**UPDATE, OCTOBER 20: S.E. Hinton seems to have backed off a bit. She is still adamant that she has written the characters as straight, but seems to be more accepting that readers will have their own interpretations and that it is not an insult to her that they do.**
This John Green quote gets thrown around a lot, and it seems like some people don’t really understand what is meant by it. In light of the recent nastiness on Twitter, courtesy of none other than Outsiders author S.E. Hinton, I thought I might take a stab at explaining what it means to me, as both an author and a reader.
Small disclaimer to start: I have never actually read The Outsiders, so I can’t comment on whether I feel one way or the other on the specifics of the debacle, rather I am commenting in broader terms.
A few days ago, someone said something on Twitter to S.E. Hinton about reading her characters in The Outsiders as gay. She responded with some homophobic nonsense and said, very vehemently, that they were not gay. When people tried to enlighten her to her homophobic ways, she responded by blocking them.
The first thing I want to bring up is that until recently, a lot of characters were only hinted at being gay. Books are getting better now with diversity and representation, but it is still something that happens. So LGBT people have gotten used to trying to find themselves in the subtext. To come back and say “Prove it” when someone says they read your characters as gay is very insulting, and completely disregards the struggles of an already marginalized community. To say that someone is out and out wrong to read your characters as they choose is just rude.
This is where “books belong to their readers” comes in. I actually saw someone try to dispute this with a reference to copyright. That isn’t what the quote means at all. The author started the characters and the story. It is up to the readers to finish them. Once the book is in the wild, so to speak, the author is powerless to stop whatever assumptions are made about their characters.
Some authors meet these assumptions with grace, humor, and a great sense of humility. Others… not so much. It is great when authors like Maggie Stiefvater and Victoria Aveyard take time to answer fan questions on various social media platforms. Sometimes they are silly (like when Maggie answered the question about the Raven Cycle characters’ middle names) and other times they are serious. But it is rare that I see a YA author of today be discouraging to a fan who is asking questions that expand on the story they have already written. It seems, to me, that they love it!
As an author (at least, an aspiring one) myself, I am personally delighted to think about readers expanding on my story. To think of readers flooding my inbox saying “Hey, so I read this character as a POC…” and me going “I think that is totally rad!”. Or whatever happens.
So why is it that this author is so vehemently against readers making their own conclusions? Is it because the conclusion in question is about the sexuality of the characters? Is it because the author is older and therefore more set in her ways? Is it because her book is considered a “classic” and is therefore above all this frivolous nonsense like reader interaction, etc?
Judging by S.E. Hinton’s reaction to a simple reader question, I am thinking we will never know.
The author gives a book its start in life – the reader makes sure it has a life.
Stay bookish, lovelies!