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In Search of the Novel

Who Owns the Novel?

This workshop probes the living nature of the novel by illustrating how each reader makes a novel his or her own. It shows how the interpretation of a novel can change, depending on the reader's culture, class, generation, gender, and personality.

Goals and Objectives

Upon completion of this workshop lesson teachers will be able to:

  1. Allow students to explore their own interpretations and ideas about the novels they read.
  2. Help students assume full possession of both the novels they are assigned to read and those they read by choice.
  3. Develop a lesson plan that addresses the question of ownership based on a novel they are currently teaching.

Participants’ Comments and Observations

Ernest Gaines: It’s whoever picks it up and reads it and likes it. I don’t think the writer owns the novel and once he’s written the novel, it is for the public after that. It’s no longer my novel after I’ve written it. I have to go to something else and the novel is no longer mine.

Arthur Golden: I think a novel in a remarkable number of ways is analogous to a child. You know you raise a child knowing that the child’s job is to leave you and that’s what you’re bargaining for and you really screw it up if you try to do it otherwise. That novel is going to leave you in the sense it’s going to become other people’s, if you’re lucky that is, and they’re going to have a relationship with it which will certainly be, not may be, will be, different from yours. But if you understand that from the start it’s all right, you know, that’s what you hope for. And it’s interesting to me how many different kinds of comments I hear from people who’ve read my book, there are different things they respond to in the book and sometimes they respond to the same things very differently – not to a dramatic degree but to some degree and I’m delighted when I hear those kinds of things.

Charles Taylor: The author’s ownership stops at the moment he or she sends it out into the world. People sort of remake stories into what they will.

Milton Brasher-Cunningham: I think the ownership is collective. If I have a draft of a novel that I carry around in my bookbag with me that nobody’s read yet, I own it right now. But as soon as I tell someone else the story, they own that, too, and I don’t have control over that. It’s like when you speak a word, it takes on a life of its own and you can’t get it back. You can send some other words to chase it, but it owns itself. The story owns itself.

Sydney E. Onyeberechi: On the legal aspect of that question, the novel belongs to the author or the publisher, depending upon the contractual understanding made before the publication of the novel. Two, the novel, on the cultural level, belongs to the society that gives life to that novel. And, three, it belongs to the reading mankind and to the individual reader to do what he or she wills of that novel.

Katherine Paterson: It’s always a contract between writer and reader. I often say to children that it’s like squiggles on a page if you don’t have a reader. Of course the reader without the black squiggles doesn’t work either. It’s always a joint project. One of the wonderful things about being a writer is that the reader completes your book, and the book is going to be different for everyone who comes to it because they bring their own imagination, life experience, and emotions to the reading of it.

Leslie Marmon Silko:
In some small way each reader owns the novel in her or his own personal way. And I often hesitate when I get calls from students or graduate students who want to ask me what did I mean? Or what does this mean in the novel? Or what is this supposed to mean? And I always say, “Wait a minute!” As soon as I finish a novel and the novel goes out into the world, it’s a part of that great river of language and literature, and it doesn’t belong to me anymore. And my personal opinion about what I think it means, or even my intentions as a novelist, are not definitive. I can tell you what I thought I was doing or what I hoped to do, but language, the alchemy, the magic of what happens with narrative and with the resonance of language—they are larger. They transcend any little limited hope that a novelist might have for any given interpretation. So I hesitate to say what I think or what I intended.