Friday, 15 June 2012

A novel experience

Over at Tales from the Reading Room, they're discussing the relationship between psychoanalysis and reading (books have a subconscious, and the relationship between the reader and the text is psychologically flawed): you don't have to accept Freudian or other psychological claims to recognise that literary analysis and psychological analysis can follow very similar paths.

One of the books mentioned is Peter Brooks' Reading for the Plot, and wonderful book which heavily influenced me, and which I always recommend to students, alongside Rimon-Kenan's Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics, Fish's Is There A Text In This Class? and Suleiman's Authoritarian Fictions.

Mrs. Litlove summarises Brooks' position thus:
akin to the Freudian fort-da game. Freud noticed his grandchild in his pram playing with a toy which he threw away from him, with the cry of ‘Fort!’, and then pulled back with the word ‘Da!’. Freud believed that in this way, the child was symbolically coming to terms with the absence of the mother. He could invest the toy with emotions towards the mother and make it go away (fort) and then bring it back at will (da), thus mastering the discomfort and anxiety he felt at the prospect of separation. Peter Brooks believed that plot worked in the same way. At the start of a novel, a problem is posed, something – truth, meaning – is posited as missing, and the plot works to resolve the enigma or the absence. We accept that our sense of significance (‘What does it all mean?’) will go away from us for a time, in the safe knowledge that it will be returned to us in a satisfying way at the end of the book.
In short, the act of reading is both a risky and a confident venture. The reader outsources autonomy to the absent author, trusting him or her to guide her towards something significant. This seems a little goal-oriented to me, but we'll press on for now (ironically, of course). With formulaic fiction, the problem is simple: whodunnit, or will he marry her and so on. The nature of the solution tells you a lot about the author's ideology, and that of the literary market which got the text to you. With the stuff we like to call 'literature', the problem might be more abstract - human nature, for instance. With what I consider literature, the 'problem' might be either unresolved and unresolvable, or permanently absent: the meaning might reside solely in the reading experience, with the denial of resolution a demonstration of this residual meaning.

(In passing: do we need to 'trust' the authors? Isn't a suspicious or a 'go on, impress me' reading equally acceptable? Is the author even there to be trusted? We all know now that the text is merely the physical signifier of a cultural network: author-publisher-marketer-consumer/reader. Are we trusting the author or are we testing our own judgement? I buy most of my own books, according to some semi-conscious criteria. Reading might be an aspirational act, or a performative one, a way of joining the 'group of people who read books like these'. It may represent an attempt to placate one's 'better' self, or indulge one's earthier side - if we are indeed divided between conscious and subconscious as Freud felt).

Handing over this interpretive control isn't something to do lightly. I know a book isn't working for me when I find myself checking the synopsis on the flyleaf or back cover to compare it with my reading experience so far. Sometimes it's a bad synopsis. Sometimes their emphasis - for sales purposes - is misleading (like the Sweeney Todd trailer which never quite found the space to mention that the film is a musical). Sometimes it betrays my insecurity, lack of trust or moronic goal-oriented consumption: when's the action going to happen? When do they do it? How do they catch him? 

If you - or the author or the marketers - have misinterpreted the nature of the text, you might feel cheated by the lack of neat ending in some texts. This feels wrong. We've all been led to believe by narrative that life has a beginning, a middle and an end. Justice will prevail. People will learn to be nicer to each other. They all live happily ever after. Death-bed repentance and forgiveness. All becomes clear. 

Sorry. All untrue. They're just the stories we tell each other to make the space between birth and death seem significant. Top marks for making the attempt, but wrong. Which is a very roundabout way (as seems fitting) to point out that tomorrow is Bloom's Day, on which we pay tribute to a novel - for want of a better word - which rejects such comforting fabrications in favour of a rambling (though carefully constructed) voyage through the consciousness of several people, a city and a culture. Underpinned with a curious structure but bursting with vitality, it's the ultimate novel in Brooks' sense: you can only surrender to it and hope that meaning emerges somehow. 

However, Ulysses also challenges Brooks' narrative: the book resists consumption - few people finish it, and it's almost unreadable in a conventional sense. Furthermore, texts don't yield up meaning if you put enough effort and faith in. They reveal - if they're any good - multiple meanings, both simultaneously and when you re-read them. The words stay the same but you change: meaning isn't in the book, it's produced with the book. Ulysses is the ultimate test of this, but even the glossiest, dumbest book in the airport concession should seem different (better, worse, or a host of ways) if you should ever go back to it. Though that's the last thing their authors want. If you accept that plot resolution is all that matters, you'll buy another one, rather than have another, more critical, go at the same one. (Actually, that's too harsh: like Brooks, I agree that there's nothing wrong with 'reading for the plot' - but there's always more). 

Anyway, enjoy Bloom's Day. Then see what effect all this has on your Andy McNabs and Jeremy Clarkson's. 

1 comment:

litlove said...

Wonderful thoughts - very rich; it's taking me a while to get my head around all that you say here. I am particularly interested in what you say about not trusting the author. I read many reviews which feel like one-sided extended arguments with an author, all trace of trust quite absent. But I suppose that 'reading for the plot' stands for a very precise relationship between reader and text, and that such an argumentative or suspicious reader would not be doing it. Also, James Joyce makes a fascinating test case! I confess I have not read Ulysses - never even started it. One day I'll give it a go- I'm expecting it to subvert all laws of narrative.