The OF Blog: Errata and disjecta membra from my recent essays

Friday, July 30, 2010

Errata and disjecta membra from my recent essays

One of the problems that occurs when one composes a quick essay draft and posts it online is that there are going to be several errors, both of the typological and argumentative natures.  Those errors, of course, are the writer's fault, and most everyone pointing these out in my previous essays on "There are no sacred cows...," "There are few "great books" but fewer "great" readers," and "Reading a book as opposed to consuming a book" have been gracious in pointing out areas where my comparisons seem to ring hollow or where I could have gone a bit further.  In addition, there were a few points that I deleted from these essays because of the length of the essays and how I felt these points perhaps could be made separately.  So here is a post that will not be a full, formal essay, but instead a printing of corrections and previously-rejected material.

In my second essay, I had put forth the notion of there being a sort of idealized "great reader," one that spent some time grappling with the textual meanings to wrest some sort of understanding from it.  I noted that such an idealized reader probably does not exist at all due to the internal and external pressures put upon us that detract us from this noble purpose.  In my third essay, posted yesterday, I alluded to this second essay, but I left it vague, because I thought it would be interesting to explore how actual readers, as opposed to the idealized "great readers" and "book consumers," can shift and move between various levels of reading intensity.  I do not think I have the time today that I thought I had yesterday for doing this, so I'll just suggest that people re-read the second and third essays and then judge for themselves how much, if any, the descriptions fit them at any point.

A related point that I saw mentioned (I think it was at this blog, but it might have been elsewhere) is that reading/not reading is not a moral/character flaw.  That was an interesting take on it, one that I frankly had not considered at all.  Especially considering that over half of my immediate family have never been fiction readers, it would be very difficult for me to condemn this as a character/moral flaw, seeing what I see on an everyday basis.  I do see reading/not reading as a choice, one that can have a profound influence on how one comes to see the world and its peoples.  As such, obviously I'm going to encourage people to read more and to ask deeper questions, because that is what I've been trained to do professionally, but choosing not to read is no flaw at all, unless of course one wants to weigh in and proclaim opinions as if they are certain of matters.  Reading, I have found, as part of a greater education of one's self, tends to introduce enough opposing viewpoints as to make most people, after long and deep exposure, rather hesitant to believe that they know everything.  Most of the time that I write these sorts of posts, I usually take pains to make sure there is a disclaimer that virtually everything raised as points of contention are things that I have wavered on or that I am guilty of doing, mostly because I am not by nature a very "certain" person.

But just because one ought not be too "certain" about matters does not mean that there can be a complete relativity approach taken to evaluating literature.  Understanding/processing literature is of course a subjective process; no two people do it exactly the same fashion for every book read.  But there are core elements that touch upon commonly-shared experiences.  These touchstones, coupled with the literary equivalent of "preponderance of evidence," makes some textual interpretations more valid than others.  Readers who content themselves with a simple, "oh, it's just a difference of opinions" do risk weakening their evaluative tools.  Perhaps more reasoned passion (oxymoron?) should be injected into these discussions.  Not all opinions are well-supported ones and sometimes people just have to be called out for this.

Which I suppose goes back to another related point, that of reacting to strong comments.  Occasionally, I have read where some have thought that I was "mocking" another's argument.  That is an interesting accusation.  I am used to picking apart arguments that I find to be weak, laying out its perceived flaws (and receptive when others do the same to mine in a similar, considered fashion), hardly worrying myself about the tone of such dissections.  But some take it to be a sort of derisive action on my part, as if I get pleasure from doing this.  I think the more appropriate description of my emotional state would be a sort of gallow's humor, since I know this is so pervasive that virtually everyone writes something that is sloppy at some point.  See opening paragraph for personal disclaimer.

But the emotional aspect is something that I think lies at the heart of all this.  Richard Morgan makes some interesting points in my second and third essays about this.  I think it strange that a sense of "us" and "them" seems to have developed in reading.  Reading, I believe, is at its core a solitary exercise.  You and the Text, mano a mano, with the Author off to the side, being a coach of sorts.  There may be some shared similarities between one Reader and another, but never enough for me to identify very strongly with others.  And yet over the past couple of generations, there have been larger and larger groupings of readers that have developed.  From book conventions to book clubs, there have been attempts to make this solitary exercise into a social one.  Perhaps that's due to humans being largely social creatures who love hierarchies of organization.

I suppose that's fine to me (I tend to be at best on the fringes of any group, preferring instead the conversations of a person here, another there, and not forming too close of an association with any), at least to some extent, but I have worried in the past that there might be too much of a group mentality that forms around books.  At times, groups of like-minded readers seem to have developed this sort of possessiveness about "their" authors and "their" genres.  At times, I suppose this sort of possessive fannish attitude is positive in that it shows how strong of a support there is for certain narrative styles and for certain writers who might otherwise flounder.  But I have also sensed an irrationality behind this, an intense defensiveness that will not go away regardless of how many counter-arguments and appeals to reason may be made.  Perhaps in the creation of a "we," there has to be a corresponding boogeyman-like "they" to counter and to justify the "we" being in existence. 

Naturally, I think it is a bit ridiculous.  Perhaps it is because I just move as far away from being at the centers of any groups as possible, but the insecurity that I often detect underneath the bold, brash comments about how Author X's work sucks and that Author X is "elitist, pretentious, snobbish" is rather disconcerting.  It sounds and looks just like a cornered animal that's about to lunge out and bite out of fear and alarm.  Maybe there are some who don't feel defensive when they use such strong language, maybe these are usually considerate readers who have accepted that it's okay to be uncertain about one's opinions and that a periodic testing of them to see if they are still valid is a good thing.  But something tells me that those making such comments are not the most confident of people, deep down inside.  I say this as one who still wavers a bit, one who can lash out with the best of them...before admitting to myself that I was wrong in doing so and that there is something troubling me that ought to be examined.  But for several, this sort of self-evaluation will not take place.  For those people (at least at certain points; this is not an absolutist claim, after all), it is better to lash out and claim others are stupid without taking a glance in the mirror and wondering if it is they themselves that are wearing the fool's outfit. 

Reading is not a static thing.  It is at its heart a dynamic affair, with readers morphing as much as do understandings of the author and of textual content.  No one fits in any category forever, although some may try their damnest to do so.  If you get passionate about reading, or rather about the incidentals of reading, stop, take a deep breath, and go do something else for a while.  Just as I noted that there are readers who at times view reading as an act of consumption rather than as an art of dialogue, there are times that the activity of reading can consume its readers.  If you sense a group mindset, just back away and distrust it.  If you think that you alone have the answers, distrust that as well.  And most importantly, don't always trust the tellers; just trust the tale as far as you can throw it.


Anonymous said...

I have read all of those recent essays. For what little it is worth, I found them more than coherent and salient.

Indeed, tribalism is the prevailing mentality of the day. I don't intend for that to sound condemning. It's just the landscape we find ourselves traversing.

In fact, I imagine I would disagree with you over a great many things. However, I am so devoid of concern regarding opposing viewpoints, that I am completely unwilling to engage contention where it may be found.

At the end of all this, I still visit OFBotF regularly to read posts here. Though I am rarely persuaded, I enjoy the writing of well reasoned and composed positions, which is what these essays have been.

Bill said...

Larry, this is a little off topic, for which I apologize, because I do truly respect your views here.

But this artwork got a little buzz, and I immediately thought of you. Know that it was with the utmost respect that I post this link.

Lsrry said...


Yeah, we might disagree on several points, but it does please me that you do take the time to consider my viewpoints, even if you aren't swayed by them. I can only hope to do the same as much as possible to all who dissent.


Yeah, I saw that the other day and just haven't gotten around to posting a link. Do need to forward it on to this young woman I know who loves squirrels more than I do, so I might just go ahead and do that now. It certainly is among the most surreal things I've seen in a while.

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