Listening to novelists talk about their work yields some interesting observations. First, some writers say their aspiration is not to direct a single meaning from their work but rather to catalyze multiple meanings. This seems similar to what artists who create objects often say about their work. The observer, the reader, infuses the work with meaning. Indeed, it’s easy to infer that the creator would feel more fulfillment if many different meanings were derived from the work. The impact of their work would be greater if consumers of it derived diverse but intense meanings tailored to their lives. This possibility of multiple interpretations can often add to enduring value of a work, its “shelf-life.”
This description of one’s work might seem quite foreign to research in some other fields within the academy. Consider, for example, the goals of the scientist, be they natural scientists or social scientists. Their work builds upon an identified set of theory and observations. Their research product ideally has a single conclusion. They are much more interested in discovering an unambiguous feature of reality. They strive to explain their work in a manner to prevent multiple interpretations.
However, some readers may reject the single meaning attributed by the scientist author of the work. These readers become critics of the work. They pose an alternative conclusion to the research. They refute the single interpretation offered by the author and critique the scientist’s design and/or analysis. This dialectic of finding and critique, ideally followed by more research, is all part of iterative approaches to better understanding of the given phenomenon.
There is a second observation of literary works that is interesting under the rubric of “shelf-life.” Those who create often aspire to write in a way that, decades later, a not-yet-born reader will encounter their work and derive important life lessons. When reflecting on this statement, it is impressive that a book written hundreds or thousands of years ago can provide insights, emotions, and lessons to someone living now.
In the sciences, there are certainly breakthrough findings that force a new paradigm about a given phenomenon. For some time after, it is an obligation of new work to cite such work. But citations to foundational work seem to decay over time. Instead, the knowledge is assumed to be held in common by all readers. At a certain point, the “common shared knowledge” become unstated assumptions in a field. No need to cite them. So, while the impact of basic science discoveries can last for centuries, it is less common for the work to be re-read by later generations. Instead, the long-lasting impact of the work is folded into current assumptions, sometimes by people who never read the original work.
In short, literary and artistic creations can retain impact centuries after their creation. Such work is lauded as the best of the field because of their enduring impact on successive generations. The sciences can attain the same “shelf-life,” but they typically do so less visibly, relying on their impact from changing the basic assumptions of current work in the field. Less attention is paid to the original research product.