Learn a Little Lit—Margaret Atwood

margaret atwood2Interpreting literature can be boorish business; just skim book reviews in major dailies—or customer reviews on Amazon. Even book clubs can work themselves into a lather over different ways of reading the same words.

Yet if we learned anything from Post Modernism, it's that words don't confine themselves to a single meaning … which is why it was so gratifying to come across this comment by Margaret Atwood.

I’m not comfortable giving interpretations of my work. If I were to provide one, it would become the definitive interpretation, inhibiting readers from finding their own meanings.

Talk about humility. Atwood acknowledges that while an author may exert full authority over plot and characters, she has no such control over her readers.

Readers should feel free, she seems to suggest, to derive meanings, separate from hers. That would imply separate from other readers, too—all of whose ideas may be equally valid.

Words of caution. The operative word in the above sentence is "may"—other interpretations may be equally valid—which means we're not free to go off the reservation and shoot at anything that moves. Interpretations need to be supported by evidence within the text and consistent with the general sense of the work.
no-santa2
In other words, Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" is pretty much NOT about Santa Claus. (I had a student once who insisted it was—mistaking a literary parody for the real thing.)


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