What could be easier than reading? It’s a simple process. There’s words, you run your eyes over them and you translate the words into meaning. Simplicity. There’s nothing at all complex about how people read… right?
Reading is an extremely complex activity. It involves a communication between the author and the reader where there is no control and lots of noise to confuse the message. Not to mention the problems of interpretation.
…Which all sounds like gobbledegook, so let’s break it down, shall we?
Reading, essentially, is communication between the author and the reader. The author had a story to tell and graciously wrote it down and the reader receives that story in a written form.
So what is communication? There’s a million definitions but the one I like the most is that communication is a transfer of meaning. It’s not words or a story or anything concrete. It’s someone with a message trying to convey it completely and accurately to someone else. But, like most things in life, communication isn’t an easy thing. It is affected and garbled by noise.
Noise doesn’t just refer to physical noise (though is certainly part of it) but rather anything that is stopping the message from coming through clearly. For example, if the book you’re trying to read is written in small, dense print it becomes more difficult for your reader to read and work out what’s going on. Or if your reader is tired and isn’t able to concentrate enough to understand what’s going on.
Or, alternatively, noise might come in the form of the writer failing to write clearly by using bad grammar or by writing in a confusing manner.
But for the sake of argument we’ll say that you’re writing is flawless and your reader is reading in a vacuum of perfect concentration, mmkay? So then reading should revert to a simple communication. The author means something, they write it down and the reader receives the message loud and clear. Done. Problem Solved.
What do you picture when I talk about a beach?
So not all beaches look the same. That’s fine, isn’t it? It just means that if you set your novel on a beach your readers might be picturing slightly different things. But ultimately there’s the same combination of land, water of the salt variety and people running around indecently clad.
And beaches are all fun, happy places, right? So setting a story on a beach gives a cue to your audience that fun things are about to happen. But what if I were to tell you that I had a traumatic experience on a beach as a child (I didn’t, but run with me here). Suddenly the happy happy beach scene has got a tinge of dread to it. I expect different things from a beach scene than other people. To me, writing a beach scene is the equivalent to writing a scene based in the haunted castle on the hill. But you, as the reader, aren’t aware of this and might be a bit surprised when beach leads into horror and mayhem.
And what about cultural differences? When we’re speaking only part of what we communicate is our actual words. The rest is in body language, tone of voice and other such things. So stuff that is spoken is much more easily understood because we have more than just word cues.
…It strikes me that that needs an example.
I ran up against this problem the other day when I was working on a bit of dialogue. In Australia we insult each other regularly. So much so that an insult can actually be a term of endearment. So I had my characters round off a fairly heated exchange with one of them calling the other a bastard. This, to me, indicates that the friendship is back on track and everything is okay again. In my experience someone saying ‘you bastard’ is accompanied by a friendly smile and a clap on the back, not to mention absolutely no malice in the tone of voice.
You can imagine the misunderstandings that might have arisen from that one…
So what can we do? How can we bridge the divide in order to ensure that there is no miscommunication and our story is perfectly interpreted?
The short answer is that we can’t.
You have no way of controlling who gets a hold of your writing and no way of controlling how they interpret it. You can ensure that the message isn’t garbled in the most basic way by writing clearly and succinctly but apart from that you’re basically shouting into the abyss and hoping that someone understands what you’re trying to say.
Wow… that is… a lot more depressing than I was aiming for there. What I meant to say was that, as an author, you have no control over the reading process or over the reader. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
On the contrary, I believe that that lack of control and the freedom of the reader is one of the most beautiful things about writing. Have you ever had that moment when someone tells you about a deeper meaning that they found in your writing and you clear your throat and proclaim that they are an obvious genius because they picked up that subtlety that was TOTALLY there and you TOTALLY put it there on purpose (coughcoughmumblemumble)
This idea that the reader can see things the author never intended is a relatively new one. When people started thinking about how reading was done they thought only in terms of the author. The author put down their thoughts or wrote their story and it was your job to understand what the author meant. There was only one correct interpretation and that was the author’s. BOOM, communication.
But then the concept of ‘death of the author’ came around and suddenly, all the author’s intentions went out of the window. Then only the reader’s interpretations mattered. What they read into the text was king and what the author wanted simply didn’t matter.
Personally, I think that finding meaning through reading is a mixture of both of these schools of thought. I believe that reading is a transactional thing with both the author bringing their thoughts to the table and with me reading them and interpreting them with my own perspectives. So both the author and the reader have a part in creating meaning in the text.
Reading is a process by which we create meaning by reading marks on a page. It’s a complex process that’s prone to misunderstandings and breakdowns in communication. But that’s half the fun, isn’t it?
Happy Australia Day everyone 🙂