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.”