When I sit down and write I obviously know what I want to say. It might take some tweaking during the editing and revision phases, but the intent is always obvious. To me anyway. That’s where it all falls down though and the next person that reads the book/paragraph/dialogue may leave with a totally different impression. Some would argue that this is totally avoidable and that the fault is the writers. Hmmmm. I’m not convinced it’s that cut and dried.
We live in an international world where books may be read by anyone, from all different spectrums of race, status and language. It’s common for people whose first language isn’t English to hone their skills and broaden their scope with a book written in that language. Likewise there are adult books that are read by children and children’s books that are read by adults.
Which all adds up to a whole heap of scope for misinterpretation. Add into the mix our ever evolving culture and you’re just asking for that innocuous statement or comment made by a character to be mis-read. This isn’t just evident in books, pretty much any medium such as film and TV also have the same scope. How many times have you watched a film with someone and had a differing opinion on the moral/story/end result. If it can happen when two people who likely know each other well and are from a similar background watch the same thing then it can happen when disparate people are involved.
There are obviously scenarios where during the course of a book there is mis-interpretation placed there on purpose (and I did it in my first novel) and that’s not an issue, if anything its common place. But what if that seemingly innocent statement or description you place is determined by some to be racist, or homophobic or similar? During the course of doing some research for this post (yes, it may come as a shock that I do some occasionally!) I discovered that Albus Dumbledore was gay.
Say what? I might not be the most observant reader in the world, but that one went straight past me (if you’ll pardon the pun). Oh and for reference it’s from this article on Wikipedia under the heading ‘Dumbledore’s Sexual Orientation’. Who knew. Not me that’s for sure, but plenty of other people picked up on it. It makes not one bit of difference to me whether he’s straight, gay or walks around in a taffeta ball gown after hours with a crystal wand and tiara, but I’m pretty sure I’ll go back and read the books again now and see if I really did miss something. Of course this revelation then sends one group of people off championing the character and another condemning and all from the same text.
There obviously isn’t an answer to this. As society evolves some things become unacceptable that were fine previously, whether that’s what the author intended or not (and there are enough examples that I’m not going to specify for fear of placing unintentional subtext in this post). But the issue remains as to how we as writers can stop the mis-understanding or the reading of subtext that isn’t there. Short of making sure every little thing that could possibly be misconstrued is subject to some sort of ‘basil exposition’ explaining exactly what we mean, and let’s face it if you had to repeat the same piece of dialogue three times in slightly different ways to get the point across it would get boring. And someone would only interpret it in the way they wanted anyway if they were that way inclined.
Based on what I’ve read over the course of the last hour I’m not sure it’s possible at all. Sure we can take out anything that’s glaring and our beta readers may point things out but there’s always something that’s going to slip through. I’d welcome your comments and opinions as always.
PS: Anyone up for spot the subtext in this post? If you find one it proves my point, if you don’t then I’ve just been ultra careful!