How responsible is an author for the preconceptions and associations the random reader might bring to her book?
Certainly, there are known cultural assumptions that the writer ignores at her peril. The prologue of my first (unpublished) novel begins with the sound of a child knocking at her father’s study door. I dared not render that as “Knock! Knock!” because readers inevitably would think of the knock-knock jokes they traded in childhood, guffaw, and close the book.
But what of the ideas and tendencies individual readers bring in?
A would-be beta reader for the same novel told me she was turned off by the opening of the first chapter. It begins,
“She was glad Eric was out when he came.”
My reader told me she immediately assumed that “she” (the point of view character) was glad of “Eric’s” absence because it would allow her to get up to no good with the “he” of the sentence. The beta clung to this impression despite the very next paragraph’s revealing that “he” was a total stranger whom the main character found to be annoying and creepy. It made no difference. The opening, she said, had “given her” this idea and she could or would not let it go. Ergo, I should change what it says.
But should I? Who is responsible here, the reader or the author?
At a yard sale a few years ago I picked up a book called Prize Stories 1993: The O. Henry Awards. One story, “Newark Job,” by James Van Kirk, is set in the 1950s and begins with a twelve-year-old boy preparing to accompany his apartment building maintenance man father on his rounds for the first time. Reading this, I immediately tightened up. I was sure his father would get him down in one of those dark dank basements and molest him sexually. Why? Because I’ve internalized certain assumptions of my culture. Authority figures can’t be trusted. People who seem good on the outside are inevitably hiding some dark secret. The sexual urge can’t be controlled and must and will be expressed in the most perverse ways. I don’t live my daily life thinking that about people, but with literature it’s what I’ve been trained to assume. I remained apprehensive as I read, continually thinking, “It’s coming. It’s coming. Now, pretty soon, he’ll do it. He’ll attack his son, there’ll be a disgusting scene, and the boy will be traumatized for life.”
It never happened. Instead, the story turned out to be one of positive enlightenment, where a kid who’d taken his pop for granted learns that Dad really is a principled unsung hero, and begins to aspire to the everyday greatness that will be required of him as the son of such a man.
These days when I think of “Newark Job,” I remember the hope and pride the author meant me to feel. But I can revive all too easily the gut fear of my initial assumptions. Who is responsible for them? In this case, surely not the author. As Sam Llewellyn once wrote, “Oney fleas in ere is wot you brot with you!”
But even though that story was written fairly recently, in 1992, maybe it’s different now. Should we contemporary authors assume that in an ambiguous situation our readers will inevitably assume the worst? If the worst is not what we mean, should we go above and beyond to prevent their thinking it? Or should we as good readers, despite our personal psychologies, be willing to hold our initial impressions lightly as we follow the clues to the true meaning of the work?
You can probably guess where I come down on it. Assuming, of course, that the writer doesn’t open with an unintended knock-knock joke.