On Reading and Writing: Ambiguity, Sequels, Series, Responsibility

I just re-read Lois Lowry’s The Giver. In the story (for the 2 people left in the world who haven’t read the book or seen the movie) one of the rules of the dystopian society is to seek precision of language. So if one were super hungry you wouldn’t say you’re starving because you’re not literally starving. I think we would actually do well in our country to seek that kind of precision of language, as it seems we’re moving toward a different type of dystopia, where words and sentences have no meaning, and today’s lie is tomorrow’s truth, or even this afternoon’s truth, or even the next Tweet’s truth. But that’s not what I wanted to blab about today. I found it ironic (or should I say incongruous?), that the ending of The Giver was left ambiguous and up for multiple interpretations given the focus on precision of language in it. That’s one of the things I want to talk about.

Did Lowry set up that dichotomy on purpose? Apparently there are multiple interviews where she weighs in with her interpretation of the ending. And she wrote three more books in the “series,” after years of getting plagued with questions from readers. Apparently in book three, Messenger, she says definitively what happened at the end of The Giver. But Messenger was published 11 years after The Giver. It totally irks me that she weighed in. Because I believe Lowry originally wrote The Giver as a standalone.

So, why am I writing about this? (Maybe because I’m in grad school and I’m thinking too much?) Well, because I’m thinking about authorial responsibility, and how as writers we bear responsibility for what we put down on the page. But where does that responsibility end? If our readers are dissatisfied with not knowing something from our stories, are we obliged to clear it up for them with another book, or a Tweet or blog post? (I’m looking at you here, Jo Rowling!) I mean, as a publishing professional I get it. Writing another book for people who are clamoring for one means another book deal, money, potential subsidiary rights or dramatic rights deals, money, foreign rights sales, money. But is that enough of a reason to write another book? There are those who say, “yep!” That’s not enough of a reason for me.

imgresIn my opinion, if Lowry’s intention was for the ending to be ambiguous, then I don’t believe she should have weighed in on what happened at the end. Stand up for writing an ambiguous ending, woman! Say that you wrote it because you wanted people to imagine different things. But, if she actually had something else in mind, then I believe she should have tried to get that down on the page in the first place. And again, I get it. She was a different person in 2004 when Messenger came out than in 1993 when The Giver came out. It’s ok for her to change her mind and write another book. I guess.

What do you think about (unexpected) sequels and follow-ups coming out years later? How do you feel about authors weighing in on the meaning of their work?



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2 responses to “On Reading and Writing: Ambiguity, Sequels, Series, Responsibility

  1. Nicole

    Generally, I like unexpected sequels. They mean I get to play in that world with those characters again but with a new story and that’s always fun for me. If they’re unexpected, well then, it makes a nice surprise. There are exceptions to this rule, for instance, the sequel has to be equal to the original story in quality. If it’s not good, then I will pretend the sequel doesn’t exist and the story stops at book one.

  2. Funny you should write about this now. I just finished reading a recent MG novel — which I won’t name for fear of spoiling — in which the plot follows the protagonist’s progress towards a win-or-lose event. The reader follows the character’s challenges and advances and stumbles until the the character finally reaches the targeted event. The event begins….and the book ends.

    My first response was shock. *You can’t stop now!* Followed by frustration. *But what HAPPENS?* But that was followed by admiration. *Wow. You ended it THERE! Because you CAN! And because you stopped THERE, I have a whole new sense of what this book means. It’s not about winning or losing, but about getting into the game. By getting into the game, the protagonist HAS ALREADY WON. It was a profoundly satisfying moment, and I was so impressed.

    And then I started reading around a little bit more about this book, and discovered that I had just read the first book in a trilogy. And I felt totally let down. If I’d known this before I started (which the author probably assumed I did), I would have gotten to the ending and thought, *Wow. What a cliff-hanger!* I would have admired the author’s skill. But I wouldn’t have had that profoundly satisfying realization about the meaning of success — or the ordinary conventions of and assumptions about storytelling.