More on the purpose of readings

In my previous post (which you may have missed, since FTB was down for a few days), I asked “What is the purpose of a reading?” I discussed a reading of Elden Ring that baffled me. I could not understand the purpose of the reading, other than arguing that it was intended by the authors. And the article didn’t really do anything to convince me of authorial intent.

I wanted to keep things simple, but my thoughts were spiraling outwards from there. So, if you permit, some more scattered discussion.

Elden Ring

First of all, the article on Elden Ring. I want to be clear: it’s entirely possible to justify the article’s reading without referring to authorial intent. For instance, villains often incorporate elements of the queer, not necessarily because of deliberate intent, but because they’re just following common narrative tropes, or simply common intuition about what is “evil”. Another possibility is that a player comes across this reading on their own, and just wants to talk about their experience. Alternatively, the purpose of the reading could be to educate readers on homophobic stereotypes by providing an example.

But I want to get to the core of the problem: the article did not say what the purpose was. It was not clear!  The article left me to guess.  There were several phrases about FromSoft doing this or that, so I guessed it was about authorial intent.  You’re allowed to think, maybe I just didn’t get the article, I didn’t read between the lines correctly. But… I think that would have been within the article’s power to correct.


So that brings me to another example. Some months ago, I talked about the movie Nimona, and why it didn’t make sense to me. That was one of my most unpopular posts in quite a while, facing disagreement on two separate platforms with distinct readerships. I’m totally fine with accepting that it wasn’t a good article—I write lots of junk, not every blog post’s a winner. But I want to explain a bit, what was the purpose of that reading?

The real purpose was, I saw the movie Nimona for a movie club. I almost certainly would not have watched the movie otherwise, as I do not like animated films, or comedies, or movies. I complain about every single movie I watch. Anyway, the movie club was excessively positive about it, and it did not feel like an environment where I could complain about it. So I was venting. But you know, venting in a way so as to not make it look purely like a “vent post”.

So the purpose of the reading, was to describe my experience with the movie, and explore the question of “why didn’t I get it?”  And by extension, why might other people not get the movie either? I think it should be pretty obvious that the purpose was not to explain authorial intent, as I do not think it was the author’s intent to present (to me) a confusing mess. However, authorial intent was relevant, because if I could not find a sensible reading, one possible method is to search for the intended meaning, which was presumably more sensible than whatever I was coming up with.

The purpose of the reading was also not to persuade you of the reading. If I didn’t get it, but you got it, there is really no reason for me to try to make you not get it.

One of the commenters (on the other platform) tried to argue with me, saying that their reading was better than mine. At some point they asked (paraphrasing) “are you trying to make a serious analysis of the film?” suggesting that I was trying and failing to do so. My response was “absolutely not”, at which point they promptly ended the argument.

So, it’s easy to blame that on bad reading comprehension. But I don’t think that’s fair to my readers, and as a writer I think it’s really more productive to think about what I could have done better. And my thinking is, I should have been way more blunt about what I saw as the purpose of my reading. Readers don’t know what’s in my head, so if I don’t communicate, then how are they to know?

Lord of the Rings

I recently saw a video talking about the history of queerness in Lord of the Rings. It highlighted the homoeroticism between Sam and Frodo, showing why the reading is compelling, and demonstrating that this had not escaped the awareness of the people who worked on the film. Did J. R. R. Tolkien put that in there on purpose? No, almost certainly not. Tolkien was drawing upon a different set of tropes that are no longer familiar to modern audiences. The hobbits are still gay though.

I thought this was a pretty great example of being clear about the purpose of the reading. Rather than arguing that Tolkien intended to make hobbits gay, it argued that they could be read as gay despite authorial intent. It explained why queer (or straight) audiences might read it that way, why that’s better than following the potentially regressive views of its author, and why later adaptations might benefit from drawing those themes out further.

There’s a reason that the video is so explicit about the purpose of its queer readings. In a way, every queer reading is on the defensive. When we talk about queer readings, it’s really common for people to say, “that book was published in 1954, surely they’re not really gay.” The video pre-empts this common argument by explaining that it’s not just about authorial intent.

There is something to be said about straight people being willfully obtuse. All the same, plenty of people are accidentally obtuse. Sometimes, I am the obtuse person. None of us were born with the innate ability to understand the purpose of a queer reading, not even queer people. So it really doesn’t hurt to be explicit about why we want to read it this way.

What lives when the author dies?

“What is the purpose of a reading?” is a broad question, but we keep on circling around to authorial intent. That’s because according to the naive understanding, the purpose of a reading is to describe authorial intent. If a critic doesn’t explain the purpose of their reading, then there will always be some people in the audience who assume by default that it’s about authorial intent. For all we know, the critic themselves takes the naive view, and it really is about authorial intent.

And that’s why “death of the author” gets so commonly repeated. It’s not (always) about authorial intent, and we need to say it over and over again. But I think it would be helpful if, instead of saying that it’s not about authorial intent, explain what it is about.

Since people barely talk about it, I feel like I only have a few basic tools at my disposal to really understand. If it’s not about authorial intent, then maybe it’s about understanding society, or maybe it’s just for fun. Then show me a reading that not about understanding society, nor is it fun, and I’m at a loss. Is it about authorial intent now?

I’m saying over and over again, in multiple ways, that I think people should explain the purpose of readings that they make.  I think it should be standard practice.  I think it makes the discussion much more accessible, and opens the path to deeper thinking about fiction.


  1. says

    Oh I really like this.

    So, this makes me think about different ways of interpreting the bible. From an evangelical perspective, when people talk about interpreting the bible, it’s always about figuring out what the passage Really Means, what the author and/or God was intending to tell us, the assumption that every bible passage can give us a practical message that we should apply to our lives, the assumption that everything in the bible is true, that everything that God said or did was right, and so on.

    So when I came across Christians talking about the bible, but not from that perspective, it was really confusing to me. Like they would talk about some interpretation- but their interpretation sounded kinda far-fetched to me, and they didn’t really present an argument for why we should believe that this is What It Really Means. Turns out that was because they totally weren’t trying to claim “this is What It Really Means” (and also if they don’t believe the stories in the bible really happened, then the concept of using them as a foundation to build a logical argument on doesn’t make as much sense). It was more about finding something meaningful, or something that they could relate to. (And that’s basically how I view the bible now.)

    It’s kind of the opposite of the evangelical approach- the evangelical approach is like “the bible is true, and here’s a logical argument for why the bible supports the point I am making, so you have to agree with me.” But readings of the bible from a queer/feminist/etc perspective are often more like “I am making this point, and using this bible story as a way to help make my point- but the point stands or falls on its own merits, it’s not like you have to automatically believe it just because I’m relating it to the bible.”

    And this was really confusing to me for a while- nobody really spelled it out or explained how they’re coming at it NOT using all the assumptions that evangelicals have.

  2. says

    @Perfect Number,
    Funny you should say that, because I strongly considered linking to your blog post about queer theology (which I’m pretty sure is what you’re thinking of). The trouble is, I’m pretty negative on it.

    Like, I just don’t get *why* you would read the holy trinity as an orgy. Sure, the point isn’t to understand what the Bible “really means”, but then what is the point? Seems like that’s more important to explain than the reading itself! (My guess is that this is a playful reading, like when my husband and I are watching a show, and we playfully commentate over it about how the characters are all gay.)

    Although Evangelicals would dislike this sort of reading, from my perspective as an outsider, they’re still very Christian. It’s Christian to want to interpret the Bible in a positive way that reflects your experiences. Whereas I am not inclined at all to read the Bible in a positive way. And while I could find reflections of my experiences in the Bible, it is not better than finding reflections of my experiences literally anywhere else.

  3. says

    Oh actually I wasn’t even thinking about my queer theology posts, because I have a lot of other blog posts where I’ve talked about the bible in this way, like, *this is my jam*. If you really want to know, the main example that came to mind for me was this post I wrote in 2018 “The Bible Lied About Lot’s Daughters” . [content note for child sexual abuse] It’s about a post by Ryan Stollar (who does child liberation theology, and advocates for homeschooled children’s rights- and a lot of that is related to how homeschooled children are more at risk of being abused). It’s about the story of Lot and his daughters- the bible says that the 2 daughters made a plan to get him drunk and have sex with him so they could get pregnant, and it was totally not Lot’s fault at all- and we actually believed that?????

    And what was really confusing to me at first was that the bible literally says this was a plan that the daughters made, and I didn’t realize Stollar was coming from the perspective that just because the bible says it doesn’t mean it’s true. (Also, I think in his post he did talk about the purpose of his reading- it was about how abuse victims being blamed for their abuse is a real thing, and isn’t it messed up how this bible story clearly doesn’t add up, but Christians who believe “the bible is inerrant” just totally accept it.)

    About queer theology- yeah in my post reviewing Cheng’s book, I mentioned the example about the trinity being an orgy because that was one of the most bizarre examples. I also don’t know the point of that. (Maybe the point was to be shocking…?) But there are plenty of queer readings of the bible that make more sense than that. Like, I once read a post from a trans Christian talking about examples of bible characters who were given a new name, and how that’s similar to trans people changing their names. I liked that~

    “And while I could find reflections of my experiences in the Bible, it is not better than finding reflections of my experiences literally anywhere else.”

    Well yeah this is very true. I’ve heard progressive Christians say they don’t believe the bible stories are “literally true” but they are “metaphorically true” but I don’t agree with that, because what does “metaphorically true” even mean? I guess it means it’s not a true story but it can show you true things about human nature- so, by that logic, there’s a lot of literature/media that’s “metaphorically true” so what’s the point of saying the bible is “metaphorically true”? Personally I do believe some parts of the bible are literally true, but overall the reason I care about reading the bible is because it’s culturally important to me. So for people who don’t have that connection to the bible, yeah it’s just as valid to find meaning in any other literature/media.

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