So as I noted last week, Mary Robinette Kowal wrote a recent blog post about revising a novel after getting some feedback on how she handled race. In which she made the observation that it didn’t matter what her intentions were — ” Once the story is out of my hands, each individual reader’s interpretation is valid and correct.” I really disagree with that. I get that in context, her point is that if the story comes out racist, it doesn’t matter why she wrote it the way she did, which makes sense. But the way it was phrased — no, sorry. Not all interpretations are equally valid, or automatically correct.
Some people interpreteed Steve Ditko’s art on the Silver Age Doctor Strange as the result of his drug experiences. Nope.
Some people assumed Birth of a Nation was historically accurate (though Woodrow Wilson probably did not call it “history writ by lightening“). Lots of people probably thought the happy slaves singing away and loving their master in countless later stories of antebellum life were true to life.
Some people thought the black characters in Hunger Games were white, though I suppose that’s more reader incomprehension than interpretation.
Right-wing pseudo-historian David Barton interprets the Gospel parable of the vineyard as Jesus saying we shouldn’t have minimum wage. Wrong again.
Lots of people interpret events in stories as reflecting the author’s personal experience. Sometimes that’s right, sometimes it’s wrong.
Or consider The Pooh Perplex, Frederick Crews’ delicious send-up of literary interpretation (all rights to cover remain with current holder). One mock-analysis of the Winnie the Pooh books applies a Marxist interpretation: “After luring the worker Pooh into his home with never-paid promises of honey, the capitalist rabbit traps him in the doorway and uses him for one week’s unpaid labor as a towel rack!” A Christian exegesis shows that “obviously” Pooh is fallen man, Christopher Robin is God and Eeyore is Jesus (he’s suffering, he’s humble, he has a nail driven into his butt, could Milne be any more obvious?). Would Kowal argue that interpretations this batshit, if made in good faith, are valid? And I don’t think that’s a totally unreasonable argument — I have seen some pretty weird Christian and Marxist interpretations over the years.
(And by the way, I highly recommend Pooh Perplex to anyone and everyone. It’s hysterically funny).
And Strange Horizons has an excellent argument on why the standard interpretation of James Kirk as a lecherous tomcat is total bullshit.
I don’t mean that “no interpretation that disagrees with the author’s view can be correct!” Some subtext crops up whether or not the author meant it that way. For example the Legion of Super-Heroes’ first black member, Tyroc, came from Marzal, an island inhabited by isolationist blacks. His joining the Legion was meant to add diversity, but there’s some unintended subtext to the story that shows the Marzalians were irrational to think there was any racism in 30th century Earth — no, they were the real bigots not to trust white people!
Or consider the classic Teen Titans plotline, the Judas Contract. When the story shows fifteen-year-old Terra smoking, drinking and bedding Slade Wilson, AKA Deathstroke, the point is that she’s a very, very, very bad girl. Not that Slade Wilson is a slimeball statutory rapist (when the Titans’ Changeling brings the subject up with Wilson, Slade treats it as a matter of jealousy — did he sleep with Changeling’s girlfriend? — and nothing more).
So I don’t consider “well I didn’t mean it that way, so your interpretation is wrong” to be a valid defense. Necessarily. It’s one of those things where I’d take it case by case, interpretation by interpretation.