Friday, December 7, 2012

Comprehension 101

“I have a hard job. As a writer my tools are 26 letters. These letters are formed into words that must be arranged into original sentences in such a way to entice someone to buy what has been written.” This was the opening statement in a talk I gave many years ago. The audience responded with, “What’s hard about that?”  

One might smirk, nod with agreement, disagree, ponder, or reconsider. There are many ways to comprehend both statement and response.    

In the preface of his book, The Story of Ain’t, David Skinner writes, “Language is the ultimate committee product. The committee is always in session and, for good and bad, every speaker is a member of the committee.” After reading these words and, later the whole book, I was struck by profound loss. Why would I have such an emotional response about the creation of the dictionary, Webster’s Third? Because I realized that when my debut novel, Burden of Truth, is released in January it will no longer belong to me.    

The page is the final resting place of an author’s vision for those 26 letters. Once there, it belongs to the readers. To society at large. Each one will shape the meaning of the words. Starting in elementary school, American children are continually tested on this concept as their education progresses. It’s called comprehension. How well do you understand what has been written?

A character of mine has been called a pedophile. Not true by definition or action. And it forced me to dwell on how complicated comprehension actually is. How does one person see tragic love and another see a menace? They are reading the same words in the same order. What is inferred between the lines? What history influences the reading?

Authors should make no apologies for their characters. Nor should they be forced to. They are who they are: imperfect, heroes, compromised, traitors, morally suspect, difficult, talented, naughty, evil, murderous, and everything in between. In the end, that’s what drives compelling fiction. It sparks the imagination.       

But how should an author feel when a reader misses the comprehension mark? Should we care? After all, it no longer belongs to us. RIP. But what if the reader makes a public statement about the work that is misleading? Or false? Or has the potential to damage sales or turn off other readers? Will the comment be regarded as judgmental opinion or literary criticism? At one time, the borders weren’t smudged. Nowadays, a love of reading seems sufficient enough qualification to post in any format. Lots of questions, no tidy answers.

The way writers and readers approach a work and, more broadly, language, is unique to each of us. Personal experiences, prejudices, literacy, gender, mood, temperament, even haste, all effect how a work is perceived. That’s the magic of this business. It’s what makes writing and reading so enjoyable, so engage-able. And yes, frustrating, too.

My job is done. The work has been laid to rest. Comprehend away.  

P.S. The audience in the first paragraph was a classroom of kids.  


Beth Groundwater said...

Hi Terri,
Welcome to InkSpot, and what a thoughtful post! It's always very interesting to me when readers "comprehend" something in one of my novels that I didn't consciously insert in the writing. Sometimes, I realize my subconscious was at work on that theme. Other times, I think the reader was processing some issue in their own life that they used the book to gain some insight into. In either case, it's magic!

Shannon Baker said...

Hi Terri,
Congratulations on your release. The tired cliche about our books as children is appropriate. You've done what you can, released them to the world, now just love them and try not to judge. Detach, detach, detach!