KeVin alluded to that in his post when he presented the Venn Diagram about what scholars said the author meant to say, as opposed to what the author actually said. As a reader, we interpret what the author means whether it is literally or figurative. Therefore as writers, the onus is on us to ensure that we communicate clearly what we mean to say. It is rather difficult sometimes. While we know what we mean, and what we want to say, saying it in a way that clearly gives the reader a view into our thoughts is not that simple. Using a few key words we have to communicate sight, sound, emotions, texture, smell, and color without being tediously descriptive or verbose.
At the same time words evoke different emotions in different people. For example, the word cartel evokes in me a negative emotion. That is because I have forever heard it used to describe the leaders of the illicit drug trade: the drug cartels. However I have seen it used to simply mean a coalition of like-minded groups and kept waiting to find out why those groups are “bad”.
On the flip side, unless we are doing technical writing where we want readers to interpret what we write only one way, writing fiction gives a lot of room for interpretation. We want our fiction to be open to different interpretations as long as it does not throw the reader out of the story. Just saying a person wore a frumpy black frock, tells a lot about the character, the personality and can set up a whole story. It is the readers’ interpretation of frumpy, laced with the connotations that the word “frock” evokes that we rely on to set the story and have the readers understand the character. And it varies from reader to reader.
Some books, especially literary fiction, lean toward the figurative and can be interpreted to death. There are thousands of books that dissect Shakespeare’s work, and a discussion of one scene from one book could go on indefinitely. But for most readers who are just looking for light entertainment, an unclear book, regardless of its caliber of poetic prose, could be tedious. So my advice to writers: don’t get lost in translation. Be as clear as you can and leave it up to the reader’s imagination to do the rest.
As for that peanut butter and jam in a sailboat, I did correct my daughter. But my nine-year-old ran with it and began singing, Peanut Butter and Jam in a sandwich.