This past Monday, after attending Kiley Reid’s book signing at Literati Bookstore and hearing her read from her hit debut novel “Such a Fun Age,” I spent my night reflecting on the nature of art, authorial intent and what I have appreciated so much about my recent reads.
I didn’t anticipate this book signing to be as evocative and engaging as I’ve heard Reid’s novel to be, especially not as I awkwardly jostled in between other attendees to the only available seat in the front row — but I found myself surprised. I haven’t had the pleasure of reading “Such a Fun Age” yet, so this won’t be a review (for that, see fellow Arts writer Verity Sturm’s review here), but rather a reflection on how the event highlighted the transformational nature of a work of art, and how art ceases to be limited by authorial intent once the work takes on new meaning for someone else.
In many ways, Kiley Reid’s journey as a writer, as she outlined it throughout the Q&A segment, is emblematic of how a piece of writing can take on a life of its own, often in unexpected ways. Before her writing career, Reid was trained as an actress; she cited her love of telling stories as the underlying motive of this lost dream. In her early twenties, she landed a role in a commercial for a search engine and thought that the opportunity would finally be the gateway to a many-storied acting career, only to realize… she hated it. So, she decided to explore writing (again, citing her passion for stories), and set out on a journey that would lead her here. She applied to graduate school — two years in a row — nannied and, of course, wrote.
Though not exactly a comprehensive biography, the portrait Reid presented of herself was as unpredictable as the way she characterized her novel’s journey. Reid began with a few fundamental ideas she wanted to explore — racial fetishism, awkward interactions and a weird three-person transactional relationship — but as the story evolved, it mutated in unexpected ways and took on a life of its own. Reid elaborated on a few things that surprised her, but what stuck out the most was how she seemed to continually underscore the autonomy of her characters. For example, veering away from using children in her story as convenient plot devices, Reid let “Briar be Briar,” who, like many other 3-year-olds, was basically “a useless person” in terms of contributing anything. And that naturalistic characterization was OK with Reid.
Kiley Reid’s comfort with allowing characters and plots to develop in the most natural way reflects an embrace of the interpretive and applicable nature that art is inclined toward. Thankfully, it’s something she allowed her novel to do as well. At the start of the event, she reflected on her surprise upon hearing what others have said about “Such a Fun Age.” Readers have taken away themes and messages far beyond the original vision Reid meant to broadcast. The novel’s value to readers has gone far beyond the insights into class, race and awkward relationships that Reid originally intended. To some, it is also a gateway into the mind of a privileged but well-meaning individual, a meditation on friendship, the tension between a nanny and the mother of the child she’s nannying and so on.
Regardless of what it meant to Reid, her readers or anyone else, the book has a commentative power that is typical of well-written fiction. Complex and comprehensive literature is able to grow and flourish beyond the author’s original vision and in turn undergo various transformations in the eyes of each reader. In so many literature classes, we focus on authorial intent when analyzing a work, but when reading for pleasure, what the book means for you ultimately determines your level of enjoyment.
I’m one of those unbearable English nerds, so I’m reminded of a lot of boring old literature when I think about what writings have taught me something. But there have also been recent releases that have demonstrated the same thematic transcendence, books from which I’ve gained wholly unintentional messages from. Maggie O’Farrell’s “I Am, I Am, I Am” is one such book and Matt Haig’s “Notes on a Nervous Planet” is another, but listening to Kiley Reid has truly made me realize how much we need to appreciate art that is able to do this. With these lenses on, I look forward to reading Reid’s hit, and seeing what other masterpieces she will create.