I’m not a big fan of dissecting literature. I love hearing writers talk about their process or read their work aloud, but the second they start talking about the motivations of their characters I get a little squirmy. It just seems odd to psychoanalyze fictional people. And there’s almost no way to do it without sounding like you take yourself oh-so-seriously.
During my promotional tour for THE GREATEST MAN IN CEDAR HOLE, I had the opportunity to call in to a number of book clubs. Talking with readers is a joy, because they always bring a fresh perspective and enthusiasm to the work. They also dissect like no one’s business, finding connections and symbols that had never even dawned on me. It becomes a sort of detective game to see if they can figure out what I was thinking when I was writing the story. Often these revelations are presented with such eagerness and a need for validation that I feel as though I’m letting them down when I admit that their findings are more of an accident than any sort of brilliance on my part.
I’m sure there are a many writers out there who purposely load their work with a rich undercurrent of genius for the reader mine. However, I suspect that for most of us, we simply want to write a good story that is as real and true as we can make it. That’s not to say that we aren’t inclined to sprinkle our work with a few symbols here in there or weave a theme or two throughout, but in general I think subtext is more often subconscious than intentional. That’s why overanalyzing strikes me as a fruitless pursuit.
Whether subtext is intended or not is beside the point. When a reader asks me if they’re right about a symbol or the motivation of a character, I have only one response—yes. I sometimes tell them what my intention was, but that's irrelevant. A story is a collaboration between writer and reader and my point of view is but one side of it. I am not the final authority on the story. Whatever a reader finds through her microscopic lens is not necessarily my truth, but a reflection of her own.