Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Theory of Reading: Part III

A Theory of Reading (1.0)

Part III: Reading Experience and Interpretation

John Green—author, vlogger, and general Internet personality—has (in some circles famously) said, "A book belongs to its readers." I admire Green's work and find myself agreeing with a lot of his gnomic sayings, but this is one with which I can't unreservedly agree. My main problem with it is that it's imprecise (at best; at worst it is inaccurate). It's the reading experience, not the book, which belongs to the reader. In a capitalist economy, a book legally and creatively belongs to the author (or it should by capitalist logic, anyway), while, as discussed above, the meaning of the book probably belongs to the book itself as much as it belongs to anyone (though an argument could be made that a book belongs to either language or literature).[1]

I think it is very important to note that the reading experience belongs to the reader. What John Green tends to mean when he says that books belong to their readers is that a reader's interpretation of the book should be judged by whether or not that interpretation enriches their experience of the book. If their reading experience is better—they enjoy it more, they learn more from it, they are more challenged by it—then that interpretation has done its job. I don't disagree with this sentiment. Even a misinterpretation can be a rewarding reading experience, and if a rewarding reading experience is what the reader wants, then the misinterpretation has been, nonetheless, a good one.

The distinction is that the reading experience is not the same thing as the meaning of the text. An interpretation that makes for an enriching reading experience does not necessarily make for a good explanation of the text. So, the question is, when should we be concerned about a faithful interpretation of a text rather than an enriching reading experience?

The most obvious example is in the classroom, when you're called on to complete an English assignment. Whether it's at the high school or the university level, what's usually being asked of you is to give an interpretation of a text, not to record your reading experience. But I think there are more important instances: when you want to lay blame for, make criticisms about, or recommend a book.

By now most of us are familiar with the idea that someone might say some novel—or webcomic, or television show, or movie—is sexist or racist or homophobic. Or the claim might be that a young adult novel provides a poor model for romance, or that there simply are not enough books about some topic or some group of people. These claims, if they are to be broadly applicable, cannot rest on one particular reader's experience of novels. If I find my reading experiences do not have enough dinosaurs, that's not a failing of novelists, since I might simply be ignoring the dinosaurs that are in all of the books I'm reading. It's only if books actually do, in general, lack dinosaurs that my complaint is something that other readers should worry about. Therefore my claim cannot be that my reading experience lacks dinosaurs; my claim is that books today lack dinosaurs, and I back this up with interpretations of books as they are, not as I read them. I call upon the actual fields of possible meaning for books.

Consider the complaints about Strong Female Characters. These are some good examples of arguments showing that Strong Female Characters are not actually as helpful for women as they are made out to be. The argument generally goes that these characters tend to prove their strength by committing anti-social actions, actions which would be roundly condemned in male characters. Presumably the reason people do this is because a female character's strength needs to be proven—the assumption is that a female character is weak—and the standard for proof is a lot higher for a female character than it is for a male character. This does not actually diversify the kinds of female characters books can have but rather limits it further: a female character, in order to be Strong, cannot have moments of compassion, weakness, and so on that a male character, already perceived to be strong, could have. I think this is a strong argument, but the important thing to note is that the argument works or fails based entirely on what the guilty novels actually do, not just on how I personally read them.

It's when you are making this kind of claim—when you want to criticize a text, or defend a text, or praise a text—that you need to interpret the text rather than just record your experience of reading it. And this goes double if you want to praise or blame the author for producing the text; the author can only be responsible for the writing, not the reading. It doesn't matter what kind of criticism or defence or praise that you want to make, or what politics motivates you; in order for your claim to be relevant to anyone else (let alone the author), the claim needs to be about the text, not your experience of it. Of course, insofar as your experience of it is based on the text itself, any problems you have with your experience likely results from the text itself.

I want to repeat that the reading experience is very important. The reading experience is what makes writing and reading worth the effort, after all. A good reading experience can be exciting, pleasurable, distracting, challenging, or otherwise rewarding. I don't want to detract from that at all! The purpose of this section, and indeed of this whole document, is only to note that the reading experience is not the same thing as the text's meaning, and that figuring out the second takes different skills than does getting the first.

[1] I am unconvinced, actually, that the metaphor of ownership for meaning is useful. I am using it only as a response to a particular way John Green’s saying could be interpreted. This metaphor is perhaps troubling: it constrains meaning to the terms of private property. And I’m aware that there are other possible meanings of John’s phrase: insofar as he is suggested that books become part of culture, which is a sort of public commons open for use by other culture-creators, I agree with him.

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