Where were you in ’62?

I have noticed a person’s approach to literature is often dependent on the period they grew up in. I used to think it was a reflection of the world of literary criticism which is changing faster and faster, but then I realize that I was aiming too high and the real distinction was just the social and political world that nurtured the reader.

I would suggest that up until the 1980s and the disastrous experiment of Ronald Reagan, readers tended to approach the literature for itself and they would make the effort to understand and appreciate what the author was attempting in the writing. With the ’80s the paradigm was flipped and people began to expect the literature to give them what made them feel good.

The New Criticism was the old way to look at literature: all art, for that matter. Postmodernism pretty well buried the older ways of appreciating literature but it did develop new ways that kept literature alive and even fun to read. But then came those problematic theories of reader-response and the author’s contract with the reader and other crap which suggested that the reader could willy-nilly any book they read or tried to read and declare it good or bad based on some inner personal feeling.

I like to think of reader-response by changing reading a book to visiting the doctor. Is the outcome of a doctor’s diagnosis like reader-response? In some ways it is—take the story of the doctor who was sampling his own drugs—but for the most part it isn’t—you’re describing your symptoms and pointing to the painful area and the doctor tells you he’s bored and is going to turn on the television and watch reruns of Ben Casey. Your pain is real and it could be serious; furthermore, the pain is not changed just because the doctor is ignoring you. In the same way, the literature is not changed just because a reader responds negatively.

Much too often we hear readers declaring that a book is horrible, stupid, boring, etc. The feelings behind these pronouncements are valid but they are wrongly expressed. The book is not boring; the reader is bored reading the book. The book is not stupid; the reader doesn’t fully understand what is going on in the book. The book is not horrible; the reader is just not reading at the same level that the author had written.

The strangest response to literature I have seen (and I’ve seen it quite often) is when a time-honored classic that has been read and enjoyed by thousands, if not millions of people around the world, is declared to be a bad book because of the personal response of the reader. Furthermore, it is a myth that authors and academicians are conspiring to put one over on the reading public and some books are perpetuated on reading lists because the list-makers don’t want to look stupid overlooking a classic, even if they don’t consider it list-worthy.

But I don’t want to heap too much criticism on this topic:  some readers are just not ready. They do not have the mental or spiritual muscle required by more complex literature and hopefully by exercising their minds with good literature that is less demanding they will eventually meet the challenge. Remember, we enrich our minds and our lives by reading good literature and avoiding the bad literature. How do you know? Practice! And don’t forget Lord Chesterfield:  “Let blockheads read what blockheads wrote.”

4 thoughts on “Where were you in ’62?

  1. I agree with your points here, but hardly think it is all based on ‘when one grew up’. I know a lot of people older than myself who dismiss books swiftly and carelessly through the lens of reader-response, and others younger even than myself (in my 20’s) who either read like a new critic or a deconstructionist. I think I float somewhere in between the new critics and deconstructionists, in that I still appreciate the work as an “artistic piece” or “whole”, even though that isn’t popular in today’s literary societies. I am curious though, if age is not the deciding factor, what might be? I hate to say level of intelligence? Perhaps how much one has read? Or what one reads? Most who have never explored theoretical texts read purely for personal pleasure, thus reader-response would make perfect sense. If one is not ‘pleased’ with the book, it has no apparent weight or importance.

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    1. Actually, I didn’t say that age was a factor (except in that the older you are, the more chance for experience you’ve had) but rather that the social, political, philosophical, pedagogical, etc. background which nurtured you (including a generational replay by your parents) was significant in your outlook and approach to literature (all art, for that matter).

      I’m sure that the level of raw intelligence has something to do with it, but some really brilliant people are out there ripping off pension funds and living in luxury without feeling the need to read Jane Eyre. And conversely, I knew several families that could barely afford new underwear as gifts for Christmas, yet there was a bookcase in the living room and even if they came from the Salvation Army store, it was full of books.

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  2. I think there’s something to be said for looking into the motives and biases of an author, but the fact that postmodern lit-crit dedicates itself solely to “deconstruction” makes it self-defeating. What, after all, is the point of interpreting a text if “meaning” itself has become a quaint relic?

    You’re certainly right about the cult of subjectivity. It’s a hallmark of our anti-intellectual age that no one sees the worth in academic or critical consensus about a book or author. No, opinions are all assumed to be of equal worth, even those expressed by people who freely admit they haven’t put in the effort to engage with the work. In the post-everything era, even people who read can be illiterate: they engage not with the words or the imagination involved in literature, but in the way a work is perceived by people in general.

    The soup of the soup is getting pretty bland by this point.

    Keep up the good work!

    Shem

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    1. First, postmodernism is very out of fashion and it wasn’t dedicated to deconstruction anyway. Besides, deconstruction in Europe was very different than in the United States. And then there is Harold Bloom who had a frolic of his own.

      I considered literary criticism to have shattered into a lot of little pieces after the postmodern period. Some theories are fun and interesting to contemplate (like Marxist theories and Queer Studies). Others seem to have been thought up just to allow for something new and publishable in the literary world. The more subjective approaches to literature remind me too much of the Bush administration where they announced that they made their own reality.

      I see it this way: if a book like Ulysses lays open in the woods, is it still a good novel? Yes it is and someday someone will come along, read it, and be amazed.

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