Thursday, 18 August 2011

"She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain"

OK, that's Louisa M. Alcott, being witty in the days when novel reading was seen as a dangerous, self-indulgent pursuit for idle women (see also Northanger Abbey). I've been following a debate online about the kinds of reading people do in various contexts, whether the special kind of reading we do at universities is a minority pursuit for a special class of people, and whether it can (should?) be taught.

Part of the problem is that we're not explicit about what this special reading is, and what other forms of reading are. We don't explore the reality. Back in the days of Close Reading and Practical Criticism, students were encouraged to forensically dissect individual words - for example in a poem - to discover the poet's intention: what was lost was cultural context, the reader's role in creating meaning, and the wider imaginative and intellectual location of the collection of words which made up the text.

We also (sadly) teach skim reading: pick up a critical work, scan the index and chapter headings, rip out the bits you 'need'.

But really, what are we asking students to do? To 'lose themselves' in a book? Or to retain a degree of critical distance in which enjoyment and other emotional responses are to be set aside in favour of seeking to understand a text's structure, or underlying symbolism?

Outside the university, despite the claims made in this piece, people are reading: the UK has the largest newspaper readership in the world, and books are being read at an incredible rate. Everywhere I go, people are reading books. Not ones I'd like, admittedly, but the appetite is there. What I don't know - it's not my field - is how they're reading them, and why. Are they consuming the words for plot, or revelling in the style? Both? Something else?

What kind of reading do I want from my students? Put on the spot, it's hard to say, and it's also a chicken-and-egg situation. I want them to understand the dynamics of plot and the complexities of 'meaning'. I want them to get away from the idea that texts have 'messages' and that the author's intention is paramount. At the same time, I want them to appreciate the richness of language. If there's a definition of 'good' and 'bad' literature that I'd go with, it's that 'bad' literature uses words as if they're a wheelbarrow used to trundle you from scene to scene, whereas 'good' literature displays the tensions, the ambiguities, the complexities of using words to express 'things'. Plato was very suspicious of reading - he thought it would supersede speech, to the detriment of society.
"he who has knowledge of the just and the good and beautiful ... will not, when in earnest, write them in ink, sowing them through a pen with words, which cannot defend themselves by argument and cannot teach the truth effectually."
(Interestingly, modern literary criticism is equally, perhaps more, suspicious of words. To us, words are an exercise in power, and a smoke-and-mirrors trick. Meaning is always just out of reach (read your Derrida) and any attempt to claim a link between word, meaning and reality is an imperialist act of oppression. This idea makes a lot of people very angry indeed).

So I want my students to weigh words, and sentences and paragraphs - to catch the deliberate and accidental echoes of other texts and ideas: but this requires a reader familiar with a canon whose contents are impossible to nail down. Each of my students has read different things which affect their response to what I've given them: Stanley Fish's wonderful Is There A Text In This Class? pursues this argument fascinatingly. Because they're mostly young, they haven't read very much, relatively speaking: asking an 18-year old to spot the Virgilian echoes in The Waste Land is an oppressive act rather than an educational one.

They've also been misled - by schools and examinations - into thinking that books have messages to be extracted. They're often frustrated by being forced to slow down, to engage in a non-linear kind of reading. Trained as book-miners, it's hard to try a different tack. One of my friends - a Vole reader - announced after our last day at university that he was never going to read a novel again, because analysis had stripped the wonder and enjoyment out of the reading experience. It took him several years to return to fiction. Other people have told me that learning to spot 'how' a text works ruins the enjoyment: I've always felt that it adds a layer of appreciation or misery, depending on whether I think it's a 'good' book or not: a brilliantly plotted crime thriller is a thing of beauty, even if there's nothing more to it than the efficient delivery of act/detection/retribution.

One of the hardest questions I ask in class is 'how did this make you feel'? The question seems wrong in a classroom. The architecture, the fees, the examinations all conspire to make an individual's feelings seem insignificant or transgressive - yet emotion is at the heart of the reading experience. Even if the answer is 'bored', we can discuss why.

One of the most important moves in modern literary theory is the Death of the Author. The basic idea is that once a text is in your sweaty paws, it's yours. The author can't dictate meaning to you. Well, he or she can try (read Suleiman's stunning Authoritarian Fictions) but you'll only get resentful, and give up or read against the author's intentions. Meaning is located between you and the text: your cultural condition determines which bits you respond to, and how. I think this is true of stuff you read on the bus and what you read in class. It doesn't mean that 'what I reckon' is the ultimate arbiter of quality or reading - you still need to apply and active and open intelligence to get anything from a book - but it does recognise the agency of the reader.

I could go on in this vein for hours. But you've got plenty more to read out there…


ed said...

Apologies for another comment Vole, but you've written a very interesting post that pretty much sums up the thrust of my (at present backfiring and sporadic) MA dissertation.

At least, I'm looking at how contemporary U.S. writers address that question - 'how did this make you feel'?. Have you read any of Eve Sedgwick's later stuff, or Rita Felski's recent stuff? For them a 'hermeneutics of suspicion', a need to dissect texts and reveal their 'underlying' motives as either oppressive or liberatory, has become the prerequisite of all work in the humanities, to the point that the gulf between what the student and the person on the bus gets out of reading has never been wider. I think their aim is to re-connect these two types of reader, to place 'emotion [back] at the heart of the reading experience', in your words, without sacrificing the power and import of suspiciosly approaching texts as implicated in systems of power. Kinda like having your Foucault cake and eating it too.

Really interesting (at least, I find it interesting). Especially the politics invovled in what constitutes a 'common' way of reading, which academics have apparently lost due to decades of treating texts more like enemies to be vanquished or comrades to be plauded in an ever-lasting revolution (I blame the sixties); rather than as objects involved in complex feelings of recognition, empathy, affection, and all those other emotional responses to art which if you mention in a seminar you'll most likely be hung from your ankles and beaten with bamboo sticks for being such a wet git/repressive Nazi.

Sorry, I'll stop now. You've encouraged me to do some work today, so cheers for that.

The Plashing Vole said...

I haven't read recent Sedgwick or Felski - though I'm familiar with the thrust of what they're saying. Send me a reading list! I'm impressed that you're working on this stuff.

Zoot Horn said...

Maybe the recent spread of Creative Writing courses is a reaction to the tendency towards dissection in English depts?

ed said...

Ahem. Excuse all the spelling mistakes. And by 'plauded', I meant 'lauded' Fat fingers.