I recently reread Fight Club. There are a lot of stunning things in that book—haunting imagery, a deliberately hazy narrative that directly reflects the madness of the narrator, a sharp-as-knives voice—but I found the end note from author Chuck Palahniuk to be one of the most interesting aspects.
First, in his signature dark style, Palahniuk describes his experience with a Fight Club fan. The kid appropriates the first and second rules of fight club (y’know, that you don’t talk about it), and Palahniuk responds, “I wrote that book.” The kid says, “There was a book?” which is a disappointing but unsurprising reaction, given that Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden is pretty memorable.
Then Palahniuk lists all of the things that happened as a result of his book—the real fight clubs that formed, the reporters who called asking him if they could go undercover at an actual fight club, Tyler Durden’s name appearing at random everywhere like some lost, unsung hero’s—things Palahniuk himself had no control over.
And then he wrote two more fascinating things. One, that Fight Club was a reimagining of The Great Gatsby, and two, that in Palahniuk’s mind, Fight Club is a romance. He recounts some of the Fight Club reviews he read before the book’s notoriety grew like wildfire—reviews that never called it a romance, and sometimes went as far in the opposite direction as to call it horror.
The reimagining of The Great Gatsby, I understand: A disciple narrates the life of his fallen hero. The book is told left-of-center, by the less enigmatic and impressive of the two main characters. And Tyler Durden is quite literally created to capture the attention of a woman, just as James Gatz’s rich alternate version of himself was created for Daisy.
The romance makes sense, too, but that’s the part that underlines my point the most—which is how differently author intentions can vary from reader interpretations. The creation of the Fight Club, Palahniuk says, was to build a space in which men came together and had easily identifiable rules. And the rules were a tool he used as padding between his stylistically stripped down and intense scenes—that was their function, to stop those moments from chafing against each other.
But Fight Club became a rallying cry of sorts for people who responded to Tyler’s ideology. Readers became real-life Space Monkeys in a way, embracing a message that resounded with them. But it wasn’t the message that was at the heart of the book, at least not totally. And Fight Club is rarely viewed for its romance rather than the violence-as-freedom, anti-materialism culture it presents. The rules and club are also given significantly more weight than simply a narrative device.
So, why is this reaction to Fight Club important? Because readers take what they want to take—what they need. You can’t control reader interpretations; you can’t even control whether or not there will be a movie version that causes people to dissociate the story from the novel. You can only control the story you write and the way that you write it.
It’s easy, as writers, to get caught up in how our work will be received. If an agent will like it enough to represent it, if an editor will like it enough to publish it, if the public will like it enough to buy it—and if all of those entities will understand exactly what we have in mind, as the masterminds behind the story.
But ultimately, your job is to do the work. To write the best and most truthful book you can. And then, once you do that, you have to let it go. You have to let it resound the way it’s going to resound.
And hey—even if people interpret it differently than you intend, you could still have Brad Pitt embodying your main character. And that’s something, right?