Beyond Naive Reading

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 What I am asking of scholars, then, is not simply that we recuperate popular reading practices but that we seek to understand the serious work those reading practices do for many readers, as well as the ways that such a deepened understanding might help us more fully engage with those readers. Too often, the embrace of popular modes of textual engagement is bound up in a rejection of scholarly modes, and I want to avoid such a Manichean outlook. As an example, take the stance of philosopher Robert Pippin, who in a 2010 New York Times essay defending the more appreciative engagements of untrained readers of literature, argues that “poems and novels and paintings were not produced as objects for future academic study; there is no a priori reason to think that they could be suitable objects of ‘research.’ By and large they were produced for the pleasure and enlightenment of those who enjoyed them.” True enough, perhaps, though by this logic one would be hard-pressed to think of anything presenting an a priori reason for research. But no matter: Pippin’s column encourages its readers to open themselves to the possibilities and pleasures of “an appreciation and discussion not mediated by a theoretical research question recognizable as such by the modern academy,” a mode that he happily labels “naïve” in its escape from disciplinarity and embrace of enjoyment.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 2 Perhaps needless to say, I am greatly sympathetic to the desire to open conversations across reading communities and to create the opportunity for participation by those not schooled in contemporary theoretical discourse. And I similarly insist that a revaluation of enjoyment is necessary. However, such a revaluation need not be accompanied by a rejection of the critical or theoretical, and certainly not a rejection of the value of research. It need not rely upon the category of naïveté in opposition to the academic. Instead, I encourage us to ask what avenues of engagement with the world of readers might open up to us if we were instead to begin from the more generous assumption that reading is never naïve, that there is always a wrangling with the text underway, and there is always something being learned. Can we ask, with Rita Felski, what it might mean “[t]o treat experiences of engagement, wonder, or absorption not as signs of naïveté or user error but as clues to why we are drawn to art in the first place” (239)? How might we begin to understand the function of literary scholarship in dialogue with reading-in-general? And how might that understanding begin to shape a more productive relationship between the academy and the broader public?

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The first step in this process might involve thinking about the kinds of work that we regularly do in our classrooms, especially in early undergraduate courses. Not thinking about that work in order to change it, but rather thinking about it in order to understand how the engagements we foster in the classroom and the positions we develop and embrace as instructors might point the way to potential connections with the public. Much of our effort in those scenes of reading instruction has to do with making what feels obvious instead appear strange, asking our students to step back from something that seems familiar or transparent and instead look at it obliquely. The goal in this shift of position is ideally less to get our students to think in some specific way about the object than it is to get them to recognize their own perspectives and the role those perspectives play in their appreciation of the object. In this way, they—and we—can recognize that every reading presupposes a theory, that even the most text-focused modes of close reading aren’t just a careful accounting for detail but rather an argument about where a text’s meaning is to be found, how it can be understood, and who is responsible for having put it there. In order to encourage this interest in perspective, however, we need to begin from rather than reject readers’ immediate experiences of the text, even where they seem to us sentimental or superficial. As Timothy Aubry argues, “emotional responses to literature are themselves complicated forms of interpretation and knowledge, fully capable of holding their own when confronted with the rigors of critical debate” (13-14). Rather than setting aside emotional responses in favor of critical distance, the more fruitful approach is to dig into such responses, to figure out how they are produced and what kinds of work they do.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 1 Part of what I am up to here is encouraging scholars to leave behind the sense that emotional responses and critical distance are somehow opposed modes of reading, one of which must be shaken off in order for a reader to be educated into the other. But the critical mode in and of itself is not the problem. Rather, what I’d like us to question a bit further is why we consider some readings of a text—and by extension, some readers—to be “better” than others in the first place. Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, in their call for a recuperation of what they refer to as “surface reading,” point to the overwhelming influence of Fredric Jameson’s argument that “only weak, descriptive, empirical, ideologically complicit readers attend to the surface of the text.” What reader could stand up to such a characterization? Very few professional readers, I’d imagine, who have since followed Jameson, consciously or not, in understanding the role of the “strong” critic as “wresting meaning from a resisting text or inserting it into a lifeless one,” an inescapably masculinist relation of domination that comes to characterize the professionalism of the academic profession itself (5). While it is undoubtedly true that some interpretations might open up greater potential for understanding the object being read and its relationship to the broader culture, or that one interpretation might be more satisfying than another in some particular intellectual way, and while I will acknowledge that these understandings and satisfactions are key scholarly goals, the notion that some readings or readers are “weak” and others “strong” lays the groundwork for reading as a quest for individual distinction, in which I must undo all of the interpretations that have gone before in order to demonstrate that mine is the best: reading as a competitive exercise.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 2 One model for surface reading that Best and Marcus posit is an “embrace” of the descriptive and the empirical, of working with what’s there rather than questing after what’s been repressed, a stance that they call both “affective and ethical”: “Such an embrace involves accepting texts, deferring to them instead of mastering them or using them as objects, and refuses the depth model of truth, which dismisses surfaces as inessential and deceptive” (10). I would argue that this mode of embrace need not remain wholly affective in order to be ethical; it need not categorically reject interpretation as a reading practice. However, lingering in the affective, in the descriptive, before rushing to the wresting of meaning, might be one means of undermining the competitiveness of professionalized reading practices. It’s that competitiveness, I increasingly believe, that builds a wall between the scholarly and the “common” reader. And that wall—like the empathy wall that Hochschild argues exists between the right and the left in the United States today—not only leaves our students complaining, however unfairly, that we want to eliminate all of the pleasure from reading, but it also leaves scholars with what Eve Sedgwick called an “unintentionally stultifying side effect” of the hermeneutics of suspicion: a difficulty understanding what exactly it is a non-professional reader gets out of a text. That is to say, mainstream readers may be baffled by the ways that scholarly readers read, but whatever we may think we understand, we are in fact no less baffled by the ways they read, and that bafflement has some limiting effects for us in thinking about the uses readers might make of texts.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 1 The crux of the difference between the ways that general-interest readers read and the ways of reading of “literary professionals,” broadly construed—not just professors, but public-facing literary critics as well—may in fact be this sense of competition resulting from the environment in which our reading is undertaken. Literary professionals by and large understand the effects of the texts they read, and the effects of the interpretations they produce, to have their primary impact within the world of the literary itself, whether that world is understood through a model of literary history, or of cultural representations, or of more generalized discourse. The literary is the world within which texts and interpretations act, and their acting is often posed as agonistic: this author’s influence overshadowed the work of his successor; this critic rejected the arguments of his rival; this scholar restored the work of that author to its deserved but previously overlooked glory. Books and ideas and authors and critics fight for attention, for recognition, for esteem; they do battle in a marketplace of sorts, in which one gains value at the expense of another. By contrast, for the general reader, the world within which texts and readings interact is the life-world rather than the literary world. Books engage and enrich the reader; they do things for people rather than for the world of texts. Acknowledging that perspective might encourage us, in the words of Clara Claiborne Park, to consider the ways “we would teach literature if we were in fact convinced that what we were doing could make a person different” (7). Beyond that, however, it might also encourage us to step outside of the literary or scholarly marketplace, and to focus a bit more on the gift economy that structures much of artistic and educational exchange. Lewis Hyde most famously wrestles with this tension in The Gift, beginning from the argument that “works of art exist simultaneously in two ‘economies,’ a market economy and a gift economy. Only one of these is essential, however: a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift there is no art” (xvi). And, I would argue, no education. Leaving not only the materials that we study but our theories and interpretations of that material caught in a battle for market share undermines the potential they may have for genuinely affecting the lives of those who come in contact with them.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 3 It is entirely likely that, for many of the readers of this text, intellectual alarm bells have been set off by the instrumental and even therapeutic role that this sense of reading’s effects on readers may suggest, but the fact remains that what literature can do is a significant portion of its appeal for many readers. And while helping those readers develop encounters with literature that draw on a more sophisticated form of understanding than the merely “relatable” is undoubtedly a laudable goal, it’s worth it to consider that relatability itself may be more complex than it initially appears. As Aubry notes in his study of the therapeutic uses of middlebrow fiction among contemporary readers, “the greatness that American readers attribute to literature generally does not preclude, but in fact depends upon their ability to find personal relevance in the books that they read,” and that sense of relevance often derives from a sense of connection to and analysis of those books’ characters (16-17). The meanings and pleasures that derive from an empathic response to a character’s situation, that is to say, draw on often complex processes of interpreting both personal experience and textual representations and establishing connections between them. While identification—“mere identification,” as we too often say—may appear a simple mode of engaging with a text, it can lead, as Long has noted, “to deep personal insights and to critical reflection about literature and the social order,” in which “characters become a prism for the interrogation of self, other selves, and society beyond the text” (153). This mode of empathic connection and identification is not only a more complex act than it may appear, but it may also provide an important starting point for the deeper forms of questioning and engagement literary professionals hope to inspire.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 4 In her study of Houston-area book clubs, Long focuses less on the transformative potential of reading for the individual than the ways that reading’s effects might be mediated and magnified by group discussions about books. The move toward a collective reckoning with the meanings produced in the reading process inevitably complicates those meanings, as reading group members are required to interact with the readings and life experiences of others. It is in that reckoning that identification and the individualistic brand of empathy that it can inspire has the potential to grow into an ethical engagement with self, other, and world. Such a developing sense of ethical engagement is the best of what the university has to offer, both to its students and to the public: a demonstration of the ways that something as commonplace as the novel can become what Arthur Krystal calls a “tool for survival,” a means of establishing and celebrating “an awareness of the human condition, which is both communal and individual and inevitably strikes a balance, palpable or barely perceptible, between the two.” If the function that literature serves in individual readers’ lives is to open in them the desire for intersubjective understanding, and if such desire can be built upon in communal settings to create a readiness for ethical political and social engagement, then not only do literary scholars have an obligation of sorts to support that work, but we should also want to participate in it, as through such participation we can demonstrate the centrality of our work to the entirety of the social enterprise.

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