I must begin with an apology: sorry for titling this post with what has possibly become the most repeated phrase in the English language, but lately I’ve been thinking about how far we own the words we put on a page, whether poetry or prose.
As I type, I’m listening to Mariella Frostrup discussing Why We Read, on radio 4, which is well worth a listen again*. She’s interviewing all sorts of people who are saying interesting things about the benefits of reading fiction – what an excellent set of justifications for settling down with a book. Not that I am ever short of excuses.
The radio discussion has raised all sorts of angles to investigate, but what I’ve been particularly conscious of lately, is ownership. In part this is because I’m working on George Elliot’s, Middlemarch, and I’m trying to think about the differences between my style of reading and all the decades of interpretations that have gone before me.
But lately, I’ve been thinking, and talking to the writing group, about what happens once we hand our words out for reading. Let me pass you over to Margaret Atwood:
A book may outlive its author, and it moves too, and it too can be said to change – but not in the manner of the telling. It changes in the manner of the reading. As many commentators have remarked, works of literature are recreated by each generation of readers, who make them new by finding fresh meanings in them. The printed text of a book is thus like a musical score, which is not itself music, but becomes music when played by musicians, or ‘interpreted’ by them, as we say. The act of reading a text is like playing music and listening to it at the same time, and the reader becomes his own interpreter.
from, Negotiating with the Dead: a writer on writing.
I’ve taken this out of context, and I’m deliberately missing part of the point, because Atwood is looking at this in a more complex way than I aim to do. I just need to remind myself to be prepared for readers to not always get my point.
The real purpose, surely, is to entertain. Beyond that, does it matter if my audience, no matter how great or small, draws a reading from it that I hadn’t intended?
One response to thinking about this must, surely, be to take care about the way I use words. The less sloppy I am, the greater chance you’ll see what I am trying to say.
* No, I don’t count this as multi-tasking. Sometimes I need backgrounds to tune in and out of – particularly if it tones-in with the wavelength I’m working on.