Reading Reading


The Reading Girl, Theodore Roussel, 1886

by Bill Benzon

This post includes major sections from two posts I wrote in 2005 when I first began writing for The Valve: Learning to Read & the Need for Theory and Beyond Reading. The first generated extensive discussion that’s worth reading if you want to puzzle through the difference between reading a literary work and writing criticism about it.

Having expressed misgivings about the notion of distance in “distant reading”, I now want express misgivings about the other term in the phrase, “reading”.

I think it was a mistake of academic literary criticism to allow the term “reading” to elide the distinction between the ordinary activity by which John, Jane, Suzy, and Timmy Smith read texts and the specialized activity of creating written explications of texts. The effect of such elision is to enable the belief that the two processes are basically the same, but that what the professional critic is doing is deeper and more rigorous than what John, Jane, Suzy and Timmy are doing and the Smiths really ought to tighten up their act.

Think about that for a moment or two and you realize that, on that view, Will Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, and Murasaki Shikibu were really little more than very skilled chimps and they ought to get themselves to the nearest Summer School for Criticism in order properly to be able to “read” the texts they wrote.

Learning to Explicate

When I was in my middle teens I picked up a copy of Howard Fast’s historical novel, Spartacus (I don’t remember whether this was before or after I had seen the movie). It was a rather long book, but, as I recall, I read it in a single session that took me through the night. No doubt my mind was making all sorts of inferences while I was reading. When I was done I no doubt had some recollection of the story and could recount it, or fragments of it, and could answer questions about it. But I could not have done anything approaching an acceptable “reading” or “interpretation” of the book. I simply didn’t know how to do that.

It took me two or three years in college to become fluent in writing 10-page papers containing acceptable explications of individual texts. When I first studied literature in college I was pretty much at the mercy of the last interpretation I had read (or had heard in lecture). I simply didn’t have a conceptual “space” in which I could arrange and compare two or three interpretations or explications and make judgments about their relative merits regardless of the order in which I read them. Even when I had built up such a space I found it easier to have someone else “break open” the text for me by providing a reading (which I consumed either through lecture or reading). Once I had encountered one or two explications I could then reason about the text on my own, applying my knowledge of psychology, philosophy, and whatever else to the job.

Thus, in learning to explicate or interpret texts I began by imitating the strategies of my teachers and of the critics I read. I assume, though perhaps I am mistaken in this, that most critics have had to learn their craft in much the same way. We learn a large collection of critical moves, which we then apply to the texts.

Some of these moves may be uninformed by any explicit theory while others are explicitly derived from some philosophical, psychological, or social scientific body of thought. This body of inferential moves is extra, in addition to, the routines we use in simply reading the texts. When we elide the difference between reading and explication or interpretation by referring to both as reading we can end up believing that being deeply confused about what we’re up to in criticism.

Geoffrey Hartman is Confused

This confusion is evident in the title essay of Geoffrey Hartman’s collection, The Fate of Reading and Other Essays (U of Chicago Press, 1975). Consider this passage (p. 255):

That darkling appropriation of works of art we call interpretation is surely as much a blind drive as an objective interest. We are forced to predicate a narrative or interpretive will, the will to be an author oneself, or even the author of oneself (and others).

Why “appropriation, much less “darkling appropriation”? What is the scope of that “We”? It’s as though Hartman does not wish to, somehow cannot, distinguish between himself at the author.

Some more passages:

Literature is today so easily assimilated or coopted that the function of criticism must often be to defamiliarize it. [p. 260]

A great interpreter like Erich Auerbach, a great critic-scholar like E.R. Curtius, a prodigal son like Kenneth Burke, or men of letters like Paul Valéry and Edmund Wilson, who practiced the minor mode of prophecy we call criticism, are not annulled by the fact that they may be explicitly writing about the writing of others. It may be a weakness in them to prefer, at times, the indirectness of commentary to the creation of their own news, but it may also be a conviction that their identity is bound up with the writings of others-that the mind is laid waste by the false Unas of literature even as it is renewed by faith in the classic or neglected text. [p. 267]

Reading, then, includes reading criticism. [p. 268]

The question persists, however, whether there is a specific function that differentiates literary criticism from literature. . . . Literary understanding, then, has two components: literary tradition proper, or an expansible canon of texts; and criticism, which helps to form this canon and guide its interpretation-which prepares us, at least, for the complexities of literary expression. [p. 270]

All we can be certain of is that literary understanding is bipartite, requiring both literary discourse (texts), and that too strong a privileging of fictional over nonfictional texts (of “primary” over “secondary” literature) reifies literature still further and disorders our ability to read. [p. 271]

I find some of this overwrought and overly anxious, just a bit professionally self-serving, and I’m skeptical about the ability of critical explication to bring us closer to the text. Perhaps it does that in the way “wood-shedding” a difficult piece of music helps a musician work it up for performance. But I would distinguish between the “shedding” and the performance itself.

If you want to get closer to the text, read the text, don’t write about it. Writing about literary texts is, well, writing about literary texts. It is not reading.

Make the Distinction Now

The problem with conflating textual commentary and reading is that it invites you to believe that textual commentary proceeds from the motives and is to be justified by the same arguments as simply reading those texts, that is, the terms we use to justify literature itself. That may seem harmless enough when the commentary is regarded as “appreciative” or even interpretive. Such commentary, we say, is intended to serve the text.

These days, though, we talk of “distant reading”. Whatever distant reading is, it is not serving literary texts. And it cannot be understood and justified in the terms we use to justify literature itself. It must be understood and justified on other terms. But then, I contend, so must explication and interpretation.

As far as I’m concerned we’re dealing with three activities: 1) reading texts, 2) interpreting or explicating literary texts, singly or as body of work, and 3) some other activity, which includes so-called distant reading. Let’s recognize the distinction in our terminology.

Piece originally published at New Savannah | Creative Commons License