Intertextuality and Interpretation: The Inevitabilities of All Writing

After reading the section from Naming What We Know regarding writing as a social and rhetorical activity, two major points stuck out to me. First, all writing, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant it may seem, has been influenced by some other kind of writing. In other words, intertextuality is at the forefront of all writing. Kevin Roozen cites a perfect example of this concept in everyday writing by stating, “The father crafting birthday wishes to his daughter might recall and consciously or unconsciously restate comments that his own parents included on the birthday cards he received as a child” (18). Certainly, accepting this truth as a writer can be bittersweet. Accepting this truth essentially means that our writing can never be truly original. However, this does not mean it cannot be important and meaningful. When we write, we have the opportunity to inspire other writers and still provide meaningful insight by combining our knowledge of texts into a text of our own. Whenever we write, we are entering a larger conversation, an ever-growing conversation that is full of so many different types of people and can “generate new thinking” (Estrem 19).

The second major point I took from this section is that all writing gets interpreted, usually in many different or possibly unintended ways. We can witness this on large and small scales of writing. For example, when a tweet or Facebook post is written it has the potential to be seen by millions of people and interpreted in a multitude of different ways. Charles Bazerman briefly explains why this happens, he writes, “While writers can confirm that the written words feel consistent with their state of mind, readers can never read the writer’s mind to confirm they fully share that state of mind. Readers share only the words to which each separately attributes meanings” (22). While it is impossible for a writer to consider every interpretation their writing may cause, a big question persists: how much responsibility does the writer hold for how their work is interpreted? This is a pertinent issue in the stand-up comedy community that is constantly debated. In this brief clip, you can see that it sparks visceral reactions between comedians. (Disclaimer: This video contains strong language).

No matter your view on the issue, it is impossible to deny that as a writer, you have to be aware of your audience. Namely because your audience can interpret your work, but also because audiences are growing larger and can easily talk about or interact with your work due to the digital age we live in. When writing is absorbed by an audience it does not end there, it continues to evolve and change into something it was not before. The most recognizable example of this is when someone writes a piece that contains a comment section where readers can immediately say something about what they just read. Audiences can make these comments from their smartphone while on their lunch break; Consequently, these comments are usually unfiltered and quite diverse. Further, to me, this comment section is hardly ever considered as separate from the piece itself. These comments appear on the same page, directly underneath the writing, and are usually taken as an extension of the writing itself. A new reader of an article or blog post could skim the article briefly and generate new ideas or opinions on a topic by looking at the comment section of the article.

This begs a few questions: are writers now responsible for the opinions of their audience? Or, is it fair to judge a writer based on how his/her audience generated ideas about their writing? I would argue no for both of these questions, but this phenomena happens all the time in pop culture. Current audiences can shape how future audiences interpret works. For example, look at the show Rick and Morty, it is an insanely popular cartoon with millennials but has recently received backlash due to some harmful behavior from fans of the show. The fanbase has been considered by many as self-righteous and misogynistic; therefore, this has lead to public perception interpreting the show from this same lens. Chris Stoker-Walker wrote a piece for The Telegraph and included some controversial quotes from this polarizing fanbase. One reads, “When someone tells me they don’t get Rick and Morty and they think it’s just a dumb show, that immediately makes me think they lack the brain cells to understand this nihilistic masterpiece.” It is not uncommon for popular shows, movies, or books to garner intense fanbases, but the problem arises when the author or creators of the work get judged based on the behavior of fans.

All in all, this section of Naming What We Know helped me to realize how important it is to be aware of what you write. You must be aware that when you write, you are entering a larger conversation about the topic you are writing about. Your work is subject to get criticized or praised, it might inspire or anger people, and it will absolutely be interpreted in a multitude of ways by the people that read it. It is inevitable, but that is what makes all writing immensely organic, social, rhetorical, and ever-changing.

Works Cited:

Stokel-Walker, Chris. “Rick and Morty mania: how toxic fans turned a hit show into a hate movement.” The Telegraph, Accessed 1 September 2019.

Roozen, Kevin. “Writing is a Social and Rhetorical Activity.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kasner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 18.

Bazerman, Charles. “Writing Expresses and Shares Meaning to Be Reconstructed by the Reader.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kasner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 22.

Estrem, Heidi. “Writing is a Knowledge-Making Activity.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kasner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 19.

One thought on “Intertextuality and Interpretation: The Inevitabilities of All Writing”

  1. Danny,

    I was also struck with the point about all writing being influenced by other writing. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard this, and I often think of it a lot. And you’re right, it is bittersweet. I struggle with it a lot in my own writing, and not that I can’t think of original ideas but rather that what has been done before is just so good and it’s hard to match it. Take the Xenomorph from Alien for example. As a sci-fi writer I’ve been trying to think of an alien that is just as scary as the Xeno or even scarier, and it just seems impossible. It’s the perfect amalgamation of sci-fi before it and original ideas. It’s frustrating because it’s just so good!

    How much responsibility a writer should have for their work is a interesting conversation to have. On the outset I would say that if someone interpreted your work all wrong then that is on them, but I think that’s a little too easy. I know I’ve read things before, and others alike, and gotten a far different response than I’m sure the writer intended. I don’t think it’s so much being aware of “your” audience, but rather being aware of “some kind” of audience. Finding or figuring out your audience is difficult sometimes, and at least if we’re prepared with the fact that some kind of audience will be interacting with our work then we can be a little more prepared. There will always be bad reactions or reactions we didn’t anticipate, but if you love and can support your writing then I feel like you can defend yourself.

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