My friends and I have very different feelings on the movie Midsommar by Ari Aster. Some of them love it; they think it’s brilliantly filmed and cleverly written. I think it’s a polarizing film with a problematic ending that wants to talk about mental health but devolves into absurd cult fetishism. We all agree that it’s a folk-horror movie centering around a cult called the Harga. But in an interview with Vox.com, Ari Aster revealed that “I never called them a cult. For me, they are a community, and they are a family.”
Aster’s interpretation changes the connotation of the film a bit. But regardless of his intent behind the creation of the Harga family, viewers saw the Harga as a cult. So which carries more importance, the author’s intent, or the viewer’s interpretation?
This is an ongoing debate without a truly definitive answer. Although, that’s part of the beauty of writing. One work can take on many different interpretations, fleshing out the text in new and interesting ways. Language Arts and English courses thrive on this idea of plurality in literature.
The author controls the narrative. The characters and plot points belong to the author, who holds the power to mold them into whatever form they please. Everything within the story is written with some level of intention. Intention gives the work shape.
But regardless of how much intent you put behind your story, you cannot control the audience’s perception of the work. A mundane detail you include might serve as a character-defining symbol for the reader. Dialogue might be taken as seductive instead of intimidating (“scared, Potter?”).
When people read, they form connections and relationships with the characters. There’s a reason we all have favorite characters; they strike a chord with us and linger in our minds. When a book is in a person’s hands, the character is no longer just the author’s, but the reader’s as well. Publication is like sculpting a bust out of clay and then handing it to somebody else while the clay is still a bit wet. The shape of the bust will remain the same, but when you pass it off, tiny impressions and fingerprints will mark your work.
So when writing, do we write for ourselves, or for an audience? It’s hard to say for sure. You want to create something that is truly your own, but you also want to provide a story your audience will enjoy. To quote Bo Burnham’s song “Can’t Handle This (Kanye Rant)” from his special Make Happy, “I want to please you/But I want to stay true to myself/I want to give you the night out that you deserve/But I want to say what I think and not care what you think about it”.
Stephen King talks about his approach to this question in his memoir-writing-guide On Writing. King writes his first draft purely for himself. Every character and plot point is catered to his liking, and he adds things that he would find cool if he were reading the book for his enjoyment. After waiting a while (he says that six weeks gives him distance to view the work with fresh eyes), King edits the draft and rewrites it, now with an audience in mind. This second draft is for other people, paying close attention to what the general audience will engage and connect with.
Having multiple people look at your works in progress can help you get a feel for how an audience will interpret your writing. They can also point out any plot holes you might have, and guide you towards accurate and respectful representation.
Again, there’s no definitive answer to the question of whether authorial intent or audience interpretation matters more. My current standing on the issue is to consider both at different times throughout the writing process. The author is entitled to their story, and the audience is permitted their interpretations. If one holds more importance than the other, we’ll just have to continue discussing and hope we inch closer towards a conclusion.
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.