When Readers Inject Symbolism Into A Writer’s Work

Tweet of the Day: Creating Fictional Characters: The Main Character

You written the best book possible. It gets you an agent, then after a little more tinkering it nets you a good deal with a leading publisher. After that it hits the shelves and climbs the book sales charts. You’re a published author now.

Then it happens;

It could be on your first book tour,

Or when you decided to check out the forums dedicated to your masterpiece,

Or in a review from a local newspaper.

The speaker describes in loving detail some aspect of the book and then you do a double take.

Did I just read/hear that?

Did someone interpret the dog as an extension of man’s need to exploit all living things under an antiquated patriarchal structure?

Say what now? It’s just a bloody dog!

It’s the main characters pet.

That is it.

Nothing more and nothing less.

But not for the reader. He has gone and injected symbolism into your work. You try to refute it by writing letters, sending emails, twittering to anyone who will listen, but it’s too late. The dog has become more than just a dog.

You write a sequel where you put a very long scene of the dog licking himself.

“That should do it!” you say to yourself. Out loud. Your wife looks at you askance from the kitchen with a look that screams I fear for your sanity, sweety.

Months later the forums explode with discussion of whether or not the fact that the dog licked himself left to right is/was more significant than the colors of the rug which somehow are a clue to the meaning of life.


As writers we endeavor to inject meaning into our works. Nothing brings us more joy (besides the paychecks) the way readers unwrap the subtle layers of word play. But sometimes they go too far. They either unravel the whole tapestry with rusty scissors or seem to be reading a completely different book. The more you shout “It’s just a dog!” the more they say “but it got to mean something!

There is really nothing you can do about it except write a short paragraph in a blog saying, “This is what it means” and praying that most readers will get it.


Because as I learned in my philosophy of art class so many years before, no piece of art is complete until it meets its audience. A book is just a book until someone reads it. Reading is a deeply personal experience, a conversation between author and reader and like any conversation everything said is open to interpretation.


People walk around with a set of prejudices, some conscious, most unconscious. As their eyes lift the words from the page an into their mind, their brains try to order these words in ways that fit their preconceptions. They want/need your words to fit these preexisting notions.

At least they like what you wrote and are willing to read it.

Don’t let it get it to you.

It get’s worse when they completely misunderstand and hate you for it.

Or use it to attack something that has nothing to do with you or your work.

Go back to writing your next book and keep cashing those paychecks. Because your wife is right, you are insane. But you’re the kind of loony that pays the bills, so who cares.


2 comments on “When Readers Inject Symbolism Into A Writer’s Work

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