When I read on your blog "I have a friend who makes a point of reading stories against the grain" I thought: "Does he mean me?" If so, I'm rather flattered. Particularly the injunction that said friend would be better advised to write his own stuff than criticising other people's. Of course I'm usually wrong about thinking you're writing about me ("I'm so vain…"). But since said friend and I are obviously quite similar, I thought I might as well fill in some of the pieces about what said friend might think if he did happen to be me.
I'll have a go at describing the experience of people like myself. When I read or watch fiction (and non-fiction come to that) what I find frustrating is the apparent authorial ascription of morality, sides, values and so forth (I'm struggling for the word here). Perhaps it's my science background. When I read about atoms I don't expect the textbook to tell me which are the good atoms and which are the bad atoms. I expect to be able to make up my own mind as to whether the atoms in a bomb or a power station are good or not. (OK, maybe that makes me sound a bit too much like Doctor Manhattan.) I also bring that reading to current affairs and history and fiction. When I read about ISIS I expect to read information about, as far as we know, what has happened. Not a polemic on what must have happened given the fact that they are evil. The same goes for Conquistadors or for Supervillains.
That's why I enjoyed Watchmen. I wasn't being told that the Watchmen were goodies and someone else was a baddie. To me the story read like something, er, real. It felt like I was being given the raw data of events free of interpretation and told to make up my own mind. I didn't feel the usual necessity to explore contrary interpretations so as to overcome the bias of the telling and reach a level of objectivity. It felt like Moore was actually being objective.
In the case of Doctor Who, I find the show accessible to the extent that the Doctor's identity and morality are uncertain. We don't really know who he is and, from Genesis of the Daleks to Into the Dalek I feel like I'm being asked whether this god-like being represents the side I want to be on or not. It's tempting to be his assistant, but is it really desirable or even moral? He'd make as good a devil as a saviour. This feels far more believable to me than a Captain Kirk figure. And that's the reason that I have less desire to re-interpret Who than I do Star Trek.
Which doesn't mean I can use this technique to enjoy everything, however bad or pulpy. It doesn't simply pad out dull fiction. For instance, I found Voyager almost un-watchably bad. I used to muse on how the premise of each episode could have been turned into a workable script while still watching it. That's a different thing altogether from creating a new interpretation. With Voyager there didn't really seem to be a work of fiction to interact with and I was idly trying to create one. With, say, Spider-Man there's a good enough story that it's worth trying to get to the bottom of it by understanding what's "really" going on. How good or bad is Spider-Man? Why isn't he motivated to make lots of money out of his situation? Why isn't he a Fascist? Why doesn't he have other spider characteristics, such as injecting acid into people and sucking out their insides? In the "real" world all this stuff would be discussed and explained. J. Jonah Jameson is a wonderful idea that goes part of the way to providing a real-feeling sense of "balance". Or rather, he would do if he weren't himself just presented as a disingenuous rogue. Superhero worlds are interesting enough to me that I'd like to be able to suspend disbelief in them. And that means filling in what seem to me like blanks created by the black-and-white internal values of the story.
I don't know how unusual I am in my "wilful misinterpretation". I don't generally think of it as wilful. Nor as misinterpretation. On the other hand I do know that I have a certain naïvety which means I often come up with readings that others tell me are wrong from beginning to end. It's one of the reasons I gave up English at school. I would have found it easy to regurgitate the teacher's interpretation of a novel. But I always found it difficult to be told that I was supposed to interpret a novel for myself and then be told my interpretation was "wrong". No-one else in the class seemed to suffer from this. My teacher seemed to be a post-modernist for whom all interpretations were valid except (apparently) for mine. "There are no wrong ideas here. Except that one, obviously." Perhaps it was a result of my book-of-the-decade poor reading background. I've noticed from all the novels I've read more recently that there are cues given by authors telling you who you're supposed to think is good or bad. They're not cues I would have spotted when I was at school.
I also have a possibly unusual habit of connecting one story with another in what I conceive of as the same setting. It's a bit like the fan thing of wanting all of Doctor Who to be consistent. I have the same reaction to, say, all cowboy stories. So once I've read a story in which Native Americans are good guys, they remain good for me the next time I read a cowboy story in which they're supposed to be bad. To me it's the same setting. Equally all modern-day bank robber stories are the same setting, whether the robbers are heroes (heist stories) or villains (superheroes etc). It's how I understand context in order to read any genre story. Without some sort of setting-transference I wouldn't be able to pick up the conventions that most stories require in order to be able to read them. Of course I may be totally unsubtle, picking up the wrong elements to take into the next story.
I wonder if this means that I'm actually incapable of authentically reading a story. I've often observed that for me everything includes its opposite. Cowboys so good at horse riding that they never fall off make me think about cowboys who do fall off. Maybe that's what the comic relief is for, to satisfy people like me that this is a realistic world? If cowboys can't fall off their horses, where's the peril? I used to love the 60s movie spoofs (Carry On etc) for explicitly raising the questions that the real movies implicitly raised in my mind. Strangely there are some writers who I find can fool me on this point. Tolkien is a good example. He manages to convince me that elves are nice without my wondering what their dirty secrets are. George Orwell famously manages to get his often absurd politics across in a highly convincing way. But these are rare experiences for me. Most fiction sets alarm bells ringing in my head. It could be that my reading is a way of preventing the cessation of suspension of disbelief. Perhaps I rationalise that good and evil are not as presented rather than finding the fictional world itself untenable.
Whatever the reason, I have to say that I really can't tell the difference between using the text for some sort of game and accessing something genuinely on the page. Take, for example, an idea I had recently for an alternative Superman plagued by self-doubt. The contrast of his virtual invincibility and his feelings of inadequacy nicely reflects emotional issues common in our own society. Now, the reason I had the idea was that Superman in some versions (Christopher Reeve, perhaps? I'm not sure) is absurdly smug. It just doesn't seem realistic to me that anyone could be that smug. All the time. I can't connect with the character. I want to access some interpretation which I can believe in. So maybe he's not smug in private. Such an idea could be the basis for a piece of fan fiction, but for me it's just a way of watching Superman. It doesn't feel wrong to me to wonder if the Man of Steel has secret private doubts, even if the text doesn't hint at it. It feels just as real as the famously invisible Captain's toilet in Star Trek. My alternative interpretations are things I imagine to be present in the universe. So in my reading of Star Wars there are people who consider the Rebel Alliance to be group of terrorist bandits. Because they are. They are also revolutionary heroes. I cannot imagine a world where you could be one without being the other.