Story Ownership: You vs Your Readers

Obviously you are the writer, the creator, the teller of the story.  And there are various copyright laws that give you the legal rights to owning it.   However, once your story is out there for the world to read, is it still yours?

There are several posts similar to this one, sitting out around on the internet. Who Owns A Story, which I read after already typing my post, is eerily similar.  You wrote it, but you don’t own it, by Daniel Dalton, who mentions the Death of the Author theory.  (Also, I’m a huge fan of his.)

Most of them definitively informing you that after your writing leaves your hands, it belongs to the readers, not you.  The prominent argument is that readers take away different things from your writing.  Everyone interprets it in their own way, and the message/importance they receive will be unique, differing even from your intended message while writing.

In this way, the story has shifted, changed.  It is no longer the same story you wrote.  It is now the story as the readers perceive it.  Which is not your story.

Art and beauty are all subjective.  Who are we to say what the correct way to interpret something is?  We’re just the creators.

And yet…we are the creators.  Have we not a say in how our work is viewed?  When people start to take meaning where it was not given, do we point out that that’s not what we meant?  Perhaps not, because part of the beauty of reading and sharing our writing is that people can find meanings we weren’t even aware of.  If we tell the honest story, there will be themes we might not discover until afterwards.

But what happens when people take away the opposite message of what we mean?  If we write about the fall of a corrupt government, and people start saying we’re promoting anarchy, do we correct them?  Or leave it to others to start a discussion, or just leave them to their tainted views?  Perhaps there really is a wrong or right way to interpret messages in writing.

I think, overall I do agree with the idea that a story belongs to whoever reads it.  However what I would like to ask you is, where is the line drawn on the ownership as far as taking meaning from a story?  Do we, as creators and artists, have a right to guide readers through our intentions of the writing, or is that considered imposing on their rights of uniquely interpreting it?

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About Aly Hughes
Unprofessional, unedited, unpublished. Aly is out to make a name for herself by blogging, twittering, facebooking, and general internet-ing. Be warned: She may not know what she's talking about.

23 Responses to Story Ownership: You vs Your Readers

  1. Thought-provoking. I’d never considered this. I think no two people will bring exactly the same thing from a story. As a writer I know pretty much what I have in mind when I write a story, but for me that only goes as far as my view of who these people are and what they’re doing. The beauty of writing (as opposed to other art forms) is that that picture created in the mind’s eye by the reader is something the reader does with your story, with all that reader’s unique memories, beliefs and experiences. What I got out of a story that I read as a teenager, vs. what I get out of it now (too many decades later!) are sometimes wildly different, and I find myself thinking, how did I miss that before? Sometimes that’s as simple as being more educated, knowing more about a particular subject. Other times that might be as subtle as simple experience shared with the protagonists of a story. So I don’t believe anyone actually OWNS a story, but I do believe the experience each reader has with a story is unique to that reader, and the reader definitely owns that experience.

    • Aly Hughes says:

      I like what you said about the reader owning the experience, that I definitely believe in. Especially because you’re right, stories will affect people differently at separate points in their lives. I think as a writer even I will take different things from my work at the various stages in my life. Although I don’t plan on constantly reading former writings of mine, I’m sure I’ll revisit some of them.

  2. I had a poetry professor in college who was very strict on the “Hey, that’s what ot means to me, man!” school of poetry interpretation. Not that you had to agree with his interpretation, but you had to have evidence for your opinion from the text itself. That was very helpful to me, that you had to argue for your position, not just state it.

    I think it’s fine to argue if somebody comes up with something that’s the opposite of what you intended, but I don’t think you can guide the process except in the text itself. If your story needs the author to follow behind it giving explanations, then it wasn’t written right to begin with.

    It reminds me of bands I used to see that would explain the point of every song before they played it. I thought it indicated a lack of faith in the material.

    • Aly Hughes says:

      “If your story needs the author to follow behind it giving explanations, then it wasn’t written right to begin with.”

      I love that, and it occurred to me as well. There will always be a few people who just won’t get it, or misinterpret. However if it’s a good portion of people feeling that way then there must be something missing in the writing that lead them that way.

      Thanks for the great comment! 🙂

  3. Eric Storch says:

    This is something that has plagued me since I watched “Finding Forrester.” I get the feeling from the movie that the writer and director were of the opinion that only an author can “own” a story – in the sense that we’re talking about here.

    I have to agree with the poster above me though. I think that if you can find meaning in someone’s writing and prove how you got there, that should be good enough.

    • Aly Hughes says:

      I haven’t watched Finding Forrester, but I think that people who are not as open can have issues accepting that their work will not always be viewed how they want it to be. Ego probably plays a role in it as well.

      I also thought Anthony made a good point about finding justifiable meanings within a work. There’s just so much room for interpretation in everything. The best we creators can do is write from our hearts and hope people can find as much meaning in it as we do. 🙂 Thank you for the comment!

  4. Samir says:

    Well the words on the page belong to you, the writer. You own them unless a legal document tells you otherwise. As for the meaning or a reader’s interpretation, well that’s their own derivation of what the writer has written and they own their own thoughts, opinions, interpretations etc.

    No, I personally don’t believe I have any right to ‘correct’ someone’s interpretation of something I’ve written unless it’s purpose is for wrongful intent or as a personal attack. Otherwise, it is art and everyone has a right to their own view. If I publish something that is interpreted in a way I conceive negatively, then I’m to blame since I provided those words to give that interpretation. I believe in being responsible for my words as much as for my actions.

    Great post!

    • Aly Hughes says:

      I agree with your thoughts on the writer being responsible for their words and the connotations they give. If readers can easily justify their negative interpretations, then perhaps the blame falls on the writer for not being able to express themselves clearly. I think that’s dead on. Thank you for the great comment. 🙂

  5. Great post, Aly. That’s a very interesting topic and one I’ve thought about before but more in regards to visual art than writing. I think that’s the beauty of stories though. Everyone brings her own experience to what they are reading and takes away that unique piece that makes what they read important to her. I think it’s inevitable that people respond to stories differently otherwise reading and discussions would be pretty boring! 😉

    • Aly Hughes says:

      You’re right, if we all viewed works the same way, then there would be no discussions. How very boring! And it’s also why there are those stand-out novels that people hold so dear to their hearts, above all others. I like having certain books, or series, that I can go back and re-read on a rainy day to uplift my mood and bring a smile to my face. 🙂

  6. I believe every writer has a very profound and precise moral and feeling behind their novels. In my instance, my personal motif and perception of my novel is a spiritual, Christian-based meaning with a heavy purpose of redemption and self examination. The more I write, however, I’m pleased to see a few other meanings, hidden within the lines of my story. One that comes to mind is the struggles that young adults have when coming to terms with losses and disappointment. When my novel goes out in the world (I don’t dare to say IF), it can easily be viewed as a typical Christian based book OR a teenage romance mush. The latter is not something I’d totally be happy with, because MY version and MY message is different than that.

    But with that said….who knows what the reader will take out of it. It is a good point. How will I react if they take my novel in a completely new direction, one I hadn’t intended? Well, there isn’t much I can do. I can only be thankful that it touched the reader in any way, shape or form to add something meaningful to their lives…or at least on their bookshelf should it not reach any more profound level.

    As far as the story not belonging to us anymore once it is sent out into the world; I don’t know how much I can agree with that. My story will always be mine, always be the way I intended it to be. And so will be every other author’s book. I look at it as a book donated to readers which I’m allowing to be interpreted in whichever way, but the original perception is still what I would hold true to. I suppose it’s a lot like paintings. The painter’s perception of his creation can be totally different than what the viewers could walk away with. But the beauty lies in the “mystery” behind the creator. It is a gift that we, as all artists, give to others with permission to mold into their lives and spiritual beings.

    Great post.

    • Aly Hughes says:

      I really like what you said about appreciating that our work has at least touched someone, even if in ways we didn’t intend. I think that’s why we work so hard to get our writing ‘out there’ in the big world. We want people to be able to bond to our work, and have a shared connection with us, regardless of if they take away the same things as we did.

      Thinking of our writing as a gift we give is a wonderful way to put it. I like to think that our stories, no matter the genre, inspire and encourage people. I know there are particular books out there that I really hold dear, and I always find myself turning back to when I need courage, hope, or even just a good laugh. It definitely helps to think that perhaps my book, when published (I refuse to say ‘if’ as well!), will serve people in the same manor that my favorite stories have served me.

      Thank you, and thank you for the great comment. 🙂

  7. Ava Alexus says:

    This is such an interesting premise, but I’m not sure if I agree with the idea of ownership, although I can understand perhaps why it’s interpreted that way. There are many books over the years that I have become enarmoued with. We all have our own interpretations due to our own bias and perceptions, but I don’t believe I could ever call those stories mine or claim ownership, but maybe a very strong attachment. I am however grateful for the pleasure that they’ve brought me, or the way they’ve moved or challenged me to think about them, long after I’ve turned the last page.

    When thinking about interpretation, it makes me think of a book I read not that long ago, Graceling. Many reviewers accused the author of promoting an anti-marriage stance, to which I was completely surprised, since I don’t see it that way at all.

    It also makes think about music, and how it resonates with people and we often associate certain music or songs very strongly with a time or place. Fans often want to know what the lyrics mean exactly, and I’ve read of many artists who do not clarify lyrics for a few reasons. Often, it’s either very personal, or they’re intentionally ambiguous and are happy for their songs to mean what their fans interpret. Although in saying all that, some artists are happy to consider the music they’ve created as belonging to their fans.

    At the end of the day, there are always going to be different intrepretations. I believe most readers would not enjoy a book that spells out every single thing, and as artists I believe that we do weave a little abiguity into it because we enjoy discovering a kinship with those that perhaps understand what we are trying to achieve, and at the same time be challenged by those who present different perspective we haven’t considered.

    I do think though if there has been a message wrongly interpreted that accuses the author of something that was not their intention, then yes, an author may want to assert the right to discuss their work. I’m not sure if that would be considered guiding, but it would likely change or influence interpretations.

    • Aly Hughes says:

      I think what drives the use of ‘ownership’ of a story, can also be argued depending on the writer’s view of the story they’ve written. I know of writers who carefully craft their stories and plan them out, and like to be in control of everything that happens. They view the story as originating from them. Yet, there are other writers who sort of let the story unfold by itself and consider themselves not the creator of the story, but just the vessel that writes it. In the first case, the author will look at their work with a more prominent feeling of the story belonging to them, and in the second, the writer will perceive the story not as theirs, but by itself, belonging to no one, therefore, everyone.

      I completely agree with you on the ambiguous nature of art, be it stories, music, or artwork. And I do think it’s important that the writer does not have to go on and point out everything within a story. If we knew everyone would interpret our story in the same way we do, would there be a point in sharing it? Perhaps so if it’s just for entertainment value, but to really enrich someone with our work, I think it’s vital that we leave it up to the reader draw their own opinions.

      Like you, I think we should have the right to discuss our work, and either defend or deny certain accusations that may come our way. However, as Samir pointed out in an above comment, if people are negatively interpreting the writing, then a lot of the blame can be placed on the writer, for not being able to write in a way that effectively communicates their message.

  8. rtd14 says:

    This makes you think beyond copyright, which is the reason I waited so long to start a blog. If I make claim on something original, as I put on some of my pages, it is copyrighted. In relation to interpretation, I think it is definately up to the reader. An author found meaning in the first chapter of my book, the original first chapter which is no more, that I had not seen before. Interpretation is a thin line, but it opens our eyes to things we had not noticed. Great post!

    • Aly Hughes says:

      It definitely goes beyond copyright, and I think it’s something people don’t really consider until after their writing is ‘out there’ and other people are talking about it. I agree, it really is an eye-opener, especially when people find profound meanings, and give their justifications for them! It really makes you wonder if perhaps the story will mean even more to some people than it does to you.
      Thank you, and thanks for the comment! 🙂

  9. derekberry says:

    This thought could be quite scary for young adult writers. Readers of such (cough, cough, young adults) like to alter and influence the story quite a bit. I think sometimes pressure from fans can force a writer to do something he or she never wanted to do, especially if they are writing a series. Put people together who were not going to end up together, save certain characters who should have died.
    While usually I’d say do whatever is good for the sake of narrative, there can be something said to allowing the readers to influence the ongoing story. They may have ideas you never even dreamed of.

    • I knew a successful mystery writer many years ago, and she wrote a standalone novel once. Her publisher gave her serious pressure to make it (and promote it) as the beginning of a new series. She went along with this (very reluctantly) because there was a possibility her publisher would have rejected it otherwise, or published it without promotion.

      • Aly Hughes says:

        I honestly don’t know what I would have done in that situation. It’s one thing to have fans pressure for a certain ending, but it’s another thing if a publisher is pushing for something.

        • I see both sides of this. On one hand, it’s awkward to force books to be something they aren’t, like a movie character who should die but is kept alive so there can be a sequel.

          On the ofher hand, people like mystery series. I like mystery series, that’s why I’m writing one. 🙂 Mystery series sell. A publisher would be irresponsible not to take that into account.

          But ultimately it’s the author’s name on the book.

    • Aly Hughes says:

      Good point on altering the writing for the readers. One of my previous Sunday Vs. posts was on Writing for Yourself vs. Writing for Others. I like to think that if the events in the story happen naturally, readers will be able to at least accept them, even if they don’t like what happens.(Character deaths, for example)

      A friend of mine is an avid fan fiction reader, particularly for Harry Potter. After reading the 7th book, she told me she was rather disappointed because it seemed like a lot of what happened was a bit a contrived, and read like a fan fiction instead of an actual Harry Potter book. Although I’m dubious about JK Rowling actually taking story lines from fan fictions, it does make you wonder how much influence readers have on on-going series. Or whether their pressure on writers for certain plot enhancements can be beneficial or negative to the overall story.
      Thanks for the great comment. 🙂

  10. W. H. Dean says:

    Not being the biggest fan of subjectivism, I feel a little awkward saying what I’m about to say because it carries the whiff of it. But here goes. While the writer creates the story, he or she can never really own the “whole of the meaning” of the story, because stories–well, really good ones–often have more meanings than the author intended. Take Poe. He disliked allegory and esoterism, arguing that the surface meaning should be the whole of a story’s meaning. But people have found deeper meaning in his stories (or read it into his stories), and it’s not alway easy to deny that they’re in there.

    Just a thought.

  11. Pingback: Weekly Summary « Ava Alexus

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