The Company We Keep as Readers

Following through on the thread I outlined in my last post, I have been reading Jonathan Franzen’s very interesting and thought-provoking 1996 Harper’s essay. I actually feel that in some ways this piece (and the Marcus and Ozick that follow) are having a conversation that’s not really for me, mostly because they are novelists, for one thing, and focusing on very contemporary texts and contexts about which, except as an ordinary citizen, I have no expertise and no vantage point from which I am comfortable making pronouncements. What I’m getting a better sense of, though, is how literature matters and how it is discussed outside the academic contexts these writers are so uniformly dismissive of. (Taking his turn at bat, Franzen, recalling his experience teaching creative writing, reports that some of his best students, “repelled by the violence done to their personal experience of reading, had vowed never to take a literature class again”–as far as I can tell, he is depressed, not by their solipsistic retreat in defense of their “personal experience,” but by their having had to suffer such “violence.” “Come to my classes,” I am tempted to protest, and yet how can I be sure that my own efforts will not also offend against this amorphous personal standard? Other students make fun of the “patently awful utopian-feminist novel they were being forced to read for an honors seminar in Women and Fiction,” but isn’t there value in testing your ideas of what counts as “patently awful,” even if in the end you don’t change your mind? Isn’t one reason to go to literature classes that you will read and learn about books beyond those that conform to your personal prejudices, including aesthetic ones? If they were being forced, not only to read it, but also to applaud it, that’s a somewhat different problem, of course.)

I’m still thinking and learning about the larger issues at stake in all of these pieces. For now, I ll note that I found his report of the findings of linguistic anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath on “serious readers” fascinating. In particular, she talks (by his report) about the way in which books provide a community for their readers, especially for those who being their lives as “social isolates”–willing but not entirely able to share your perceptions and experiences and interests with those around you. What do the readers she studied find in, or feel they gain from, their books? Substance, she says: “Reading enables me to maintain a sense of something substantive–my ethical integrity, my intellectual integrity… Reading that book gives me substance.” And their reading provides “a sense of having company in this great human enterprise, in the continuity, in the persistence, of the great conflicts.” This is something like what moral philosophers like Martha Nussbaum theorize reading complex fiction does for us, so it is interesting to find readers recognizing it for themselves.

I’m not sure how any of this material helps me see why anyone would read literary criticism, academic or otherwise, or how the kind of expertise someone like me possesses might be put in the service of these serious readers. To hear these non-academic writers talk, you’d think nobody wants academics at all…