Reading in, reading out

I know that putting the word “postmodernism” up at the front of the post will send some people screaming in the other direction, but bear with me for a moment. One of the things postmodernism brought to literature was the idea that there’s no One True Meaning to a story; there can be many meanings, each constructed by the reader, filtering textual details through the lens of their own experiences. Different people will read different things out of the story, whether the author consciously attempted to put them there or not.

That isn’t what I want to talk about here.

What I want to do is contrast it with something: not reading out, but reading in. I was talking about this recently with some friends, in the context of the type of story with an element that might or might not be fantasy. Me? I say screw the hedging and the ambiguity; I read that type of story as fantasy, and I do so willfully. If the end of the story comes down on the side of reality, making that fantastical element psychological or symbolic or whatever . . . thanks, but I’ll stick with my own interpretation.

It happens with other things, too. I willfully read strength into characters (especially women) that aren’t given any, or sympathy into characters the story wants me to demonize. And I choose that phrase for it because this isn’t something I think is in the story at all; I’m adding it wholesale, entirely against any reasonable interpretation that would pass muster with a decent literature professor. In some respects it’s akin to the fanfic impulse, especially when fanfic is used to rehabilitate something seen as a flaw or hole in the source. It’s like I’m building my own story in my head, related to but not the same as the story on the page.

And you know, I like doing it. This habit has allowed me to enjoy any number of crappy movies I might otherwise be bored by — movies more than books, because if a book bores me I’m likely to just stop reading. Plus, the movie will roll onward while I play my own mental game, instead of requiring me to pay attention to words on a page. (It has, however, burned me once or twice, when I go back to watch something I remember being really fun or creepy or whatever, only to discover — usually when I try to show it to friends — that it’s actually a piece of crap.)

I doubt I’m the only one with this habit. So, how about you guys? I’d love to know who does this kind of thing, and to what stories, and what you’re reading into them.

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  1. 1. Paul

    I’m a roleplayer who plays, amongst other things, the old niche game Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game. based on the novels of the late Roger Zelazny.

    Given the time period they were written in, and the strengths and weaknesses of the writer, Zelazny did not do female characters well. Regardless, I and many other players of the game have chosen to interpret the characters (especially the female ones) as written in the novels in new and more complex ways in order to be able to use them in the game.

  2. 2. Phil

    Interesting post! I’m not as active a reader-in as you seem to be, but I still engage in this pursuit. Mostly I do so with character descriptions. I’ll wilfully ignore the author’s depiction if I settle on something that works better for me. This might be because I’ve latched onto the image of somebody I know from a film, or because I’ve been absently thinking of the heroine as having black hair and then stubbornly refuse to change it when I’m told it’s blonde.

    But yes–reading in. How can you not, to some degree?

  3. 3. Radish

    Ah. Reading fiction [for me] is like viewing art. I can take away from it only what I bring to the experience.

    And that’s typically shaped by where I am in my life at any given moment, by my current needs and wants.

  4. 4. ACameron

    As a reader we are actors in our own stories. What you are doing is exactly right. Rather than allowing the story as written to remain static words on a page you are providing the hundreds of little details that breath life into the story. The hidden beliefs of the characters, the emotions in their voice, the humour or irony in comments that may read stale or sad. This is the same thing that a good actor does as they turn a page of words from a script into a compelling performance. Oddly enough though, I find it easier to do this to a book over a film because with reading I control the passage of time in a way that I can’t effectively do with a movie, (ie read slower vs ?pause button?).

  5. 5. Marie Brennan

    Paul — I keep meaning to read those books, but poor female characters are one of the things that could put me off them.

    Phil — oh, heck yeah. I especially ignore the bit in Daniel Keys Moran’s novel The Long Run where Trent gets biosculpture to disguise himself (permanently) as someone else, because I have such a vivid mental image of Trent’s natural appearance that it will not admit any change.

    ACameron — you’re right about the passage-of-time thing. I think I can do it better with movies, though, because they don’t require my active attention to keep the story moving forward. If I start quibbling with a book, I stop reading to pay attention to my own thoughts, and maybe I never get back into it again.

  6. 6. A.R.Yngve

    If readers do like to imagine the characters thinking and acting differently from how they are written… then isn’t it odd that interactive fiction (those books where you can choose plot alternatives at certain points) isn’t much more popular?

    I’ve been experimenting with writing interactive fiction… but it seems readers tend to be put off when all the choices are actually put before them.

    Too much choice, perhaps, or more likely the freedom to choose “breaks the illusion”, like showing the machinery behind the stage…

  7. 7. Marie Brennan

    Hmmm . . . interesting point! For my part, I’d say that I don’t necessarily *like* to do this; it’s usually a response to something that would otherwise kick me out of the story. (Case in point: I hated the treatment of Milady in Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, until I started reading everything said about her through an interpretive lens that is a lot more charitable toward her than the one Dumas provided.)

    I haven’t tried IF very much, but I know my off-the-cuff reaction is that I doubt all of the alternatives are equally satisfying — God knows they weren’t back in the days of Choose Your Own Adventure novels, though that’s probably not a good sampling of the type.

  8. 8. Monica

    This makes me think of Peter Elbow, a composition pedagogy scholar who writes about “reading as a believer” and “reading as a doubter.” He thinks that learning to do both is important, as do I.

    Frankly, so often I allow my stance to be influenced by honestly extraneous things: my mood, perhaps my feelings about an author or a actor or a genre, but my ideal is to approach everything with the ability to read it as both a believer and a doubter.

  9. 9. Marie Brennan

    Monica — interesting! I had never heard of that before, but it’s a thought-provoking idea.


  1. How I write female characters at SF Novelists

Author Information

Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.



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