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Creative Readers

"We tend to give writers all the credit, but reading is also an event of the imagination; our creativity, our inventiveness, encounters that of the writer, and in the meeting we puzzle out what she means, what we understand her to mean, what uses we can put her writing to."
~page 107 of Foster's How to Read Literature Like a Professor

Unless we would suddenly become telepaths able to read the minds of the authors whose work we read, it is impossible for us to know exactly what the authors intend when they write what they write. Yes, we can make our educated guesses and be accurate some of the time, but it is impossible to be right all of the time.

As Foster suggests, the reader puts much effort into interpreting the works. It does take some level of creativity to do this--especially when analyzing character and causal factors in plot. In the case of analyzing characters, it requires the reader to get inside the characters' heads, to an extent, in order to make sense of the actions. Each reader approaches a work with different backgrounds and ideas, so each understanding of the characters may be different. Take Daisy from The Great Gatsby, for example. One person may look at her and think that she really is as ditsy as she seems on the surface. There is certainly enough evidence in the novel to suggest this. Another person may look at the line "'. . . I hope she'll be a fool--that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool,'" and wonder if her ditsy behavior is at least partially an act (Fitzgerald 17). She has this understanding of how women in her time were often viewed and did her best to fit that profile. This is all just supposition, but it does go to show that the writer can only do so much; the readers have to do the rest.


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Comments (5)

Alyssa Sanow:

It only makes sense that the readers must do the majority of the work because it is they who gain meaning from the work. Each novel is only as powerful as its meaning to the individual reader. Taking your example, if a reader were to read The Great Gatsby without putting any effort into interpreting the meaning, it would lose all its power. It would become just another story. As readers we must gain all we can out of literature by putting effort into the reading process.

Christopher Dufalla:

Interpretation and understanding....it's all a matter of perspective. Indeed each reader might come up with completely different interpretations or quite similar ones. One reason for such diversity is that readers relate his/her own experiences or lack thereof to literature and interpret accordingly. Likewise, common sense and imagination band together and formulate logical interpretations. Readers are creative, for sure, but to say that an interpretation is wrong is a gray area. There are of course the exceptions (those who are blatantly wrong due to lack of factual content and/or complete randomness in interpreting), but interpretation involves personal connection, and hence, to a reader, his/her interpretation is correct.

Alicia Campbell:

Your ideas are definitely true. A certain phrase comes to mind: you get out of it what you put into it. I believe this is definitely true of reading. As one of my former professors used to say, a student should not merely be a sponge, absorbing everything a teacher has to say. Or in his exacuse words, coming to class wondering, "what will teacher teach me today?" Rather, a student should use this knowledge to supplement his or her own learning. This goes for readers, who should engage the text and incorporate his or her own meaning, only using the authors possible interpretations as fuel to this fire. In doing this, we can manipulate a literary work to satisfy our individual needs and expectations. The ability to enable this self-fulfillment in the reader, I believe, is the intent of any author and the standard of any good work of literature.

I wrote about this as well, in that we have an instinct to know that something is hidden behind meaning in literature, (Foster cleverly compares this to a pup instinctively knowing how to swim,) but until we are taught how to use that to it's full potential, we will not be able to use our imaginations as to figure out what the author means.


Jennifer Prex:

Chris, I agree. It is a gray area to say that an interpretation is wrong unless it is blatantly so due to too many facts countering it or a lack of facts supporting it. Though I could have misunderstood where you were coming from with this, I just want to clarify that when I wrote that it is impossible to be right all of the time, I was referring to an attempt to accurately guess the exact intent that the writer had. Readers can get much more out of a work than a writer initially intends.

Alicia, I agree. We can definitely get much more out of a literature class when we try to form our own opinions as opposed to just soaking up what the teacher has to say. We may not always agree with someone else's interpretation, just like others may not always agree with our own.

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