A Reader’s Responsibilities

Ian McEwan’s recent letter in The Guardian points to an aspect of criticism that is perhaps underestimated by those advocating a turn away from academic approaches towards more ‘aesthetic’ or ‘literary’ responses. In reply to a reviewer who attributed one of his character’s views to him, McEwan writes,

As for Saturday – a character in a novel who expresses hostility towards novels in general should not be seen as an entirely trustworthy mouthpiece of his novelist creator. For example, the pro-Iraq war views Henry Perowne expresses in an argument with his daughter are not mine and nor, for that matter, are her anti-war opinions. On the other hand, I would agree with Perowne that some – not all – peace protesters are naive. Who can forget those daft and earnest English folk parading through central London last summer with placards that read, “We are all Hizbullah now”?

I sometimes wonder whether these common critical confusions arise unconsciously from a prevailing atmosphere of empowering consumerism – the exaltation of the subjective, the “not in my name” syndrome. It certainly seems odd to me that such simple precepts need pointing up: your not “liking” the characters is not the same as your not liking the book; you don’t have to think the central character is nice; the views of the characters don’t have to be yours, and are not necessarily those of the author; a novel is not always all about you.

The complaint that readers too readily conflate characters or narrators with biographical authors is a familiar one to students of the novel (Jane Eyre, anyone?); in part McEwan is asking that his artistic freedom be respected. But he is also demanding that his work be read properly, with due attention to its technical complexities, so that, to use his own example, it is not assumed that because his protagonist in Saturday is (cautiously) in favour of invading Iraq, either the author or the novel takes the same position. Particularly if a reader is going to make public pronouncements about a novel (as in a review), the reader should be skilled enough–knowledgeable enough–to avoid misreading. And it is possible to misread: a reader’s response can be wrong, misguided, confused. All opinions are not equal: some represent a fuller, more careful, better-informed engagement with all the elements of the work. Henry Perowne, to stick with the Saturday example, is a compelling but flawed character: his world view has limits not shared by the novel overall, which, among other things, self-evidently values literature more highly than the neurosurgeon does. One of the things the novel is about is the limitations of Perowne’s materialist view of the world–though at the same time, the novel is filled with respect for the “grandeur” in that view of things (a Darwinian phrase with rich implications for McEwan’s novel). In some of the anti-academic discussions, the reader’s responsibility to the text and author in question gets sidelined because of the emphasis on responding to, rather than analyzing, a text. A responsible (rather than just responsive) reading requires, just to give one example, attention to point of view, which can include recognizing when a thought or opinion not in quotation marks nonetheless represents the views of a character (“she was only Anne,” we read in Austen’s Persuasion, but a reasonably alert reader will promptly understand that this dismissive attitude belongs to Anne’s foolish family, and one of the novel’s main points is that their inability to appreciate her signals their broader moral disabilities). Unreliable narration is another technical issue that must be rightly understood for a good reading of many books: Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, for instance, would be radically misrepresented by a reader who accepted the narrator’s deference for authority as the novel’s own. While these days nearly anybody can read a novel, that does not mean everybody reads it equally well. Academic scholarship may be of questionable public value in its more erudite forms (though it may also be of intrinsic interest and therefore arguably worthwhile nonetheless), but in my own experience at any rate, English professors spend a lot of time trying to equip their students, not with politics or Theory but with the knowledge and tools to be better readers. If we do value literature, than this kind of expertise is surely worth promoting, even demanding.

Recent discussions about Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books That You Haven’t Read prompt some of the same thoughts. While I can see many occasions on which you might be in a conversation about a book you have not read, I don’t accept that there is any value in your pronouncing on it in any way. For example, I have not read Bayard’s book myself, only reviews and commentaries on it, such as Leah McLaren’s in this week’s Globe and Mail. So I can talk about it in a limited way, and I might even get passionate about what I take to be some of its claims. But I can’t responsibly judge or review the book without reading it for myself. I think it’s outrageous if it is true, as McLaren’s column states, that Bayard “admits to giving lectures on books he hasn’t bothered to open”–unless (and you see, I can’t know this without reading more) he lectures solely on context, literary relations, historical significance, or other issues that do not depend on specific textual evidence or close reading. If he talks about the specifics or the qualities of the books themselves, he is a fraud. As McLaren points out, we live in an “era of crib culture” in which people seem ready to accept “intellectual shortcuts” whenever possible. But substituting someone’s report about a book for your own reading of it is shoddy as well as risky, and our readiness to give up on “heavy reading” is not necessarily something to be complacent about. Required reading lists have the merit of motivating students to struggle on with things they find uncomfortable, unfamiliar, even boring. As McEwan says, “a novel is not always all about you,” and in that respect education differs substantially from other ‘consumer’ products. To consider my own experience again, it’s remarkable how many students are capable of learning to like a novel, or (since ‘converting’ them to like things is not really the point of teaching them) learning to appreciate the merits, qualities, or significance of a novel, as a work of art and a contribution to pertinent cultural, social, aesthetic, or political discussions, even if their first response was boredom or confusion. Again, some expertise is required, some technical terms useful, some precision in analysis as important as visceral responses. And again I think that as readers, or as serious and responsible readers, we have an obligation to the texts and authors to study our primary source carefully before we arrive at (much less publish) our conclusions.

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