The OF Blog: There are few great books, but even fewer "great readers"

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

There are few great books, but even fewer "great readers"

After a month of reading Jorge Luis Borges' essays, poems, and fictions, as well as a few email conversations that I have had with authors, I have been pondering again the Reader side of the Author-Text-Reader triangle.  In those essays and in those conversations, I came across, over and over again, the notion that there has to be some sort of quality in the Reader as well as a quality in the Text to make a book or author "great."  It is not something that I want to ascribe to, but it is also a point that is hard to combat.

Ask someone what he or she considers to be essential for a "good" book and the responses would likely include the following:  exciting or interesting plot, identifiable characters, good pacing, well-written prose.  Ask again what constitutes a "classics" and likely there'd be some repetition of the above, perhaps with the addition of memorable dialogue/action and recognizable themes.  Press a bit harder and ask to identify why a particular work is considered to be a "classic" and chances will increase with the number of people asked that they do not understand why a particular work, say a Ulysses or One Hundred Years of Solitude, is considered to be a "classic" or even a "good" book.

One might be tempted to dismiss this as being matters of taste and perhaps to some extent, personal preferences come into play.  But I would argue that there is something more to this, something that is intrinsic to the Reader-Text portion of the triangle.  Judging by the likely non-representative opinions found online for works such as M. John Harrison's Viriconium stories, it would seem the more a Text (or even its Author, divorced as s/he may be from the Text's semantics) diverges from a Reader's expectations for what a Text ought to do, the more and more likely that Text will be dismissed as being "shoddy" or "poor" and that its Author could even be condemned for being "arrogant" for implying, either inside the Text or in outside commentaries, that the Text has to be read in a different way than what the Reader wants to do.

I've discussed Harrison's work several times over the years, both in threads like that and on this blog, so I'll just mention it as an example and move on, as there are other examples that could be employed, an almost infinite number in fact.  I am reminded of what Umberto Eco said in one of his pieces found in Misreadings.  He wrote a parody of a fictional publisher rejecting classic works from Homer's two poems to Joyce, all because the "audience" would not like them.  Within this parody lurks a very serious message:  so many Texts just are not understood by Readers?

Why is that?  Some of it doubtless is due to barriers such as language and metaphor shifts, references to events that are not part of the Reader's shared cultural understanding, and thematic concerns that may run counter to the Reader's experience.  Yes, each of these can be tough obstacles to overcome, but none is insurmountable.  All it takes is a bit of effort and attempts to understand the Author and the Text while simultaneously understanding one's own self as a Reader.

So whenever I hear complaints about "s/he can't tell a good story!" I think to myself, "Do you even know what a "good" story is in the first place?"  Or whenever I come across a "s/he's just engaging in mental masturbation on these pages!" I respond internally with "Do you even know what you're arguing, or are you parroting what another has said and you just think it sounds good rather than trying to think through your reaction?"  I've learned to question what others have thought on books, because frankly, some readers you would want to trust to know their ass from a hole in the ground, much less be able to discern qualities about a "difficult" Text.

This is not to say that I myself am a "good" or "great" Reader.  If anything, what I've learned over the years is that I am often quite mistaken about a story's qualities.  As I've said before elsewhere, as a teenager, I hated Moby Dick.  I thought it was boring, with a stilted prose style and pointless monologues.  When I was 23, I happened to mention this to a cultural history professor of mine and he urged me to reconsider Melville's book.  I did, and while he did not give me any real pointers on how to read that Text, I did discover quite a few things that I had missed the first time around just because I was not willing (or perhaps trained to do so) to wrestle with the Text and see what I could win from considering it on its own terms rather than just mine.  The same story holds true for several other books.  Perhaps I do need to try this with The Mill on the River Floss and The Member of the Wedding someday soon, since those were the other two books I had to read as a teenager that I hated violently.

But if I had to identify some of the markers of a "great" Reader, it would be someone who is willing to take the Text in on its own terms, rather than trying to push that square peg into the round hole that is one's preconceptions of what constitutes a "good" or "classic" book.  A "great" reader would try to see past the surface, to see what else might lie underneath that even the Text's own Author perhaps did not perceive.  A "great" Reader would be open-minded to the fact that perhaps the Text is still escaping them in places, but that sometimes that is a weakness of the Reader and not the Text and that it is time for that Reader to get back to work educating her/himself. 

Those are some of the qualities that I believe constitute a "great" Reader.  The question now is, who is willing to admit that they could be wrong about a story and try to turn things around and see if it is they who are getting in the way of a "great" Text?


Mieneke van der Salm said...

Oh I'll readily admit that I might be wrong about a story and that the fact that I don't like it or understand it might be a fault in myself and my abilities as a reader. However, is it a prerequisite to understand and/or like a work to appreciate its value as a great book or as an influential work? I'd argue not.

I have a BA in English language and Culture and in the course of studying for that, I had to study a lot of the greats, though I'll admit that those were mostly British texts, so I didn't have to read Moby Dick. I did have to read Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Sterne's Tristam Shandy and while I can understand why they're classics and why any serious student of English Literature should have at least read portions of these works, I still dislike them intensely. And I never finished reading either one! But I do see why they're important and influential. Just as I understand that while Austen's work is iconic and classic, if we'd update the language and modernise the environment it would probably be marketed as chick lit these days, even though there's a lot of social commentary in there (if read in that slant). So what's classic is also decided by the age we live in. Things we might consider classic, may not have been more than easily accessed, cheap reading material at the time (Dickens comes to mind) and stuff that was considered brilliant at the time may be considered of little literary value and relatively unknown, such as Tobias Smollet's Roderick Random or Henry MacKenzie's Man of Feeling to name two 18th century examples. I shudder to think what might be considered classics of the books published in our own day and age. Can you imagine Dan Brown's the DaVinci Code being considered a classic, because it stirred up controversy and drew many literary followers (in the sense that many 'like' books were written)?

As for your 'great' reader? I think he's a white whale (to keep to the Moby Dick theme), since to actually get a text on all layers is almost impossible. You don't just need to know the author's background, but also his influences and the history at the time of writing. Not so much to understand what the author meant (as you said they should be divorced from the text) but to understand things like metaphors and points of view. There is a lot that happens in language subconsciously, especially in the use of metaphors, which are often culturally and historically determined. If you are not aware of the text's contemporary surroundings, it's virtually impossible to get all meaning and subtext from it. So both an analytical mind and a huge fount of knowledge is needed. And I think that there are very, very few people who possess that amount of knowledge.

Aidan Moher said...

Interesting. This is something I've been struggling with for the last year or so. I feel like I need to become a better reader, a more discerning reader. I need to challenge my own opinions and preconceptions more often and engage the writing more than I have done so in the past, especially when writing reviews and discussing novels on any sort of public forum.

rahkan said...

This interests me too. Because, the more I read, the less I feel that I know the answers to any questions about what is good and what is bad. The more I read, the less discriminating I've become. And the less willing I am to call anything bad (I'm still pretty willing to call something good).

The more I read, the more I realize that my reactions to a text are so colored by my circumstances. That more than half of my response to any given work might depend on what I've heard of it, or on how liking that work or that author fits into that self-image, or how some thought I've read into the work reflects with some other thought I've been thinking.

For instance, I read James Baldwin's _Go Tell It On The Mountain_ recently. I really loved it. Partly this was (I told myself) because of its structure, because it was fascinating to see how the pieces fit, and how the story went somewhere in its night in the church that I didn't think stories could go. And perhaps all of that was a necessary minimum. But why did I love it? I think it's mostly because I had never heard of it before, because, though the name was vaguely familiar to me, no one had ever told me about James Baldwin. No one had told me what to expect. No one had told me to like this. And it felt somehow private. Given that I -- like many people -- use my media preferences to define my identify to myself and signal it to others, it is often important to feel alone in liking something.

Given that, how can I call it a classic? How can I call it great? If I stripped that element away from my enjoyment, what would be left? I don't think I'm so shallow that I am alone in making impact on self-image a large part of the consideration in liking or disliking a book.

You said: 'So whenever I hear complaints about "s/he can't tell a good story!" I think to myself, "Do you even know what a "good" story is in the first place?"'

I think that I would be more likely to distrust a person who did have a ready answer to that question. I'd be more likely to distrust someone who did know what a "good" story was. If you know what a good story is, what's the point of reading? You don't learn what you like by developing some abstract metric, you get taught what you like, by analyzing your reaction to the things that you like.

Larry Nolen said...

Good points, everyone. Won't take a lot of time to respond in depth to each (although these certainly deserve such responses), so I'll just add a bit that feeds upon what each of you has said so far:

A "great" reader I consider to be an ideal. Such a person likely doesn't exist in full, but that there are readers who on occasion touch upon the points that such an ideal reader would presumably make. It is a goal, rather. Something to aim for, to strive to become better, to never accept that you know it all. Note that in my references to myself, I referred to my blind spots, to things that shifted when I tried harder, gained different perspectives. That is how I envision reflective readers being: people who question why they like something, but never accepting any answers as being immutable. It is somewhat akin to the scientific process, I suppose, in that scientists are supposed to test their opinions and see if improvements can be made.

rahkan said...

As an addendum, I had a phase in college where I went back and re-read a number of the books I had been asked to read and had disliked in high school (i.e. nearly all of them).

This was prompted by a creative writing class where we read "Babylon Revisited" and I was totally blown away. I wondered what had changed? I had found F. Scott Fitzgerald thoroughly dull when I was reading the Great Gatsby at 14, and now I found his work stunning.

I reread Pride and Prejudice, Catcher in the Rye, the Great Gatsby, etc, and found that I quite enjoyed them all. But I hadn't made any particular attempt to analyze them more deeply, or read them differently (although, actually, I mostly didn't finish them when asked to read them in high school).

I'm not sure what changed. I'm willing to venture that: a) just getting older can make a huge difference; and that b) for some people, being forced to read something is a huge turn-off.

I find that my opinion regarding books changes quite often. I tried to read _Midnight's Children_ at least five or six times since my senior year of high school and found myself utterly bored each time. Six months ago I finished it in a night. What changed?

I can venture to guess, but I'm not sure the guesses would be very accurate. When I look at books that I used to dislike, it's hard to believe that they could have possibly bored me.

Jane Austen used to seem tedious and overwrought to me. Now I don't understand that reaction at all. Her writing seems simple and economical. Everything is much easier to follow. I think I just got smarter. Or read more books. Or something.

Nicola Griffith wrote a blog post once where she said: "If you only read one book last year, then it was probably Dan Brown's _The Lost Symbol_ and you probably enjoyed it." And if you had read alot of books, then you probably had not read the Lost Symbol and if you had, then you had probably not enjoyed it.

That seemed to make alot of sense to me. A Good Reader is usually just someone who's read enough that difficult books are not so difficult for him or her as they are for other people, and easy books are just way too easy and predictable.

Put that way, being a "Bad" reader is no longer some sort of moral failure. They just haven't read enough books. And that's fine. It's perfectly legitimate to decide that there are better and worthier things to do in the world than read fifty or a hundred (or five hundred!) books a year.

rahkan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

A great post. I understand, nebulously, the nature of the topic - I've just never seen it articulated quite this well before.

I am convinced that your 'take' on the matter is correct. One of the things that comes to mind, is that the triangle you refer to, or the author-read transaction (as I think of it), is one that can be sabotaged by a lack of willing teamwork, at least on the part of the reader. I think nearly anyone can tell when the unwillingness is on the part of the author, which usually comes in the form of an unbelievable, poorly constructed or uninspiring work. However, when on the part of the reader, the revealing clue is the appearance of 'mixed reviews.' Some will approach the text by examining it in light of it's intentions, while others approach the text by examining it in light of what they 'like.'

Anonymous said...

"A "great" Reader would be open-minded to the fact that perhaps the Text is still escaping them in places, but that sometimes that is a weakness of the Reader and not the Text and that it is time for that Reader to get back to work educating her/himself."

Agreed. I think this represents the difference between viewing reading as a conversation vs. a competition of some sorts, between the willingness to examine/reexamine what an author might be saying vs. applying a simple, definitive good/bad quality judgment. It's why oftentimes book discussions can be a burden to pay attention to, as instead of an honest, level-headed exchanges of ideas you simply get an endless parade of this sucks/rocks.

- Zach

Unknown said...

I've been wrong once or twice. The only time being wrong becomes a problem for me is if someone comes at me aggressively to prove to me that I'm wrong, because then I'm completely uninterested in re-reading or listening to what I might have missed. I'm much more willing to re-read a text if I haven't been verbally assaulted for not liking a book.

Heloise said...

Here is what I'd consider a great reader. And even he was wrong on occasion...

Richard Morgan said...

Worthy impulse, Larry - we could use a whole lot more of this attitude in genre.

When I think of the mainstream critical reviews I've read that are negative, the ones that always impress me the most are the ones where the critic is clearly trying really hard to like the book but just can't make it work. That, I think, shows the way - you do your best to engage, but have to accept that (a) there actually are shit books out there and (b) tastes vary, including your own. Sorting (a) from (b) is also, of course, a major function of mature reading.

Oddly enough, I find that books in category (a) don't usually attract my ire - I just stop reading, coast to a halt and never go back. It's the cost of a couple of Starbucks Mochas - so what, live and learn. When you see someone hating on a book, it usually suggests to me that the work in question has had a powerful effect. I think an awful lot of the thread rage for MJH over at Westeros falls into that category. And I'll admit I'm not immune myself - one of the few books I've genuinely hated (Amis's London Fields) was in fact excellently written - it was just that it was pernicious. But I think those who react so badly to Harrison's work can't afford an admission of that sort because it will shed rather too much uncomfortable light on their own literary limitations.

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