I’m not a poet, but I have written a few poems, usually whilst I am struggling to write a story or an essay. I’ve spent five minutes typing some doggerel that my cat could’ve written, in the hope that it might kick-start my sluggish brain. I’ve shared a few of these on writing websites for the entertainment of seeing the appalled reactions of proper poets, but I’ve been surprised by some of the responses.
I thought people would be printing my rubbish and using it as toilet paper, but some reviewers appeared to be impressed by my amazing literary genius. I though What Do You Call Your Toilet was a daft list of different terms for the smallest room. According to one reviewer, I had written a clever satire about the class system. After I had finished crying with laughter at this assessment, I gave it some serious thought. I could see how someone would take that meaning from the poem. I hadn’t written it with that subject in mind, but is that relevant?
What Do You Call Your Toilet
What do you call your toilet?
If you are English, is it Bathroom?
If you are American, is it Restroom?
If you are Australian is it a Dunny?
What if you are quite well mannered?
Would it be a lavatory?
Would it be the Smallest Room?
Would it be the Ladies/Gents?
What if you are a bit uncouth?
Would you say Bog Room?
Would you say Shit House?
Would you say Crapper?
What if you have children?
Would it be a Pee-Pee Tent?
Would it be a Little Girls/Boys Room?
Would it be a Niffy Noo-Noos House?
What if you are a bit unwell?
Would it be the Hell Hole?
Would it be the House Of Pain?
Would it be the Kamikaze Killer?
So go on, what do you call it?
Why so shy? We all have to go.
Tell me, what do you call it?
What do you mean, "Trevor?"
When I read a novel, story or poem, I do not know the author’s intentions. A poem about clocks may have been written as a metaphor for life, the universe and everything, but would I be wrong if I thought it was a nice poem about clocks? The answer to that, for many authors, would be “yes”. I’d probably get dismissed as an ignorant philistine. After all, the author is the lord of all he creates, and I’m a lowly reader. How dare I have the temerity to alter the meaning of his work?
I dare because I am the reader. I am the person who pays the author’s wages, so perhaps the literary god needs to shut up and listen to me, for once. Writers often tell us they get inspiration from their personal experience, people they know, conversations heard on buses, etc. They have moods which affect their writing, political opinions which influence their writing, and, in some cases, personality disorders.
As a reader, I have had experiences. I’ve got memories and opinions of my own (the jury’s out on the personality disorder). I have different moods. Do authors expect me to empty my head of these things before reading their work? I can’t! If, as a writer, I create a character based on someone I know, it would be unreasonable to expect the reader to picture that person, regardless of my wonderful description. Readers will create their own person, using that description as a guideline.
This is why film adaptations are often disappointing. The director’s interpretation of the novel will never be the same as that of every single reader of the book. Writers must learn that the creative input does not end when they put down their pen. Every reader adds something of their own to the work. Selling a novel is like selling a house. Ownership has transferred to the purchaser, and if they want to pave over your beautiful garden, you have no right to stop them.
If writers think I’m spouting rubbish, perhaps the words of French literary theorist Roland Barthes can convince them. In his 1968 essay, The Death of the Author, he explains, “The reader is the space on which all of all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin, but in its destination." Therefore, according to Barthes, “The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.” So there!
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