One danger of publishing a book is that what you meant to say may not be what people hear. Everyone’s mind works differently and everyone sees the world through glasses colored by their experiences and inclinations. What seems like an obvious metaphor or allegory to you, may be completely obscure to your readers. This is one of the major benefits of editing and one of the reasons you should listen if more than one person questions you on some aspect of your story. The worst part of misinterpretation is that it can happen even if you’re there to tell people, “No, you’ve got it wrong.”
I love the articles on Cracked.com. While they should all be taken with a grain of salt, they’re always amusing and usually present ideas or connections that never occurred to me. One article I found recently is called 6 Books Everyone (Including Your English Teacher) Got Wrong.
The authors, S Peter Davis and David Vindiola, take a look at six books everyone who pays attention in Lit class has heard of: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Machiavelli’s The Prince, Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. One of my favorite sections, though, and I think the one that most clearly demonstrates the point I’m trying to make, is contained in the section about Fahrenheit 451.
Bradbury was actually more concerned with TV destroying interest in literature than he was with government censorship and officials running around libraries with lit matches. According to Bradbury, television is useless and compresses important information about the world into little factoids, contributing to society’s ever-shrinking attention span. Like “Video Killed the Radio Star,” television would kill the, uh, book star (he said same thing about radio too, by the way). An interesting rant from the author, considering that much of Bradbury’s fame was a direct result of his stories being portrayed on science fiction shows.
For a science fiction writer who predicted the development of flat-screen TVs you hang on the wall, ATMs and virtual reality, he sure hates new technology. Along with bitching about radio and television, Bradbury also has something against the Internet. He apparently told Yahoo! they could go fuck themselves, and as far as he’s concerned, the Internet can go to hell. He doesn’t own a computer, needless to say. At least we can say whatever we want about him without getting sued.
What probably pissed Bradbury off more than anything was that people completely disregarded his interpretation of his own book. In fact, when Bradbury was a guest lecturer in a class at UCLA, students flat-out told him to his face that he was mistaken and that his book is really about censorship. He walked out.
How can you combat humanity’s natural tendency to think they’re right? Be as clear as you possibly can without destroying the prose entirely. Also, don’t assume your readers know everything you do. Don’t talk down to them, but be careful about references that might not be understood by a majority of your readership.
And, if you’re interested at all, I recommend reading the full article on Cracked. It’s really interesting (and highly amusing) as are most of the posts on that site. 🙂