What the author really meant was…

When I was in high school, I was once given an assignment to write an English paper comparing two famous works of literature that we had read during the year, with supporting evidence from literary criticism articles and other research. One of the books I chose was Siddhartha, and I found a book of letters written by Herman Hesse himself to use as support. In one of the letters, he explicitly stated, in answer to a direct question, what the main point of the book was. I had the ultimate supporting evidence! Words from the mouth of the author himself! I would get an A for sure.

As it turns out, I did not. As I recall, I got a B. I don’t really remember what the teacher’s reasons were for the B-rather-than-A decision, since she never gave us anything back until months and months later, when we’d stopped caring and couldn’t do anything about it anyway, but it did bring home to me the realization that English teachers don’t care what the author really meant, despite all the literary analysis conversations they started with that phrase. They just want us to find an argument and make it. Literary analysis is at heart a fuzzy subject, (though less fuzzy for some teachers than others, in that they only have one opinion they want their students to hold.) The point of the exercise is not to be right; it’s to develop argumentation skills and practice organized writing.

This is why Ray Bradbury is going to be doomed to disappointment. In an interview with the LA Weekly News last week, he stated his firm opinion that Fahrenheit 451 has been misinterpreted for years. From the article:

Bradbury still has a lot to say, especially about how people do not understand his most literary work, Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953. It is widely taught in junior high and high schools and is for many students the first time they learn the names Aristotle, Dickens and Tolstoy.

Now, Bradbury has decided to make news about the writing of his iconographic work and what he really meant. Fahrenheit 451 is not, he says firmly, a story about government censorship. Nor was it a response to Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose investigations had already instilled fear and stifled the creativity of thousands.

This, despite the fact that reviews, critiques and essays over the decades say that is precisely what it is all about. Even Bradbury’s authorized biographer, Sam Weller, in The Bradbury Chronicles, refers to Fahrenheit 451 as a book about censorship.

Bradbury, a man living in the creative and industrial center of reality TV and one-hour dramas, says it is, in fact, a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature.

… He bristles when others tell him what his stories mean, and once walked out of a class at UCLA where students insisted his book was about government censorship. He’s now bucking the widespread conventional wisdom with a video clip on his Web site, titled “Bradbury on censorship/television.”

That’s the thing about art. Once it leaves your hands and goes out into the world, it is subject to the interpretations of the masses. Alas for Mr. Bradbury, who may have written his book as a diatribe against TV, he has also written a book about the evils of censorship, whether he meant to or not. His own opinion of his book is destined to be just that, another opinion. His statements will not be the ace in the hole supporting evidence for future English students, and I fear he needs to come to accept this.

(I must tender my own apologies to Mr. Bradbury. I taught Fahrenheit 451 to my last ESL class, in a unit on dystopian societies. When read along with Harrison Bergeron, Animal Farm, and followed by a viewing of Equilibrium, which has a strikingly similar plot, it’s certainly not going to be seen as a book about the evils of TV. I don’t think even one of my students suggested that it was. Sorry. I suspect they learned a lot anyway.)

-posted by Dana


One Response to What the author really meant was…

  1. TheGnat says:

    Heh, poor Bradbury. I wrote a paper on Farenheit 451 in high school. But my English teacher was big on people admitting there might be a difference between “what the book is about” and “what the author meant it to be about”. Maybe literary analysis should do that too. As far as I’m concerned, Bradbury says it was about TV, so he meant to be about TV, but it ended up being a powerful book on censorship as well. Then again, this is what is done in the field known as media studies, where half of the research is on the schism between creators’ intentions and what the public makes of their creations.

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