It’s Okay to be Wrong! The Importance of Interpretation and its Limits…

thoughts orangutan

Though of course I never am 😉

Just kidding! What I do think is that opinions are not set in stone and that we’re not always going to be right. And that’s okay- as nice as it would be to be the arbiters of truth, part of the joy of discussing books is finding out what we don’t know, otherwise what would be the point of having a discussion?

Now that we’ve established that, I can safely say there are *loads* of ways to be wrong (what a happy thought 😉). Years ago, I made a post about how I don’t like when people say “read between the lines” as an explanation for why they have a bookish theory, which is akin to saying “I don’t have a real argument for this, just go with it”. And, as fun as it is to come up with things on the fly, that’s just not going to cut it. You need evidence to back up your points; you must prove it (otherwise smart alecs like me won’t buy what you’re selling 😉).

Mean-Girls-GIF-Cady-Heron-Lindsay-Lohan-Falls-In-Trash-Can1The problem that arises is how easily “reading between the lines” can fall into pitfalls. One of the most obvious ways is how it can contradict canon- such as claiming a character is gay without textual evidence of this. Of course, I’m not saying don’t write/enjoy fanfic, only that this may not be a strong interpretation of the actual text and can lead down a bad path analytically. Good evidence is important.

Though I veer towards the side of “Death of the Author” (more on that another time) I also think that what is in the text matters. There is such a thing as going too far with an interpretation- especially to the point where it contradicts common sense. thinking monkeyI’ve seen and heard enough crackpot theories over the years to have a healthy scepticism when I hear a new one. Not every line break in a poem is deep and meaningful; not every adjective/verb/noun is worth focusing on (something Rachael points out in her brilliant “Is the Author Really Dead?” post).

Even authors can be wrong about their own work. On the one hand, while they won’t be wrong about authorial intent, they may not realise the impact their techniques can have and cannot definitively say whether they achieved what they set out to. Plus, we all know the authors who just-so-happen to reinterpret their own work to make it seem more “woke” 😉. Shoddy and (dare-I-say-it) attention-seeking interpretations like these perhaps shouldn’t be taken too seriously. After all, the point of interpretation is a search for the truth, not trying to be “on trend”, or show off, or please ourselves.

None of this is to say that interpretation isn’t important, just that it’s better to take it with a pinch of salt (and maybe let it simmer a bit before you gorge yourself on it 😉). Whether it’s the author saying it or it comes endorsed by a literary scholar, every criticism needs to be approached with a degree of caution. And that goes for our own views too!

Yes, being reflective of our own views may not be so fun, questioning can make us uncomfortable and knowing we might be shot down is terrifying. Yet, in the great quest for the truth, we need to be prepared to make bad guesses and put ourselves out there. As wonderful as it would be to be right all the time, we need the courage to be wrong sometimes too.

So, what do you think? Are all interpretations valid? Or is it okay to be wrong? And, dare I ask, are you okay with being wrong? Let me know in the comments

29 thoughts on “It’s Okay to be Wrong! The Importance of Interpretation and its Limits…

  1. That’s a really interesting discussion! I recently read a quote by Angela Carter that said ‘Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms.’ So in a way all our interpretations are shaped by our very own experiences and values. That’s why there can’t be just one interpretation of a story.

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  2. As a teacher grading essays, I try to not to say “right” and “wrong” but well-supported and badly-supported interpretations. If you pose interesting insights and back them up with subtle textual evidence, that may not make you “right” in the way that 4 is the right answer to 2+2, but it means your interpretation is without doubt valuable and will likely be received as such by other readers. This includes interpretations that contradict one I may have made in class. But if you have a half-baked thesis with no textual support, well sorry, I don’t care if you’re “right” or “wrong,” you’re not going to pass. (Of course some claims are not literary claims but factual ones that can be proven right or wrong — such as Shakespeare based “The Tempest” on Eskimo fertility rites.)

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    1. Okay that’s fair! I completely understand that and that’s a good way to put it. And yeah I get what you mean about it being ok to have an interpretation that contradicts another (including the teacher’s). But yeah I agree. Hahaha yes true!

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  3. While I respect nearly everyone’s interpretation of a text I can’t help but think of some lovely debates I’ve had the ASOIAF fandom over the years including one person who argued heatedly that Robb was actually Littlefingers son and the lack of any textual evidence was their evidence which was by it’s nature an impossible argument to prevail against. There’s a thin line, especially in some of the more modern and popular books, between what’s in the book and people’s beloved head canon.

    So to answer your question it’s okay to be “wrong” and I’ve had equally interesting chats with people who opened my eyes about things I missed or might not have even thought of to see a text in another way. But no not all interpretations are valid at all. As always enjoyed reading your thoughts on this one!

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  4. Interpretations are by their very nature varied and subjective. That being taken into account, all are valid – just as all the people who voice them are valid. I recently read a book that, for me, was a chore to read and was not at all to my taste. I’ve since read several glowing reviews for the same title. I was not ‘wrong’, just as the glowing reviews were not ‘wrong’. All reviews are personal interpretations of the reader and all are valid. Btw, the book I refer to was “Catherine House” by Elisabeth Thomas.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Ah that’s fair! And I do agree with you there- taste is entirely subjective and you can’t be wrong or right about whether you like something (I’ve been told that I’m wrong to like/dislike something before and it’s super weird).

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  5. Oooh yes, I am completely okay with being wrong. I would never be one of those people who ….
    Oh. Wait. Heh.

    Of course all people naturally resist being wrong, but there are degrees of this, right? It’s possible to be too inflexible, and it’s also possible to give up your assertions too easily in an effort to avoid seeming arrogant … in fact, to avoid being … wrong.

    I do think that people’s attitude on this is influenced by the value system under which they operate. If the value system is very legalistic, with no grace built in, then the stakes for being wrong are infinitely higher. No one is going to admit to wrongdoing if the consequence for a first offense is eternal damnation. (And this doesn’t have to be a fundamentalist Christian value system …. a woke or communist or strictly rationalist value system can damn you just as thoroughly and quickly.)

    This hits close to home for me because I have the unfortunate combination of being very sensitive to criticism, but also being interested in wild, speculative theories. XD

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Hehehe!
      Yeah I completely get that. It makes sense to find a balance.
      And that’s a good point. I do get what you mean there, I hadn’t thought about it, but yes, sometimes the stakes for admitting you’re wrong are a lot higher.
      Ah I understand!

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  6. I think we all bring our experiences and characteristics to a story and hence interpret it for ourselves. The problem I have is when someone forces their interpretation. I love hearing different interpretations but there needs to be some basis to it. Making stuff up doesn’t confirm shit.

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  7. I think it’s ok to be wrong as long as you can support why you think a certain way. I dreaded my Literature classes growing up because there were always so many symbols and meanings I had to memorize from class discussions that I couldn’t enjoy the books we were reading then. (It was hard to enjoy The Little Prince in seventh grade; I’m glad I reread it for fun in college since it is such a good book.)

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  8. You’ve got to strike the balance somewhere between fascist and hippy. Reading is a colloborative process with the author, everyone ends up reading a slightly different book. From this point of view all opinions are valid and valuable. However if someone tries to convince me Douglas Adams has coded a rock opera about gay waffles into his Dirk Gently books, I’m going to be inclined to think they’re mistaken.

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  9. Noooooo – I am never wrong! How dare you suggest such a thing? My interpretations are the ultimate truth. As proof, I eat every book I find worthless yet I still have a perfect digestive system. Hold on, I’ll be right back. (Rushing to bathroom.)

    Liked by 1 person

  10. With pride approaching, I’ve been thinking about this “read between the lines” idea more and more, and it just honestly makes me angry. Yes, fanfiction is great, I’m a huge supporter of it, I love the idea of mainstream queer characters everywhere, but why does it have to come about only when we’re reading between the lines or writing fanfiction of it (or ffs tweeting about it years later)? I agree with you. Not every line is meant to carry the weight of the world, and I really wish there was less room for interpretation and more just straightforwardness. Not even just straightforward queerness in stories, but just straightforward about all the things. I love a good dissertation on the longing glances between characters, but maybe, just for once, we could have our cake and eat it, too?

    UGH, I don’t know if that made any sense, haha, since I think I’m arguing away interpretation altogether. 😂

    Liked by 1 person

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