Those Gosh-Darned Readers!

by vinnyhaddad

In “Rereading the English Common Reader,” Jonathan Rose makes a strong case that examining a history of audiences offers a more fruitful understanding of what texts do than what texts mean. One of the cruxes of this argument rests on the observation that, sometimes in spite of the content of a text, different readers bring different experiences to the text and leave with radically different interpretations of it. Readers of with different educational backgrounds might self-excerpt, skipping and editing versions and developing unique applications to the real world. This notion can be disconcerting to authors, whose relationship with their own readers can be tenuous at best. Jay McInerney recollects submitting a piece of fiction to his Raymond Carver atSyracuseUniversity, to which Carver meticulously edited it for 15-20 hours: “Once we spent some 10 or 15 minutes debating my use of the word ‘earth.’ Carver felt it had to be ‘ground,’ and he felt it was worth the trouble of talking through.” Certainly having impatient eyes gloss over individual words and edit (or mangle depending who you ask) content is a legitimate source of distress.

However, Rose offers an interesting point of departure from a conventional argument of what texts do. Certainly, authors have viewed themselves over the course of the past century as providing a source of opposition to traditional culture. The argument has been forcefully made that texts, perhaps directly proportionally so, have an opposite, compensatory effect. Rose quotes Terry Eagleton as saying,

Since literature, as we know, deals in universal human values rather than in such historical trivia as civil wars, the oppression of women or the dispossession of the English peasantry, it could serve to place in cosmic perspective the petty demands of working people for decent living conditions or greater control over their own lives, and might even with luck come to render them oblivious of such issues in their high-minded contemplation of eternal truth and beauties…Instead of working to change such conditions…you can vicariously fulfill someone’s desire for a fuller life by handing them Pride and Prejudice.

This view towards the function of art is not a new one (the Russian futurists embraced a similar view towards art as they tried to dismantle it and reconstruct it into socially constructive ways). However, it deals with the hypothetical projection of what a high-minded literarily-inclined intellectual assumes of a working class reader. As Jonathan Rose points out, “canonical literature tended to spark insurrections in the mind of the working-class reader and was more likely to radicalize than mollify him.”

Defenders of high culture, on particularly cynical days myself included, have an image of the constituents of popular culture as overly-caffeinated navel-gazers with short attention spans. The logical conclusion of such a limited vision of the world of readers has these defenders scornfully grateful if the surviving reading communities pick up a Tom Clancy book. Jonathan Rose makes a wonderfully poignant distinction when he states, “The term ‘popular culture’ is only meaningful as a quantitative measure of the audience—applying, say to any novel that sells over a million copies. ‘High culture’ is not its polar opposite, but rather a qualitative measure of the work—the best that is known and thought in the world, leaving open the question of whose criteria we are following” (428). By reconsidering the way the function of literature changes when consider the editing different readers offer, perhaps it provides an even more desperation to the cause of maintaining and advocating the preservation of literature in a society that seems increasingly dismissive of intellectuals. Or, perhaps it is the intellectual that must concede that literature is best left in the hands of the reading communities that give them the most life.

Two videos from my usual suspects (Franzen, David Foster Wallace, sick of them yet? of course not!) on the role of audience in authorship:

David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen on the Charlie Rose Show