Bookish Topic Tuesday
Books Belong to Their Readers (BBTTR)
So recently I was reading a bit of John Green (the author of The Fault in Our Stars among others)’s tumblr (specifically his onlyifyouvefinishedtfios (no link because no spoilers) one where he discusses TFiOS) and I found that quite often (so often that he coined this term BBTTR) he would say something along the lines of ‘books belong to their readers’ and ‘don’t privilege authors’ and ‘I have access to the same material that you do’, etc. Now as I was reading this, my first instinct was anger and frustration. What do you mean John that you don’t know what happens next after your book? What do you mean you don’t know whether thing was a thing (I don’t want to spoil but in rot13: vg jnf n fhvpvqr be na nppvqrag)? You are the author you know all of the things! But now I can see that this is a little silly.
As much as it irritated me (I was even prepared to write out a whole thing about how wrong he was), I have to say John is right. The authors of books don’t necessarily know any extra detail about their characters, they don’t know what happens next and they can’t unravel the complex nature of ambiguity in their texts. They can have thoughts about these things, and say, oh yes, I think it was this or that. But, technically it’s just their opinion, despite them being the ones who wrote these stories, the book is all they wrote. If they didn’t include it in the text, then really, whatever they say isn’t fact. And if they do provide them, then people take it as fact (privileging the author as John puts it), and hence they feel no need to find their own answers from the text, which is exactly what John is promoting.
And I find the idea that John is promoting that books belong to their readers to be quite interesting. Because it means that readers can have just as much authority on the books as the authors (side note: I cannot believe I never connected authority and author before). Which is completely against how I have ever thought. And I still feel a little weird about it. I feel that authors still have a strong ownership over the text they have created, because they have created it, and because they have lived with this story for longer than anyone else, so therefore they should have a better understanding of the text than anyone else. But only really before it has been published. After that, readers can become ‘experts’ in their own right. A perfect example of this, is when readers notice something that the authors themselves didn’t, at least not consciously. The reader has been able to take the book and find something themselves. Which I think is part of what makes a good book, is that you can take away part of the book for yourself. You can have opinions about the characters, and thoughts on what happens next, and thoughts as to why this character did that, and your opinion can be just as valid as any other, even of the authors (though you can also be blatantly wrong). I think the authors are inherently qualified to discuss their story, but they aren’t the sole authority.
But I find it a little odd that there seems to be a difference in how fantasy authors and most other authors go about this. Case in point is JK Rowling who has planned out every little bit of every day that Harry was alive, and years before and after, and has decided to share this. She has infinite knowledge about her world that she created and its history and its characters, and there’s the distinction. Fantasy authors (and SF, etc) really created their own worlds. They created rules and restrictions, and they created myths and legends, so they tend to have a closer connection with their work. Because it’s a whole new world that they have imagined, and they’ve lived in for many years, they tend to ‘know’ a lot about other things that aren’t within the texts. So I guess they are able to have the authority over the text when it comes to the laws of the world they have created. But do they get to have authority over the futures and pasts of all their characters? Tolkien is another case in point, though since so much of it has been turned into actual books, he has blurred the lines a little. And then because Christopher Tolkien has gone about editing and presumably adding stuff to make his father’s notes make sense, does this mean it is still wholly JRR’s work, or has it become partially Christopher’s work as well, and he’s added his own thoughts into the story? But clearly in fantasy things are a little different.
And where does that put epilogues which are written into the texts? Well since they are part of the text then they are canonical, but, I think that, depending on what they contain, they are aren’t authorial fact, which seems silly, since they are part of the text, but, for the most part (when they go and say that x and y got married and had z and a children) it isn’t really part of the text (I said part a lot here). It is beyond the text, just like Pottermore is beyond the text. What Pottermore presents is obviously additional information, but, that doesn’t mean it is THE only possibility.
On a personal note, when it comes to my writing, I purposely have open endings, and ambiguity, and I know that personally I have no intention of thinking about what happens next, or clearing up the ambiguity, because that defeats the purpose of what I’ve written (as in the whole point is the ambiguity, so why clear that up with a definite answer?). During school I wrote a very ambiguous story about a murderer who was waiting for a guest, but it seemed like who turned up wasn’t who he expected. At the time my teacher was asking questions like who was the guest he was waiting for, why was he waiting, who turned up. But I couldn’t answer her, and she didn’t really like that (though I did get full marks for it!).
So now that I’ve thought about it, I totally agree with John, books do belong to their readers. The author can no longer claim authority over the book once it has been published, if they wanted to do that, they shouldn’t have published it. Readers do have the authority to make opinions of the texts and to become experts and create answers to the questions that are posed within. Readers and authors have access to the same material as each other, so if you’ve got the evidence in the text, then your opinion can be just as valid as anything the author decrees. Though, does this mean that fanfiction is authority in action? I’m not so sure about that, because, usually the characters are acting completely different to the canon. But there are examples of good fanfiction, which are believable, so could be entirely possible (as in written by the original author).
I am reminded of symphonies, which perhaps are conducted by their composer for the first time. In that performance the composer dictates the music, but when a new conductor comes along the composer no longer has all the power. Yes the music is the same but there are subtle or not so subtle differences in the performance. Does this make the second performance wrong, or the original right? I think not.