Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What your teacher said the author meant

By Steve Weddle

So there's this image running around the internet:

The popular response is: "LOL! So true!! LOL!!"

For some reason, readers seem to think that writers don't put much thought into the things in their books. Maybe that's true for some writers.

I heard John Updike talking once about how he writes novels. He'll go through the story, get the "who does what" down. Then he goes back through and links up images, tweaks here and there to work in another layer to help tell the story through, for example, the color of the curtains -- a thread pulled through the narrative, so to speak.

I can guarantee you that Haruki Murakami gives thought to these things. Ann Beattie. Other writers I greatly admire.

Now, maybe the writers you read don't do that. Maybe the books you write don't work past that first layer. That's fine, I guess.

And you can LOL all day long about how a teacher tried to help you see those layers in the books you read. Fine. LOL all you want.

I just don't see it as something be proud of.


Lein Shory said...

I won't stoop to inserting the Orson Welles applause gif, but that sums up how I feel about this post. Very well said.

Elizabeth said...

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar...but not likely in the books you're being taught in school. Nicely said, Mr. Weddle.

Unknown said...

Man, you've been grumpy lately...But I'll agree. Subtext is an important -and under used - part of literature. It takes a writer with real skill to write these kinds of passages.

Eliabeth Hawthorne said...

It depends on the teacher and the book. The Wizard of Oz with it's disclaimer and my teacher's attempt to convince me of the nuances is still a highly debated subject in my household. Some people are going to read too much into something, or even misinterpret. My novel has black and white curtains for a reason, but an English teacher may claim his or her own conclusions. Unless you're asking the author, you'll never know if the curtains were blue to be blue.

Chris Rhatigan said...

I'm on board.

Sometimes those simple explanations are true, but does that mean we shouldn't look for complexity?

Also, who cares what the author meant? The connections in the text are there regardless of whether the author intended them to be.

Jane Hammons said...


Anonymous said...

I don't have much luck purposely building that kind of stuff into a story. I tend to "discover" it during the rewriting. But yeah, then you have to do the work of framing it and working it through the draft. And so what if a teacher occassionally goes off the deep end with some analysis? I was taught that reading, too, should be a creative act. If you just want to sit in front of a book like it's the fucking TV, then you might as well stick with Vince Flynn novels. You won't have to think and you sure as hell won't miss anything.

Michelle said...

Michelle Turlock Isler I think some authors have underlying meanings in their books. We could talk all day about "Alice in Wonderland" and the hidden subjects in that classic. I get annoyed at the teachers that do not research what the author meant and insert their own interpretation of the books. This happens quite often in the classrooms. It is happening right now in my son's class. It really depends on the teacher.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

I always loved in school when we would discuss our take on what we read. Amazing how many different opinions you get. I really like underlying themes and all that type of stuff. I remember a discussion going around the web about Frost's "Birches" and how it was really just one big penis metaphor, yikes!

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with Michelle. To some extent, I do think what the author intended is important, but we also have to remember that it’s usually the reader who makes the meaning. To focus strictly on what the author meant seems limiting. t closes a lot of doors and doesn’t let students come up with their own meanings.

I do agree that having a teacher push a ‘right’ answer in situations like this is ridiculous, though. Students live in a different world; they see things differently and they make different connections. Students should be allowed to do that if that’s what they need tto make their own meanings and to find their own understandings.

As a teacher, I tell students that, in truth, there really is no wrong interpretation as long as they can support their ideas with the text. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Really a great post Steve.

Ann said...

A good teacher does not tell you what the novel means. She helps you think for yourself. If what you think and what the author "intended" don't mesh, who the hell cares? It's an intellectual exercise that often helps us appreciate the work on a new level. I think authors should work the way creative writing discussion groups work. Once you put your work out there, shut the hell up and see what reaction people have to it. Then use those reactions to help you write a better book next time.

Michelle said...

But, rayyanek, you are not disagreeing with me. I agree that the way a student will learn to become one with the book is to try to find the underlying meanings as they read the book. The teacher can do research and suggest what the author meant but as a teacher, she should not thrust her beliefs on the students.
Example: One student has a belief other than what the author meant, is that student wrong because he saw it differently than the teacher?
Maybe, what I am saying is not coming across correctly. I think me and you agree about this subject.
I have a teacher finding religious beliefs hidden in every classic in my son's class. It has become a joke at the school. This "link" just came out at the same time that I have been having issues with the teacher at the high school here.

Dana King said...

I think it's funny, primarily because most English teachers (at least in my experience) aren't telling you what they think it means, or what it might mean. They're telling you what it DOES mean, which, coincidentally, happens to be what they think it means.

That is bullshit about as often as the diagram implies.

Anonymous said...


You’re right. We do agree. I was focusing strictly on the teacher pushing authorial intent as the only answer. Basically what Dana said. The situation with your son’s teacher is the same, but worse, as it seems that teacher is trying to pass off his agenda as the only possible interpretation.

What happens to those students who aren’t religious or don’t come from religious backgrounds?

Like Dana said, that’s bullshit. I guess it's true that it's not the gun that kills people but the person behind the trigger huh?

Jason said...

I agree with both sides. Most times a good writer will have meaning layered within the story, and a good, in-depth conversation with the writer will reveal the whys.

However, my personal experience from high school English is that the above is correct. My sophomore year we read Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and our English teacher would describe in great detail at points about the many-layered meanings. Sometimes they made sense and sometimes they sparked long classroom debates, which was the intention. But sometimes no one saw what he said we should see, and sometimes one of us would ask why, or how do you know that's what he was saying? There's not an easy answer to that, yet there claimed to be one. And sometimes people would disagree with the teacher, which never ended well. That class could be quite tense sometimes.

I had other teachers that did a very good job of using scenes or references in a book to spark proper discussion, but as many have said, it depends on the teacher. Unfortunately some are better than others, and it's really a matter of luck as to the experience a given student has.

I see the graphic and say absolutely I agree with the joke - for some teachers. For others I don't.

Ben said...

I'm fresh off the school benches and I know teachers who are WAY into overanalyzing. I had one who thought Anton Chigurh's air gun was a symbol of contempt towards women. I mean c'mon. Guy has an air gun because it's cool, that teacher only wanted McCarthy to be a mysoginy.

But I agree for Murakami though, his stories read like that. They are a thread of images

Travener said...

Worst decision I ever made was majoring in Literature.

Anonymous said...

why can't the green light at the end of the dock mean something other than envy?? i think the post is funny because i think that we really do not know unless the author tells us. Just like we can not always claim the "red" in a painting represents anger or blood... however, i do value the subtext often used in literature, i just feel that maybe my english teacher didn't have the depth i may have had, nor had he the same open mindedness to consider other possibilities. And sometimes, i think the curtains maybe were just blue.

Anonymous said...

While I can appreciate that there are often many depths, some things are meant to be taken at face value. Some repetitions or descriptions don't have twenty meanings, and trying to find them can distort the immediate effect the author intended. So while it goes both ways, in some case, it's better to leave well enough alone.

Aduro said...

I know this is an ancient post, but as an author, I'd like to throw in my two cents.

To be fair, I believe the first and most important question that everyone should inquire about is: Did the author actually intend for subtext to exist within the story? Or were they just trying to tell a story?

Think of it like that first. Because while yes, some authors want to write a message, others don't. Others want to tell a story. Subtext is something that you create for yourself by analyzing it. And honestly, AS AN AUTHOR, I'm sick of these types of literary analyses and the lack of taking note of the simple fact that you want to encourage people to read first and foremost, BEFORE you start having them analyze it.

You want them to genuinely enjoy reading. Because my memory of school, particularly english classes, is painfully agonizing. I didn't enjoy reading at all because of that and even as an author today, I find it to be a chore, which isn't a good thing.

So, yes. Before you analyze the subtext, ask yourself this: Did the author intend for subtext to exist OR are they just trying to write an entertaining story? Because believe it or not, I don't plant subtext in my works, I leave it up to the readers to interpret what I meant by what I wrote, if you want to analyze it.