Friday, June 13, 2014

How To Read

I'm going to do something I usually don't. I'm going to talk about my work for a little bit. I don't see myself making a habit of this, but we'll see.

Last week Slate published an article entitled "Against YA" by Ruth Graham. The thesis of the article, if I can be forgiven for simplifying an already simplistic argument, is that (in her own words), "adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children." In the days since this hit we've seen a number of reactions, most coming down firmly on the side of castigating Graham for being a closed-minded elitist, or something along those lines. And indeed, I will join in the chorus saying that Graham is wrong, but perhaps not for the same reasons many others have done so.

Graham tips her hat in the first sentence of the fourth paragraph when she says, "Let’s set aside the transparently trashy stuff like Divergent and Twilight, which no one defends as serious literature." Do you see what she did there? That's the focus of her argument - in addition to serving as a map of as the disputed territory that her critics are also attempting to colonize. Do you see the problem? It certainly isn't the casual dismissal of Twilight, which - even if we can feel justified in agreeing with her assertion that Twilight is a bad book - is nevertheless weighted down in this particular context by a number of troubling class and gender signifiers. It lies in the phrase "serious literature."

What is Serious Literature? Have you ever gone into the bookstore and asked the clerk if he could direct you to the Serious Literature shelf? He points you towards the fiction: well, you immediately see problems. There is some Serious Literature here, but it's mixed up in all this rubbish. You've got Jonathan Franzen sharing shelf space with William T. Vollman; you've got Gore VIdal's Lincoln stinking up the same corner as Gore Vidal's City and the Pillar. Ye cats! OK, those are specious examples. That part of her argument is barely worth dignifying with a response.

What is most pernicious about her argument is the premise she appears to share with her detractors, that is, the premise that fiction is in some way good for you:
Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future. But wanting endings like this is no more ambitious than only wanting to read books with "likable" protagonists.
So far, so interminable. Nothing worse than a satisfying ending, right? Please pay attention throughout her article to her use of highly charged emotional terms to describe her relationship with fiction. She is extremely good at circling around the fact that she clearly has just as much invested in her emotional relationship to her reading choices as her straw-man thirteen-year-old.

One of the more articulate defenses of the YA genre I've encountered in response to Graham is a blog post by YA author Maggie Stiefvater entitled "Books Don't Make You Smart." The title alone perks my interest: here, I thought, we might actually be getting somewhere. She states, wisely, that "the book industry may be one of the few industries that promises you will actually become more clever if you buy their product." This is certainly the overwhelming cultural prejudice: people who spend their time reading are better off in any number of important ways than people who never crack a book from the moment they graduate school until the day they die.

But then I read the piece and I see that Stiefvater, even though she gets off to a strong start, undermines her point through this bit of self-destructive linguistic jiu-jitsu:
But we have this prevailing theory that books will make you smart, and it’s this theory that allows us to judge a book’s quality by how far it stretches your mind. According to this idea, if it doesn’t make you smarter, it’s a lesser book. It becomes a guilty pleasure, like food that doesn’t contribute to your daily vitamin requirement. Cue up the articles on the tragedy of the populace reading young adult, or turning to magazines, or — horrors, shall I whisper it — watching television in lieu of reading.

Don’t they know that reading makes you clever? Don’t they know that television and movies are for non-intellectuals? Hoi polloi turn the TV on. If you’re someone who’s going to be someone, you open a book.

But books aren’t smart: stories are.

Not all stories, of course. There are wise stories and flippant stories, stories that stretch your mind and stories that only make you laugh. Stories that are true and stories that won’t ever be true.
At this point I let out a deep and troubled sigh. Perhaps you can figure out why.

It's a meaningless distinction. When Stiefvater says "books," we're inevitably also discussing "stories." Stories don't just come in books, but they're as strong a story vehicle as you could ever want, right?

Here's the thing: stories don't exist. Stories can't be smart because they're not alive.

We create stories in our own minds based on the sensory input of various forms of communicative media. Nothing in quote-unquote "real life" resembles a story - nothing ever begins, and nothing really ends, so with the notable exceptions of showing up for important occasions such as births and deaths we all of us walk around perpetually in media res, day after day. Stories are these things we believe in and we carry with us, but the actual existence of something, some essential property called "story," is as powerful a fiction as any we have ever encountered. Because we believe in stories, we want to be able to understand the world through the lens of stories - we want to be able to put events and narratives into legible forms that make intrinsic sense. That's one thing fiction (and history, and philosophy) do. But all story - all story - is extrinsic.

I'm a teacher, and this Fall I'll be returning to teach literature after a couple years' spent teaching composition. I'm looking forward to it, obviously. But it's not without its own challenges. One of the most basic principles of what I do - something that I had to have beaten out of me over many years' practice - is that there's no such thing as intrinsic meaning, and that talking and writing about literature isn't about cracking open the heart of a work in order to figure out what the author was really trying to say. That's a reductive statement of a complicated problem, but for these purposes it's important to remember that the heart of the work isn't what the author puts in, but what you (the reader) take out - be it a critique of dominant ideology or a productive, agonistic struggle against some kind of amorphous author function. If that sounds strange or counterintuitive, the alternative can be seen on display in the "Scylla & Charybdis" section of Ulysses, wherein a group of learned and dedicated scholars in turn of the century Dublin sit to discuss, essentially, whether Shakespeare was the bestest writer of all time or the super bestest, and what kind of biographical trivia might finally put to rest any nagging questions about the "meaning" of Hamlet. It's a very human instinct, and one I know my students will also struggle against: we all want to think we can glimpse the person behind the book, the man or woman who wrote a story so smart that our lives were forever changed. We think if we understand them, we'll understand their story. But that can't happen, because they're not there.

All of which is to say: stories aren't smart. They can't be either smart or dumb. You, however, can be smart or dumb. And you can choose to be smart or dumb regardless of what you choose to read. It's all in how you do it.

Does Serious Literature, or even better, "literary fiction," make you a better person? I seriously doubt that. Most literary fiction just isn't very interesting - fiction constructed by writers trained in the construction of fiction, wherein elements like theme, plot, and character have been expertly measured and illustrated in the most precise manner possible, is usually too clever by half. Half of the fun comes in finding the weird and the unexpected - and too many contemporary novels have emerged from a culture of craftsmanship that values controlled affect above all other virtues. (You should check out this book for further reference on the point.) You can certainly persist in thinking that reading Serious, Literary Fiction makes you a better person, but at least in terms of contemporary fiction I don't have a lot of sympathy. (As for older literature? That's a different story . . . )

I think a lot of people have distorted view of what academia actually does in term of literature. Or maybe a set of interrelated misapprehensions. Is the academy the keeper at the gates of culture? Maybe once, but that attitude is a lot rarer than it used to be. There is still a thing called "the canon" but, at least in my experience, it's not something most people would get upset over defending. It's more a reflexive understanding of a historical category than a real organizing principle, and certainly something to destabilize whenever possible. Certainly do not look to the academy to help promote your anti-YA bias: you are as likely to find people studying YA literature as Dickens or Milton. (Well, maybe not quite as likely, but I do know people who are studying them, and finding lots of interesting things to say.) Is it because YA really does possess some kind of grand intrinsic value that the scholars are now just learning to recognize, a value that places John Green alongside David Foster Wallace on the same proud shelf? Hell, no. The whole point is that the idea of intrinsic value is simply indefensible. It's not a question of what's great or good, but a question of interesting and uninteresting. There are lots of very "good" books I would not rate as particularly interesting, at least to my tastes. But there are tons of terrible books that nevertheless manage to be far more interesting than whatever the New York Review of Books is telling me I should like this week. Academia doesn't care whether or not a book is any good, really, so long as can sit up and talk back, give us something interesting to think about.

(One example: a couple years back I picked up Jennifer Egan's A Visit From The Goon Squad, because it had won the Pulitzer and I was in an airport and I thought, oh well, how bad can it be. It was terrible, precisely the kind of book people seem to think you should read because its good for you, when in fact it's a book that no one should read because it doesn't have an interesting idea in its pretty little head. Or at least, I didn't think there was anything there I hadn't seen before. No surprises, no rough edges to get any kind of critical purchase.)

So if you want to read YA? Go ahead! Have fun. But don't trick yourself into thinking you're reading Serious Literature, because you should realize that - at least in terms of the contemporary literary marketplace - there's no such thing as Serious Literature. Literature is an entertainment choice just like any other, and these days you could hardly be blamed for thinking that a media diet consisting of Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Veep, and Shameless was of roughly equal - or possibly greater - caloric value than a diet of whatever the fiction editors' picks are on Amazon.

But wait, I hear you saying, clutching your pearls in horror, do you mean to say that literature no longer occupies a privileged position at the apex of cultural expression? Well, I do and I don't. Because obviously I'm biased. I like reading, I like books, all that jazz that goes along with book culture. But I also realize that the reason I like books is informed by a large number of factors completely outside any intrinsic value in the books themselves - I grew up in a family that valued reading highly, I grew up in a historical period of relative affluence which believed in universal literacy, I lucked into attending a high school where I had great English and History teachers and terrible Science teachers, etc. But so many times we - and I mean the royal "We" of people who live in the culture industries - can trick ourselves into thinking that these supposedly universal values of literacy are in any way actually universal. Again, there is nothing intrinsic to the act of reading that makes you a better person, and there is nothing intrinsic to certain categories of books that makes them better for you to read than others.

My argument in defense of books is, I believe, fairly utilitarian: books are the most efficient means of communicating information we as a species have yet devised. Reading books can make you smarter, but it's hardly the only thing that can do so - merely, I believe, the most efficient.

So what do I teach? I can't teach people to believe that if they don't like reading then they can't be good people. This is an attitude I've encountered (albeit in inverse form) from people who I would think should know better. "We believe that reading is valuable because being exposed to great literature makes you a better person." Have you ever heard that? Have you ever said that? The value we place on leisure today is a function of class and geography, pure and simple. You keep on believing you're better for reading The Corrections than Twilight (I know, Jonathan Franzen's kind of a cheap shot here. It's funny because there's a grain of truth there). But you're not, you've just bought into the myth that one kind of book is better than another. The difference is not the book itself but the thinking apparatus you bring to bear on the process of reading. Some books will prove more fertile ground for thought than others, but who am I to judge?

I can't teach anyone to love reading - I can try to pass on some enthusiasm, sure, but I know enough to understand that instilling a lifelong love of reading in someone who struggles to get through 15 pages of a textbook every other night just isn't happening. What I can teach is thinking. So while I can certainly sympathize with Graham's frustration at confronting an uncritical literary culture that exalts the "likable" character uncritically, I can only shake my head at her reference to "the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction" - both of these phenomenon belonging to the same category of desired emotional affect. Which is important. Affect matters. But its more important to ask the whys and wherefores of affect than merely to accept uncritically the myth that experiencing negative affect through fiction is somehow of higher value than its inverse.

Why is reading important? Not because it makes you better or smarter. Reading doesn't make you smarter. Stories don't make you smarter. Thinking makes you smarter. Thinking that books themselves are what does the trick is a kind of animism. Smart people learn to find value wherever they look. Dim people never figure out that what they see around them is merely a reflection of their own prejudices.


David T. said...

I really liked this, I'd imagine this requires a fair bit more effort than some of the other stuff on this site, but I would love to see more.

On a more personal note, I think I learned a less articulate version of this notion reading Descartes in College. I read The Meditations or whatever because it seemed like a 'smart' thing to do. My eyes passed over every word but I retained nothing and got nothing out of it. Simply reading Descartes didn't do anything for me, I would have been better off doing something that got it's hooks into me (or my hooks got into it?)even if it wasn't something as 'smart'.

Though I guess I did learn something from learning nothing, I suppose.

rrrivethead said...

Nicely said. Makes me feel a bit better for having Harry Potter in an honored place in my bookshelves.