Intro: I wrote this a few weeks ago, forgot about it, discovered it today only to wonder why I never posted it when I wrote it. It's a fascinating piece of work which took me by surprise. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did with fresh eyes.
In Time Frank Rich wrote about Apocalypse Now: “while much of the footage is breathtaking, Apocalypse Now is emotionally obtuse and intellectually empty.”
I read this quote on Wikipedia the other day. My initial thought was this:
Because you don't have the imagination to see it.
Now Frank Rich is a very prominent and respected critic of theater and film. He definitely has an imagination, probably a greater one than mine (at least he's put his to better use than I have), but I obviously got a lot more out of Apocalypse Now than he did.
How can two people hold such different views of the same thing? The beauty of art, especially of writing (but it is just as true of music, stage and film, painting, and other media), is that it's wholly subjective. It is so subjective that in many cases it is solely up to the reader or viewer or listener to give the work meaning. Once the painting, song, or movie is finished—once the book is finished—it is no longer the creator's job to give the work meaning. It is out of his, her, or their hands. It becomes nothing more than a blank canvas for the consumer to decipher in his own terms.
Writing is, as Stephen King said in his book “On Writing,” a form of telekinesis. But it is not a certain form of telekinesis. There is a risk of being misunderstood, by which the author's original intent is misinterpreted by the reader. Yet even in misinterpretations, there is an amazing thing going on. If the reader of a book takes the time to read, takes the time to understand, even if he misunderstands the author's original meaning, he is giving the book a great power, drawing that power from it into himself.
All works of art possess this potential of power. Even the simplest, most basic, or poorly done pieces have the potential to move and astound. This is why books like Harry Potter and Twilight have been so successful. It is not just that these books have huge marketing machines behind them. The books themselves, as with all books, are essentially blank slates. The words, meaningless jumbled piles of letters. Until someone comes along and casts their imagination upon them. Then the words take on life, meaning, power.
That a certain book is successful and well respected is a sign of the times, but more importantly a window into the minds of readers. Why is one book successful and another not? Specifically, how is each book being interpreted by readers?
Books that make it, make it for no other reason than that readers found them easy vehicles to express their own innermost emotions.
The author, not a master of telekinesis, but the perfect doorman, opening the door into, not the author's world, but that of the reader's. For when a writer writes, the reader reads. The writer writes what he sees. The reader reads what she sees.
And so millions of possibilities, of potentials, unfold.