Who owns the story you’ve written, you or the audience?
Well, legally, you do, that’s how copyright works, but that’s not what I’m getting at.
But, who gets to decide how a story’s gonna play out?
Recently, the SyFy series The Magicians experienced some pretty severe fan backlash about a season finale when one main character committed suicide. Well.. chose to die in order to save his friends. This character was canonically suicidal, so the move wasn’t out of character, but the problem was that the character was also canonically bisexual. His suicide, then, was a trope, specifically, the “Bury Your Gays” trope. Also known as the Dead Lesbian Syndrome, if you see a non-straight character, that character is gonna die.
The showrunners argued that it wasn’t suicide – there was even a scene when said character asks if he sacrificed himself to save his friends or if he’s just using that to excuse suicide? Obviously, the canonical answer is, “Nah, bud, you saved your pals!”
The response has been intense, with the episode’s rating tanking and the viewership shrinking. Many saw the “sacrifice” as just an excuse to, well, Bury The Magicians’ Gays. And those viewers who saw the character as representative of themselves were incredibly hurt.
The question always comes up when there’s a huge fan backlash: should The Magicians change their season 4 finale? Should any artist be change their art in order to please the people who look at, listen to, watch, read, or otherwise experience their art?
Meaning is in the Interpretation
So, who owns the meaning of any piece of art?
The creator? The critic? The academic? The observer?
Really, it belongs to the interpreter.
Art is supposed to have meaning, and the meaning that anyone finds in a piece of art is going to be based on their own experiences and cultural background.
Wendy Griswold main this argument in “The Fabrication of Meaning” from all the way back in 1987 in The American Journal of Sociology. In this, Griswold examines the interpretation of George Lamming’s novels in the US, the UK, and the West Indies. She found that each area interpreted the novel differently based on their own cultural background: the reviewers of the West Indies read a lot of questions about identity, American reviewers focused on the issue of race, whereas reviewers in the UK were mostly focused on language.
In other words, what Griswold found was that the cultural artifact may retain a particular coherence across cultural lines, but the meaning comes from the interaction between the cultural artifact and the culture of its viewer.
Let me give you an example.
In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, you’ve got two sisters (well, three, the the third is too young to get married, so who cares?). The oldest sister Elinor is serene and calm; she does not allow anyone to know her emotions, even after learning that the man she loved was already engaged to someone else. The younger sister Marianne is a Romantic. She’s dramatic, reactive, and obsessed with Romance poetry and Romantic ideas. She makes a spectacle of herself, to the point that rumors start to fly about what the relationship between herself and Mr. Willoughby really entailed.
Generally, everyone agrees that Elinor and Marianne are foils: Elinor is reserved, Marianne is emotional; Elinor is stiff, but Marianne is lively.
Now, modern interpretations see the main character development is the two sisters coming to a sort of middle ground: Elinor needs to become less reserved and Marianne less emotional. Elinor needs to loosen up a bit; Marianne needs to calm down. This is obvious in both the 1995 film version and the more recent 2008 BBC mini series (themselves, interpretations of the original work), in which, once Marianne has learned to calm down and becomes engaged to the colonel, Elinor bursts into tears when Mr. Ferrars finally proposes.
That’s not what happens in the book, though.
Elinor never bursts into tears. She never learns to loosen up. When Mr. Ferrars proposes, Elinor accepts him placidly, always composed and reserved. Early interpretations argue that, yeah, the sisters are foils, but that’s because Elinor is everything a woman should be and Marianne is very nearly everything they shouldn’t be.
That’s all well and good and interesting if you’re of the academic bent, you might say, but, Ainsel, what about creator intent?
Robert Frost wrote the poem “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” in 1922. It’s a pretty poem about a guy who… stops by the woods on a snowy evening. I’m a fan of it, myself, and a lot of Frost.
I’m sure we’ve all heard what the meaning is supposed to be: suicide. The man who’s stopped by the woods on a snowy evening is contemplating his own death, even suicide, during this dark night. I know that that’s what I was explicitly told when I was first learning how to interpret poetry.
Funny thing is, though, Robert Frost didn’t agree. He argued he wrote it because he’d sort of hallucinated it after a night of writing a different poem. It’s not about death, let alone suicide, Frost said. Categorically.
Funnier thing is, no one cares. No one cares what Frost was trying to say when he wrote “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Readers have found their meaning, and that’s where it stays.
Earlier this year, Amélie Wen Zhao pulled her debut novel (she’s publishing it again) over accusations of racism. The book in question, Blood Heir, includes depictions of slavery that some have called insensitive. I haven’t read the book, and since most of us probably haven’t yet, so we’ll have to wait and see. Zhao is hardly the first or only author accused of racism, and she won’t be the last.
But, here’s the thing: she clearly didn’t mean to write a racially insensitive depiction of slavery, she said so. We can all agree she was genuinely trying to be sensitive with her novel. But… that doesn’t mean she was. And, ultimately, it’ll be up to her readers to decide whether or not she crossed a line.
In other words, creator intention is fine. Creators make canon, after all, but ultimately, their voice is just another in the conversation.
Writing as a Conversation
And ultimately, that’s where we are. Any art, but especially writing, is a conversation.
For anything to be art, it must contain some cultural significance. When we paint, sculpt, write, or anything else, we’re trying to say something. We are trying to express something when we produce art. It may not be much. It may not be important. It may be as simple as “I wanted a happy ending.” Or maybe it’s “I just think dragons are cool.”
In whatever case, you’re saying something in response to an ongoing conversation – even if it’s just “there aren’t enough stories with happy endings or dragons.”
Because it is a conversation, you are the writer (or artist) aren’t just screaming into a void. You’re having a conversation with your readers – which means you’re going to have to shut up and listen occasionally.
Famously, Charles Dickens changed the ending of Great Expectations after backlash to the ending. Originally, Pip is alone and Estella is married to someone else. Author Wilkie Collins hated the ending. It was so bad that Dickens released a second ending that left the possibility that Pip and Estella could marry. Not everyone is happy with that, of course, but it was fan response that made Dickens change his novel.
Similarly, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle straight up resurrected a character. Sherlock Holmes was supposed to die Reichenbach Falls. Holmes wasn’t supposed to have some complicated Rube Goldberg plan to fake his death and survive – “The Final Problem” was supposed to be the final short story in the Sherlock Holmes series.
It was the fans that convinced him to bring the detective back from the dead. Holmes’ heroic sacrifice became the type of overly complicated scheme Holmes is now famous for.
What about artistic integrity? you may ask. If an artist creates something, shouldn’t they stand by it no matter what?
Allow me to discuss The Mist, both a novel by Stephen King and a movie.
*Spoiler warning? Do I need a spoiler warning for a book from 1980 and a movie from 2017?*
Movie is, for the most part, faithful to book. A mist rolls into town and there are monsters in it. It’s a story about trying to survive… that. The book has a pretty anticlimatic but still very chilling ending: the characters have run out of gas, and are stuck in a car surrounded by the titular mist and the monsters within it. And that’s it. The movie, though…
Once the crew realize that they’re done for, they all agree that they’d rather go out with a bullet to the head rather than by monster attack. Protag David shoots each one, including his son, but finds there’s no bullet left for himself.
Moments later, the military swoops in, having successfully closed the portal the mist was coming from and rescued a bunch of people. The group was moments away from rescue, and David has killed them all for nothing.
That is a huge shift from the ending in the book, where no rescue is in sight and potentially the world could be coming to an end. It changes the tenor of the whole thing: now we’re not worried about the ultimate doom of our protagonists, but devastated at David has done.
And Stephen King loved it.
Artistic integrity is important – and if you have something you can’t drop from a story without it changing everything, well… You ought to keep it. I mentioned in a previous article that you need to know how far you’ll bend a story before it’s broken, and that includes how important a controversial decision is to your story.
But, you don’t lack artistic integrity if you realize that you didn’t communicate the thing you were trying to say well enough, and it’s okay to realize that you made a mistake.
As many of us move toward self-publishing, we’re going to be more at the mercy of our audience than traditionally published authors are. We are going to have to be responsive to our audiences, too. Fortunately, the internet has made that easier than ever.
I think it’s time that writers, and artists of all stripes, embrace the art-as-conversation idea. Know what you’re trying to say, say it, and prepare for the conversation you’re going to have with your audience. Together, you can make something even greater.
So, who owns the story? Everyone does.
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