Reader Baggage

By John Gilstrap
A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from a “fan” who loves my books, but is deeply annoyed that I allow my “left wing liberal politics” invade my work. I’ll give those who know me well a moment to stop laughing.

As evidence of my “politically correct bullshit” he notes that in Threat Warning, my fictional terrorists are “God fearing Christian men and women” when “we all know” that the true terrorists are Muslims. In my reply, I ignored the substance–including his assessment of who my fictional terrorist truly are–and thanked him for reading my work. Some conversations are just not worth having.

For the record, I work very hard to keep politics out of my writing. It just doesn’t belong. I’ll leave that subgenre of the thriller market to Brad Thor and Barry Eisler—between the two of them, the ends of the political spectrum are well covered. Still, I guess it makes sense that because Jonathan Grave is a former Delta operator and he uses a lot of weaponry, people might assume that he’s a right-winger, but that would be based only on the clichéd assumptions made about groups of people. Truth be told, I don’t think that Digger would have much time for any politician.

This email got me thinking, though, about how much of our reading is informed by the baggage we bring to the material we choose. We’ll all give a second (or third or fourth) chance to a writer whose earlier work impressed us, but think about how hard it is to give that same break to the same author who everyone loves, but whose first effort you experienced was sort of meh.

And it’s not just true of books. I like just about everybody, but there are a few folks on my shit list whose email correspondence always seems snide or hurtful. I have to remind myself that it’s entirely possible—maybe likely—that no offense was intended, and that where there’s no intent, there’s no foul, right?

When I was in junior high, I read my first Great Novel: Lord of the Flies. I was a better than average student, and as I read it, I remember being so proud of myself for catching on to the social subtext—the symbolism—of the book. My cousin was a high school English teacher at the time, teaching Lord of the Flies to seniors. When he told me that the pig-killing scene had Oedipal overtones, I thought he was making it up. Even after he explained it, I didn’t get it. That’s because I was reading an adventure story while he was teaching literature.

In Threat Warning, I wrote a thriller that my fan apparently read as a political treatise. At a book signing years ago, a very enthusiastic fan lauded Nathan’s Run for its symbolic depiction of the plight of the American Indian. She meant it as a compliment and I took it as such.  I never told her that American Indians never once entered my consciousness as I wrote the book.

I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that once my words are published, my opinion of what I meant to say has no more validity—perhaps even less validity—than the opinion of those who read the words through their own filters. That’s the nature of art in any form, I think. I get my shot when I create it; after that, it’s all up to the observer/consumer.

What do you think? If a book arouses in you an intense emotion, does it matter that it might never have been the author’s intention to do so? Do authors’ intentions for their own work matter at all after the book is published?

15 thoughts on “Reader Baggage

  1. In a scene where the protagonist is discussing the term “people” with an alien, I wrote the following:

    “You’re thinking person means Human, but the word can have other meanings, for example, where I come from, a corporation is considered a person, although I strongly disagree with that mangling of the term.” I picked up more firewood and tossed it onto the campfire causing sparks to fly and smoke to bellow.

    When I went back later and read it, I said, “That’s going to enrage some people.” I thought it was funny how the next line mentioned sparks and smoke because I think that is what will happen.

  2. Shortly after I wrote Searching For Mom, a reader wrote to tell me how much Sara’s relationship with her father reminded her of her own childhood, having grown up in a single parent home. While I appreciated her remark, it surprised me because as I wrote the book I had focused more on Sara’s relationship with Ellen. Not that the reader was wrong, what she saw in the book is there.

    As we write a book, I think we pull from many different influences. We may describe a situation with no thought of anything in real life, but because history repeats itself, it may look very much like something real. Whether we purposefully model the book after society or we simply stumble upon that element, our views of how the situation should be handled will come through.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed THREAT WARNING, John.

    I suppose it’s a lot easier to demonize people who are different and perceived as “foreign” when conjuring an idea of terrorists. Guess your reader forgot about Timothy McVey & the Oklahoma City bombing. I followed the news coverage of that tragedy & moved to OKC soon after that happened. I’ve been to the bombing memorial many times, always a solemn experience, especially seeing the small memorials for the children who died. I will never understand acts of terrorism, but I remembered thinking at the time that homegrown terrorists are even worse to imagine. Your book captured a very believably frightening scenario–the threat within.

  4. You raise an issue I first started to think of in high school, when I first started to question the notion that my teachers–or anyone–knew what the author intended in certain books, or passages in them.

    The writer’s intent does matter, but its interpretation is largely out of his control. Do the best you can to make your point in the manner that works best for you, but the reader is still going to infer what he or she wants, based on their own context and attitudes.

    The best comment I ever heard along these lines came from my 12th grade English teacher. We were discussing Hamlet, and the eternal question came up: why doesn’t Hamlet just kill his uncle after his father’s ghost visits him? Quoth Mr. Seeley: “Because then the play would be fifteen minutes long and no one would pay to see that. The real question is, why did Shakespeare choose to do it this way, and not some other? We can guess, but no one will ever really know.”

  5. There’s no question we bring our own baggage when reading a book. In addition to the scenario you described with someone presuming an intention politically, another commenter mentioned relating to a certain character who grew up in a single family home. This happens all the time.

    I struggle with this myself in reading books on a broader scale. I hate reading romance. Nothing personal for anyone who writes/reads it, but reading with the sole purpose of discovering whether Jack and Jill will get together simply bores me. So when I read books, and since there are next to no books to read that aren’t romance (at least in my preferred historical genre–which is why I’ve swung toward suspense/thriller), I’m fishing for whatever threads of stories were able to emerge from beneath the romance plot.

    Perfect example: Zane Grey’s Forlorn River. Mr. Grey wrote westerns and romance was a staple of his books and took up the bulk of the pages. HOWEVER, the most notable thing about this particular story is the friendship between the two men, and the lengths to which one would go to help the other. For 9 out of 10 readers of that book, they’re going to be zeroed in on the romance. But that’s not the greatest attraction of that book at all–says me.

    Once a book leaves your hands and enters the market, it’s up for all kinds of interpretation. And that’s the fun of reading (and writing).

    BK Jackson

  6. I was shocked when I submitted a short story in creative writing class and another student asked me the color of my main character. It was sort of troubling, because the story had nothing to do with race, religion or anything like that. The controversy was in the relationship between father and son. I don’t typically mention those things unless they are crucial to the story.

    I don’t understand why people get caught up in political correctness when you mention race, religion or any other thing that is sensitive to a group of people, yet when you don’t supply this information, you are questioned by it as well. The author must be motivated by something…hmmm, maybe it’s called FICTION??!

  7. Thank you, Jordan. I wish I could cop to a loftier point in using domestic terrorists, but the fact is that the Muslim terrorist thing is way overdone, and I wanted to be different.

    Dana, I agree entirely. I remember asking an English teacher, “How do you know that Melville didn’t just write a story about a whale hunt?” The class laughed. The teacher didn’t. Back then, I considered that a victory.

    Diane, the race thing is interesting. One of my recurring characters in the Grave series is a big brute of a guy named Boxers. I’ve never mentioned his race, but there’s a common assumption among some fans and reviewers that he’s black. In my mind, he’s white. Not that it matters one way or the other, but I think it’s interesting.

  8. Having read your book very intently I can see it is obvious that the bad guys weren’t what I would call “real christians”. Then again, perhaps the commenter is part of a neo-nazi Christianity Identity type church and felt that the bad guys in your book were actually in the right.

    In a similar instance I had a reader berate me once for my story Faithful Warrior in which the main character is a Presbyterian pastor who had served as a Marine spec-ops officer and goes back into action when his family is killed. The reader insisted I was just another anti-Christian type pushing a Hollywood version of a worldly pastor and that I know nothing of the bible or faith. Of course what they didn’t know is that I’m a minister too who specializes in teaching Biblical History to children.

    People’s translation of our work is just that, a translation. Like from one language to another, the translation is based entirely on the individual’s world view and their sense of the language of their mind and understanding of their world.

    my word verification word is “acinime”… Japanese cartoons best watched on acid?…

  9. No matter how conservative or liberal you may be, there are always people so far beyond your point in the spectrum, and they will see you as the enemy.

    I think “perhaps” our choice of lead protagonist may be an indicator of our true feelings. Or maybe not.

  10. First, as to the email, LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL.

    Homegrown terrorists scare me a lot more than anything the rest of the world can produce. I live in Westboro Baptist country. I know what scary is.

    As to Boxers, it never occurred to me for a second that he wasn’t white. No reason and it matters not a hoot. Assumptions are a hilarious thing.

    For what it is worth. To me, Digger Graves is one a trifle conservative socially (because of his military background), but really doesn’t care. He’s an intense patriot who sees his duty as absolute and that duty is to his country, not the flavor-of-the-day. He’d take out a tea-partier just as quick as a left-wing-nut if they stood between him and his ideals or his PC. Am I close to the writer’s intent? I think so, but it doesn’t matter, because that is my filter.

    Political thrillers, in particular, are often fraught with the writer’s politics. I keep an open mind until they get preachy (Tom Clancy, I’m looking at you!) Otherwise, I like the different viewpoints and am willing to play along for the sake of the story.


  11. In my first novel I had one character who was a proponent of eugenics and because this is rather controversial (to say the least) today I had another character who represented the more modern view on the issue. However to remain true to the period (when this was considered a mainstream opinion) I couldn’t bring my so-called political baggage to bear too much…as many people believed this was a legitimate approach back then…in my second book I had Egyptian nationalism, the concept of a Jewish state as well as votes for women, so I guess I have quite a lot of politics in my books (given the period in history, its pretty hard to avoid). Even so I cannot control what readers interpret about my own political views…though given my protagonist was a suffragette I guess some of it was obvious!

  12. I think that author’s intent definitely matters. I often want to know what an artist thought when he or she was making a piece, whether it’s a short story, novel, album, or film.

    Sometimes audiences connected with something in a story, like the “Nathan’s Run” case you mentioned, that you didn’t intend.

    Then there are instances where the reader’s baggage and the artist’s intent combine.
    I really liked the Matt Damon/Emily Blunt film, The Adjustment Bureau, because I can relate to a lot of the questions asked in the movie. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, waiting for the answer in the movie as I’ve searched for my own answers.

    I don’t like it when people impose meaning on art and then spread those interpretations. I’m a Christian, but I’m irritated when people impose Biblical interpretations on every story from The Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter. I also can’t stand Freudian analysis, which had led to literary fights over plays like Hamlet.

    I suppose that’s the good and bad about sharing your work. People invest emotionally in it and find things there, or put things there, that you didn’t intend.

  13. I suppose everyone views the world through their own set of filters and as writers can’t do much about it. This was a delightful posting that has given me a lot to consider. Thanks!

  14. The French literary critic Roland Barth wrote, ‘way back in the 1930s or so, that every book is two books: the book the writer writes and the book the reader reads. He meant, of course, that every reader (including the author) brings their own life experiences, values, etc., to their interpretation of a story–and that’s something the author has absolutely no control over. So even though a book/story/article/blog post/blog comment/whatever might have my byline on it, when someone else reads it, it’s not mine anymore, it’s theirs.

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