Writers are not omniscient

I have a pet peeve when it comes to talking about reading, and it is when people use the modifier “Because I’m a writer…” before, during, or after expressing their opinions about a book.

I’ve talked about my belief that anyone can be a writer, but identifying as a writer doesn’t suddenly provide insight into other writers’ intentions; the only one who can know the intention behind a story for certain is the creator of that story. Regardless, you don’t need to be a writer to read a book and pick up on/interpret themes, symbols, character development, and so on. Conversely, you can identify as a writer and decide to read some books for pleasure, without putting any effort into analysis.

Sometimes those interpretations can be wrong, and it has nothing to do with if the reader is a writer or not. (I know that is not what people like to hear.) Author John Green answered a question on this page (about 1/4 of the way down) about this idea of wrong interpretations by saying:

“If, for instance, you read [The Great] Gatsby and said, “This is a stupid novel about stupid rich people doing things that don’t matter,” you would be wrong. You’d also be wrong if you said the green light across the harbor was a metaphor for Gatsby’s joy and contentment.”

I agree with him on this. He goes on to say, though, that there can be multiple correct interpretations of any given book/theme/symbol, and I also agree with that. My larger point is that being a writer doesn’t necessarily increase the likelihood that your interpretations are correct.

Now, a skilled writer is probably more likely than your average person to be correct in their interpretations of another writer’s work just by virtue of knowledge and experience. However, someone who has no desire to write but who reads a great deal is also more likely to be correct. It’s the reading and thinking that matter—reading many different books and thinking critically about what you’ve read—not the writing. If you’re a writer, your own attempts at certain themes, symbols, plots, or characters can serve as a shortcut, get you to the correct interpretation(s) faster than people without that experience. But even that takes a certain level of critical thinking and awareness in regard to your own work. Plenty of people write without that additional level of evaluation—and that’s fine; I’m not making a judgement here. But that’s why I think a writer’s opinion on a book (or television show or movie) is not by default more valuable than anyone else’s.

I often see the modifier I mentioned above used in this way: “I guess because I’m a writer, I was just disappointed in the ending of this book.” I consider the feeling to be valid in regard to any book—after all, not every story can satisfy every reader. But the fact that one reader might also be a writer doesn’t make an ending more unsatisfying for that person. I find the modifier a cop-out and somewhat pretentious; give me your reasons why you found the ending disappointing (or whatever other opinion or interpretation is being justified). What about the construction or writing of the story led you to expect something different? Don’t just say it’s because you’re a writer and leave it at that.

I’ve had people online use this modifier on me without knowing that I am also a writer, and it always comes across as an attempt to invalidate a different (but valid) opinion or interpretation. If that isn’t how it’s meant, at the very least it adds nothing useful to the conversation. When discussing books, I often choose not to divulge the fact that I’m a writer because 90% of the time I think it’s irrelevant. I’ve always had strong opinions about books; it has nothing to do with the fact that I now identify as a writer.

Some of the most insightful people I know, with the sharpest critical thinking skills, have no desire to be writers. But they enjoy reading, and they are mindful readers. I’ve seen those friends mercilessly deconstruct everything from comic books to television shows to works of art—and my favorite part is that they do it to what they love and what they don’t with equal fervor.

When I’m having discussions with those friends, you better believe I jump in with more reasons for my opinion than “Because I’m a writer…” If I tried to pull that, I’d lose an eye, or a friend—or both.

In the end, you should be able to justify your opinion or interpretation based on the source material or even cultural or societal context. Otherwise, you should be able to admit that you can’t pinpoint the justification (which is fine. Sometimes you love or hate something but you can’t figure out precisely why right away). Being a writer doesn’t immediately validate your interpretations, and someone shouldn’t need to know your biography to understand how you reached your conclusions.

About Nicole DeGennaro

Burgeoning writer, insatiable reader, and continuous dreamer.
This entry was posted in Books, Random, Random thoughts, Reading, Thoughts on reading and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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