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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5 Comments

  1. A question I have thought many times myself. Good answer 🙂

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  2. “So who owns fiction?”

    Critiquers,editors,publishers(if you’re lucky/good)and readers – they all want a piece of your story. Even the characters in the story want their own rights, doing and saying things you never intended.

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  3. Oh, Becky, you hit on a topic that gets my goat! This is what English Lit classes/professors try to do by super-imposing their own idea, ideals and opinion on what an author does. If a person wants to know the real meaning- ask the author! If it’s different than your opinion, too bad, it’s what the author meant.

    I own my characters. I am the creator, they bow to my will and intention as the story flows. Sound divine, don’t I? But it’s the truth, the author is in total control of the world.

    Not that fiction comes even close to the Bible, but in doctrine people argue there is one interpretation but many applications. Yes, people can apply meaning to the fictional characters and situations but there is only one definitive answer about what was meant – the author’s original intent.

    Now, I will take a deep breath that rank is over. 🙂

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  4. I find it interesting as well, Becky, how God can take a story and pull out something of spiritual value that changes you. It may totally obscure to anyone else but you and God.

    My daughter and I are doing book reports together. We are looking at the author’s worldview as per the story. I agree that it doesn’t tell us all that the author believes, but what they believe definitely influences how they write.

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  5. The two essays that I keep going back to on this issue are Tolkien’s preface to Lord of the Rings and Lois McMaster Bujold’s “The Unsung Collaborator”, in the collection Dreamweaver’s Dilemma.

    A reader can by reading get things that aren’t in what the author wrote—as you said above—but a work can contain meaning that the author did not intend, or even that flies in the face of what the author intended. (I recall a blog post by Patricia Wrede sometime in the last year or so, in which she said something to the effect that she never thinks about themes or other abstract meaning in her own writing, but when a reader suggests that a novel contains a theme she can see it.)

    I think that if an author explicitly disclaims a particular theme, set of symbols, or other meaning, we should accept that unless we find substantial evidence to believe otherwise. (Mark Twain’s Notice at the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn notwithstanding.) In contrast, if the author claims some theme or symbol, it’s reasonable to believe her if we find some evidence to support that claim, but even if the author intended to include a theme she may not have succeeded. The author of a work may be, of all its critics, the most familiar with the intimate details of its creation, but the author is not necessarily a reliable critic of her own work.

    When we want to see what a piece of literature says, the only primary source we can go to is the work itself. By reading (and rereading) a work (and on occasion reading other literature—no book exists truly in isolation), we can discern its meaning, though if our reading, our understanding of the context, or our reason is faulty, we can come to false conclusions about the work.

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