There’s a phrase tossed around a lot, by both writers and readers, often as a codified rule of the industry. “When you put a story out there,” so it goes, “it’s not yours anymore.”
Forgive me, but I hope it isn’t true.
My shelves are stuffed with books of many descriptions from many different periods of history and genres. The shelves are mine, but I know the books cannot be. Too many were hoary classics long before I was born. Too many are about things I never experienced or could never have imagined on my own. They are the offspring of minds that saw and felt and heard things my mind never has. If they hadn’t taken the time and effort to preserve and present their minds on paper, I would never have known they existed.
I would never have met Scout and Atticus and Boo Radley without Harper Lee. The same is true of Frodo Baggins and J.R.R. Tolkien; of Lord Peter Wimsey and Dorothy L. Sayers. How then can I claim them for myself? As the paragraphs and pictures have rolled through my brain, not a single thought has emerged that wasn’t placed there by the author. Not an emotion that wasn’t stirred up by the chemical reaction of their words colliding with my skull. These books are not mine. Only my responses are.
This intimate connection between minds that will otherwise never meet is only possible if the writer’s words are still his own. If, when you put a story out there, you still retain authority. It’s only by this ownership of a story that the real value of the story — as an insight and a connection to how the author sees the world — can be realized. This ownership is also what protects an author’s right of revision even after the story has found an audience, no matter how that audience may feel about it.
So please, no more of this nonsense that the reader owns the story. Or worse, that no one owns it, as if it dropped out of the sky unasked for and uncreated. For a book to have any impact at all it must be thrown at you. If a story knocked you on your back, there was someone putting force into the blow. Don’t get up and pretend they’ve given up their part in it. Thank them and give them their due.
They are called authors because they claim authority.