A couple of years ago, I read Jez Butterworth’s play “Jerusalem” for the first time. The state of the nation tale had intrigued me ever since I’d seen clips of the West End production online, featuring the dramatic monolith that is Mark Rylance. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It fast became one of my top ten favourite plays of all time. After reading it, I took some notes on it for the Masters thesis I will probably never write, analysing its take on 21st century England, the battle between modern and traditional, urban versus rural, and the Pied Piper style truth teller protagonist who sees through the patriotic haze of this green and pleasant land to reveal the rot underneath. It’s the kind of play I adore – modern, visceral and heavily political.
Then I read an interview by Butterworth where he said he had no such interpretations for the play when he wrote it, nor did he plan any kind of political message. Basically, he undid my entire hypothesis.
That doesn’t mean I’m wrong about the play. It just means my interpretation differs from that of the writer.
We’ve talked about this a lot on The Book Lantern but it bears repeating: Once you put a story out into the world, your sole interpretation of events is no longer the default mode. Your thoughts are simply one possible way to read the novel. It may be the preferred way to read it for many but it’s not the mandatory way to do so.
Nine times out of ten, there’s no way to read a book “wrong”. There are exceptions, of course. I will personally scream down anyone who believes Lolita came onto Humbert (unreliable narrator! He’s a paedophile! She’s 12!). That’s probably more to do with morality than anything literary (SHE’S 12!).
Not only is interpretation out for debate but the expectations and reactions of the readers are totally out of the author’s control, not that they were ever in there to begin with. After all, no two people will react to a story in exactly the same way, nor will they want the same things from their reading experience.
I bring this up because, as you’ve probably heard, Veronica Roth’s final book in the “Divergent” trilogy, Allegiant, ended in a very unexpected fashion. I won’t spoil it here but suffice to say it made a lot of readers very upset; upset enough to bring the book’s Amazon rating down to 2.6 (although it was lower at one point) and to express their feelings to Roth on Twitter. I haven’t seen all these reactions and I imagine some of them were a touch over-the-top (do we really need to have chats on social media decorum, my friends?) but the anger expressed is perfectly justified. Not death threats, of course. Seriously people, what is wrong with you? Don’t threaten to kill anyone ever. It’s stupid. I can’t believe I even need to say that.
Step forward John Green.
“Fascinating to see responses to Allegiant because I think many of the book's readers are just, like, wrong about what books are/should do. As a reader, I don't feel a story has an obligation to make me happy. I want stories to show me a bigger world than the one I know. I never read the Divergent trilogy as escapist (who would want to escape our world for that one?), which is precisely what I love about it. Similarly, I never felt like my faith as a reader was betrayed by The Hunger Games or the Uglies books. Basically, I would argue that books are not primarily in the wish fulfillment business. Okay. Rant over.”
(Taken from John Green’s Twitter page).
Putting aside the gross condescension in the tone of those tweets, let’s look at the general points Green is making. We’ve encountered his kind of reader policing before here. He actually seems to be contradicting himself here. Where he previously said "my job as a reader is to make the text in front of me into the best book it can possibly be", now he's preaching about how readers are doing it wrong. Very odd.
No interpretation of a book is wrong, as I’ve said before, a few exceptions aside. It is not Green’s place, Roth’s place, or anyone’s place to tell you, as a reader who probably put money down to purchase a book, how to read a book. When you study English literature, sometimes you’re told to take on a certain perspective when analysing a text. That’s standard academic fare. That doesn’t mean that everyone reading from, say, a post-feminist perspective will come to the same conclusions about a story. We don’t all think the same way. Literature, and indeed basic thought, doesn’t work that way.
No, a book doesn’t have an obligation to make people happy. A writer who specialises in character deaths for emotional payoff knows that all too well. The emotions of readers cannot be dictated, no matter how hard an author may try with their narrative choices. It’s possible to be happy about a book that makes you sad. There’s a certain catharsis in reading a depressing book. I love “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood and relish reading it but it doesn’t exactly make me gleeful. It’s also possible to be sad about a story having a happy ending because we have varying expectations of what a story should do. I haven’t read “Allegiant” and don’t plan to so I can’t attest to how the ending makes me feel or if it’s what I would want as a lover of Roth’s work. I trust her fans to make those decisions for themselves.
Green may not read “Divergent” as escapist, but many readers did. The advertising for the book was embedded in separating its readers into factions like the story so clearly there was an element of that in play when it came to selling the world. Some people like to escape into the grim. The “Song of Ice & Fire” series glories in the readers who do this. Some may just want to be spectators while others immerse themselves in fantasies of how they’d cope in Roth’s dystopian Chicago or Martin’s Westeros or even the world of “The Walking Dead”. It’s not up to anyone, especially third parties, to dictate what a reader wants from their experience.
As for readers feeling betrayed, that’s a more personal issue than I’m really qualified to discuss. Have I ever felt betrayed by a story? I’m not sure, to be honest. My dad has. He’s never quite gotten over the finale of “Lost”, something he sees as hack work that spit all over the fans who stuck with the show for all those weird and confusing years. His expectation as a viewer was that the creators would offer some answers and closure after six seasons of ambiguity. He didn’t get that and was understandably angry. When you invest so much time, energy and enthusiasm into a world like a six season show or a three book series, you want to feel as if it’s been worth it all. Experience and interpretation may be open but authorial responsibility is still a thing. I may dislike a book but that's not 100% down to my own experience. Sometimes a bad book is just a bad book and that's down to content, not my analysis.
That doesn’t mean we want wish fulfilment from everything we consume as purveyors of culture. Green’s little conclusion to his self-proclaimed rant is extremely insulting. The implication there is that readers just don’t “get” what those genius authors are trying to do because they’re doing reading “wrong”. No, they’re not. They’re doing it just fine. It’s’ the right of the reader to feel sad over a book, to get angry, to sob into their hands, to return it to the shop for a refund, to punch the air with joy, to scream with excitement, and to just mumble ‘meh’ before getting on with their lives, never to think about it again. None of these experiences is worth more than the others. They’re entirely equal. John Green doesn’t dictate how you read a book or how you react to it. He certainly doesn’t decide he knows how everyone looks at a piece of work based on his own pre-conceived notions about reading.
Reading is a personal experience that can also be a communal one, but what makes it so enjoyable is having the freedom to share your opinions and emotions. We can agree or disagree about interpretations. The thrill of the debate is half the reason I review books. Books aren’t primarily in the wish fulfilment business but if you want to imagine yourself being Dauntless, go right ahead. It’s your right as a reader. Your enjoyment of a book is not dictated by anyone.
Unless you think Lolita came onto Humbert, in which case you’re a numpty.