Tuesday, 7 April 2009

The writer-reader collaboration

Now that I've been published in the USA, I've had some intriguing reactions from readers but it was one recent one that provoked this blog. He wrote to say that he was halfway through and enjoying Material Evidence very much. I wrote back to thank him and, in the course of the email, asked 'OK, whodunnit, then?'

A couple of days later, I got another, 600 word email in reply. He was still just over halfway through the book but was confident that he knew who the perpetrator was. He then named the character and, in great detail, mapped out motives, the web of relationships that triggered and justified them and the various ways in which the investigating policeman unravelled them. He was, of course, 'wrong' but, as I wrote that word, I knew I had to put it in quotes because his reasoning was flawless. If my mind had worked in the same way as his, I could have written the book as he saw it and, assuming that my style was consistent and the publisher saw no other flaws, it would have worked as well as my own version. (I should qualify that by saying that I actually think mine is a better outcome because it's more surprising and - I hope - thought-provoking.)

The fascinating thing about the experience is that it confirms what I've said many times before in discussions and articles about fiction - that it's a collaboration between writer and reader. The act of reading is a creative act. Even though their histories are outlined far more precisely than those of any 'real' people, the characters in novels are still far from lifeless, predictable beings. Their paths can diverge and introduce complexities which may not have occurred to their creator. This isn't to question the authenticity of the writer's vision and achievement - on the contrary, the fact that the finished article is still capable of multiple interpretations confirms its dynamism, its life and its 'reality'.


  1. What I find amusing about this is I had my own solution when I read Material Evidence, which I also think was logically consistent with all the evidence, even after having read the real end. You must have done a good job keeping everything open to the last second.

  2. How cool, to know that your writing provoked such extensive thought on the part of the reader.

  3. I agree. I've had some strange comments from readers who have questioned my protagonist's integrity, motives, etc. One editor, to whom I had first submitted my manuscript for Diary of Murder, said my protag was reckless and took unnecessary chances. A reviewer recently admired her courage and stick-to-itiveness in solving the murders. So it's always open to interpretation.

  4. Thanks for the comments. I used to 'teach' French literature and students sometimes suggested that analysing a text ruined its impact. I know what they mean but I can't agree with them. As the person I mentioned in the blog proved, and as Gary and Jean confirmed, readers can find things in a text of which the writer may have been unaware. Equally, a writer may write something which seems superficial and yet is actually intended to reveal otherwise unspoken truths or effects.

    The essential thing is to be consistent with one's own themes. If there's coherence and integrity in the work, others will be able to find their own meanings and consistency in it, too.

    The first of my radio plays to be broadcast taught me that lesson. I wrote it to say certain things about how people react to one another. At rehearsals at the BBC, it was fascinating to hear the director telling actors to say things in particular ways to bring out different meanings of which I was only vaguely aware. And then it was reviewed in The Times and the critic interpreted it in yet another way. Every text is alive and made to relive by each reader.