Writers’ Blokke
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Writers’ Blokke

When Does Analyzing Media Go Too Far?

Does consumer interpretation trump authorial intent?

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

One of the most popular jokes about school is that of the English teacher who wrongly sees metaphors and symbolism everywhere. The joke is that if an author tells the reader, “The sky is blue,” then they mean, “The sky is blue.” But the overzealous teacher would rather say, “Blue is the color of sorrow, painting the protagonist’s sky in shades of grief and mourning! It forebodes danger on our hero’s journey!”

To an extent, overanalyzing such texts makes sense, especially considering how commonplace metaphorical writing is, particularly in fiction. The medium practically encourages readers to look for a deeper meaning. But in order to do this properly, readers need to find evidence to back their claims. Without it, they risk jumping to conclusions, making assumptions about the text, or just looking for meaning where there is none.

A perfect example of this comes from the band, Of Monsters and Men, whose name is reminiscent of American author John Steinbeck’s book “Of Mice and Men”. The book, which was originally published in 1937, follows two working men who strive to achieve the American Dream, but are ultimately defeated by the depressing reality of their situation. As the title would suggest, mice play a pivotal role in the story’s subtext. They are used as a metaphor for both the characters and their dreams. From the start, the introduction of a dead mouse in one character’s pocket foreshadows his eventual death.

So, when Of Monsters and Men came into the public sphere with a name like that, fans began speculating. Did the band replace “mice” for “monsters” as a way to further critique the American Dream? Did they believe that the act of dreaming, and striving for a better life, was inherently wicked? Or were systems of oppression to blame for the failed dreams of the under-privileged? What did their name mean?

The underwhelming truth is that there is no deep meaning. The band has stated many times that their name was created by band member, Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson, who proposed the name because it sounded cool, and everyone agreed to it because it seemed to fit their aesthetic.

In situations like this, one is led to ask: Under what circumstances is analyzing a piece of media wrong? And to what extent does authorial intent play a factor?

Authorial Intent vs. Consumer Interpretation

According to The Oxford Reference, authorial intention is a position within literary debates over the validity of multiple interpretations of a piece of art. Authorial intention argues that no interpretation is correct besides that of the creator, as they have a “privileged understanding of its meaning.”

This argument is highly debated, however. Many have argued that once something is released to the public, the creator of that thing loses their sole control over it. Readers may interpret issues within the work that the author was not aware of in writing it, or they may understand an issue differently than how the author explained it. In essence, the author may have written a book, but that does not mean that a reader cannot find something in it that differs entirely from what the author meant to convey.

Let’s go back to the “blue sky” example from earlier. In that instance, the author may have meant nothing more than to describe the scenery, but the English teacher took it as commentary on the protagonist’s story arc. In a case like this, the reader’s interpretation differs from that of the author’s intention.

But does that make it wrong? Arguably, no.

In order for the teacher’s position to be valid, they would need to provide evidence of the character’s emotional state proceeding or following the description of the sky. If they could do that, then their opinion would be as valid as the author’s, since it would be canonically true to the source material. It is only invalid if there is no evidence to support their claim.

The benefits and pitfalls of overanalyzing

In reviewing authorial intention and consumer interpretation, we can see that both cases are valid to a degree. One must take into account the author’s intention when writing something as a way to navigate its meaning, but we cannot ignore the impact that work has — whether intentionally or not — on the consumer.

By consuming art in a more engaging way, people can find a deeper meaning. It can open meaningful discussions, broaden the learning experience, and be more enjoyable to those who seek more content. But there are times when overanalyzing a piece of media can go badly. Charged words or phrases can trigger some readers into taking a piece of media more seriously than it was meant to. And if the author is not careful, they can wind up implementing harmful stereotypes and clichés into their work.

For instance, in the “Harry Potter” series by J.K. Rowling, the wizard banks are run by goblins, who are big-nosed, greedy creatures with a bad attitude who cannot be trusted. Many readers interpreted this to be coded anti-Semitism, and although it is doubtful that Rowling intended her work to be read this way, it still offended many people. Readers pointed to other instances within the series where the story paralleled aspects about World War II, such as coding the Death Eaters as nazis, and Voldemort as a Hitler figure, as proof that the anti-Semitism claims were valid.

This was likely an unintentional slight by Rowling, but carried weight regardless. By being ignorant of, or ignoring racial stereotypes, she opened herself up to being criticized for a very serious offense. Part of the problem resides with readers, who were already mad at Rowling for her anti-transgender comments online; but part of the problem was Rowling’s lack of care in how her words may be perceived.

In cases like this, there should ideally be room for both parties to acknowledge their limited understanding of the issue, and discuss how such issues can be avoided in the future. But in reality, the impact a piece of work has often outweighs the author’s intention. It does not matter whether an author meant to hurt someone. All that matters is that someone was hurt.

This is why it is important to have editors of various backgrounds checking one’s work prior to publication. As an author, one must be aware of how their words will be interpreted; and in situations where they are unaware of the harm their words can do, they need to have check points along the way in the form of editors to help them realize their mistakes before they are made public.

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