenly I was not so firmly on the side of the reader, so I countered with a post of my own at Spec Faith. As I wrote my thoughts and realized that the attitude we have toward reading plays a huge part in how we understand Scripture, I thought this topic was important enough to revisit here.

The key issues, I believe, are these:

    1. Novelists, like any other writer, are communicating something.
    2. Readers are responsible to discern what it is the novelist is saying.
    3. Stories affect readers on an emotional level as well as an intellectual level.
    4. Readers come to stories with their own set of experiences and their own worldview.
    5. Consequently, a reader may interact with a story and come away, having been touched, having learned and grown in ways that the novelist never dreamed.

Using The Charlatan’s Boy as an example again, in my reading, I saw parallels between the disbelief of the “civilizers” about the very real feechie and the disbelief of today’s rational thinkers about the very real world of the supernatural.

Was this a point Jonathan intended to communicate? From his comment, it seems clear he did not. Could that parallel legitimately be made, however? I think definitely yes, in part because of two things. One has to do with what I as the reader was experiencing — much having to do with false teaching and the effects on our culture. The second has to do with the actual content. Nothing I saw in the story violated what Jonathan wrote.

Now if I claimed, as he apparently thought I was, that the feechie were allegorical representations of or symbols for angels, I believe I would have violated his work. To reach that conclusion, I would have had to force the feechie into the Biblical parameters for angels.

Quite frankly, they simply do not fit and my saying so wouldn’t make it so. In addition, I would be contradicting the author’s intent. Not just going beyond his intent, or drawing ideas out of what he intended. My ideas would have contradicted his intent.

So who owns fiction? I believe the writer does. But if he writes about important things, the reader may interact with the story in such a way that he thinks thoughts far beyond what the author envisioned. And that’s a very good thing.

Published in: on May 4, 2011 at 6:47 pm  Comments (5)  
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