Authors have to accept that a published book takes on a life of its own, even if it means being sent alternative endings by readers
Part of becoming an adult involves accepting that we have no control over what other people think about us. It is an especially difficult lesson to learn for artists, who are hawking a larger portion of themselves in the marketplace than, say, a fishmonger or a mechanic. When the intent of a poet or sculptor is misunderstood by an audience, it may seem to the injured party that something in themselves is being mangled also.
That would explain the chagrin with which the writer Annie Proulx has responded to reactions to her short story Brokeback Mountain, about the secret 20-year love affair between Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar, two men who meet while herding sheep in 1960s Wyoming. Misreadings have only multiplied, she says, since the release in 2005 of Ang Lee’s film adaptation, with its most ardent fans sending her more hopeful endings and suggestions for perceived improvements.
“I wish I’d never written the story,” Proulx told the Paris Review . “It’s just been the cause of hassle and problems and irritation since the film came out … So many people have completely misunderstood the story. I think it’s important to leave spaces in a story for readers to fill in from their own experience, but unfortunately the audience that Brokeback reached most strongly have powerful fantasy lives. And one of the reasons we keep the gates locked here is that a lot of men have decided that the story should have had a happy ending … So they rewrite the story … I can’t tell you how many of these things have been sent to me as though they’re expecting me to say, ‘Oh great, if only I’d had the sense to write it that way.’”
It’s true that Proulx has been protective of Brokeback Mountain to the point of intemperance. Writing in this newspaper in 2006 shortly after the film failed to win the Best Picture Oscar, she referred to the winning movie, Crash, as “Trash”. Hers is the frustration of the control freak diagnosing unfairness in any outcome not to her liking, be it a wrongly attributed trophy or an unfathomable response.
The virtues of Brokeback Mountain remain constant whether it wins a hundred awards or none at all. Likewise, the original story is not diminished by the desire of its readers to supply their own cheery addendums. The irony is that Proulx comes so very close to identifying a probable cause for the influx of sentimental fan fiction. Her story ends – spoiler alert – with the murder of Jack in a homophobic assault. It is this which has led readers to propose future partners and a brighter future for Ennis. “[They] can’t understand that the story isn’t about Jack and Ennis,” she says. “It’s about homophobia; it’s about a social situation; it’s about a place and a particular mindset and morality. They just don’t get it.”
Or maybe they do – and more intimately than she realises. There is a clear psychological motive behind “fixing” in works of art the errors we experience in life. That is the very basis of escapism and wish-fulfilment. Gay readers are no less susceptible to it than anyone else. Proulx complains of an injustice done to her writing and her story – she even invokes legality, arguing: “Those are not their characters. The characters belong to me by law.” But her readers are also launching appeals against perceived wrongs. In a world in which, regardless of recent advances in civil rights, homophobia remains the default setting, it is hardly unusual to want to remake in fiction a flawed reality.
JK Rowling recently revealed that she had been moved to correct young female readers on their interpretation of the wretched Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter series. “Draco,” Rowling wrote, “has all the dark glamour of the anti-hero; girls are very apt to romanticise such people. All of this left me in the unenviable position of pouring cold common sense on ardent readers’ daydreams, as I told them, rather severely, that Draco was not concealing a heart of gold under all that sneering and prejudice.” Her advice is both fonder and more practical than the harrumphing offered by Proulx. Where Rowling wants to positively influence her young audience, Proulx is reaching unhelpfully for a bucket of icy water to douse those readers not to her liking. The sooner she realises that novelists have little dominion over their audience, the happier she will be.
I can’t see the point in writing to a novelist with ideas for alternative plotlines. It seems like a waste of stamps. But it is ungenerous of Proulx to wish she had aborted the story at the outset rather than sending it into the world where it could give pleasure and nourishment to its readers. Yes, even those who have the temerity to draw from it meanings not intended by its author.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014