Many, many years ago I studied English at University, which seemed a good idea at the time. I liked books, I liked reading, I had opinions and I knew how to express them. I didn’t actually have a career in mind except that it had to have something to do with books, and so I finished my degree, spent lots of time unemployed until ending up in a not too unsuccessful career in Information Technology. Yep, that last part makes no sense. Since then I was thinking of taking up something like Psychology, just as a hobby, because I had all this insight into character motivations, author messages, so why not people personalities? What I found was a course that was just another load of opinions. Well thought out and constructed opinions but opinions nonetheless, they were not facts.
This made me realise that my entire English degree and the A-Level and GCSE before it were just reams and reams of opinions, my opinions, my tutor’s opinions, the opinions of old dead men in dusty books, but opinions all the same. The whole process is essentially flawed. If I wrote an essay about Shakespeare and then travelled back in time and asked him if that essay represented his train of thought he would probably have laughed at me.
How can my opinions based on my particular narrow viewpoint of life latch on to the mind of some guy who lived in a totally different time and culture? The simple answer is that they can’t. Anyone can structure an argument in an essay to mean anything if they are clever enough and witty enough and can source just the right quote. For all its grandiose wording, it’s a viewpoint, a clever construction, but that is all. It does not uncover some new fundamental secret about the content it is examining. It is saying more about the person who writes the essay than it can ever say about the subject.
Writing a book or a story is a very personal thing, but it also a very fine distillation of the author’s personality and intentions. It is not direct, it is fiction, not a list of instructions on how to put a shelf together. Other people can read that book, and they can take something away from it, some message, some feeling, but that won’t be the author’s message or feeling, it solely belongs to the reader, using that story or book to create a reflection of their own mind. I’m not even sure the author has a message, maybe some general theme, or some half baked idea of what a commercial book should look like in order to be successful. But the author, any author, has words put into their mouths by the critics, and the English students, and finally by the readers. We see what we want to see, and we have no choice in that. The stories we read allow us to discover more about ourselves, and the stories we write help us to express that knowledge.
At the end of the day I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. I think it’s a marvellous amazing process, but I will never make the mistake of thinking I know what the author meant when they wrote their latest masterpiece. I don’t even know what I meant when I wrote my own.
Disclaimer: This article does not claim to contain fact; rather it contains personal opinions held by the author and subject to change.