My recent review in The Chicago Tribune has made me muse on how no matter what tone a writer strives for, or what a writer wants the reader to think, readers bring their own preconceptions to your work, and can read into it all sorts of things that you didn't intend. A classic example of this is The Lord of the Rings, which famously has been described by some critics as an allegory of the rise of Nazi Germany, and then World War II. But which Tolkien himself claimed was no such thing at all.
Of course it's possible to have undertones in your work that you are not aware of, a sort of subconscious thread that is completely invisible to you. We all have our own blind spots and we all have ideological viewpoints that we are too close to to actually see. But that's different--being unaware of your own subtext--than what I am thinking of here.
Here I'm thinking of how words can be very imprecise. With visual mediums like paintings or sculptures, everyone sees the exact same images. People may have different interpretations of these images, but if you paint a picture of a cow, everyone who looks at it sees the same cow. But writing depends upon words, and words can mean different things to different people. Cow may mean a bovine animal to us all, but say the word cow, and some people may picture a Holstein, others a Friesian. Even if the writer takes the time to describe the cow more specifically, a reader may have such a strong idea of what a cow looks like that he/she disregards your description completely.
And that's just physical descriptions. When it comes to characters people can bring very strong opinions to what they read. For example, I've had several readers have very negative reactions to Buck. They think she's a bad mother and very mean to Flora. I, on the other hand, have a great deal of sympathy for Buck--she's in a hard position and has to sometimes think of her duty before her family. Therefore I'm much more sympathetic to her. I've tried to convey a sympathetic impression, (even tho' Flora herself is not so sympathetic) but either I didn't do a good job, or some readers had such a strong negative reaction to Buck that they ignored my attempts to show her dilemma. They just flat didn't like her.
Now, I'm not trying to say that there is only one correct reading of a book, and that is the reading that the author intends. Nor am I trying to say that if the reader gets the wrong impression that's the reader's fault. You the writer might have down a crappy job in trying to communicate. I'm more thinking about how interesting it is that, for the writer every story begins completely in the your head. Then you write the story down. You try to write the story precisely to convey the meanings and descriptions that you have in your head. But once the story is on the page it takes a life of its own. The story that the writer thinks she is writing and the story that the reader thinks she is reading are not always the same story.
And what's really interesting is how different those two stories can be sometimes. I've read reviews of Flora where I've wondered if the reviewer read a completely different book. And I've read reviews in which I saw a glimmer of the story I thought I wrote, but the meaning assigned to that story was completely different. Then I've had reviews where the reviewer saw the story completely as I did. Same book, three different interpretations.
I guess this is one of the things that makes life interesting--differing points of view. Still, I find it fascinating how widely those interpretations can vary.