Monday, 4 August 2014

Please Read Responsibly?

A Using Theory Post 

A person might think I was a bit hard on John Green's "books belong to their readers" theory of interpretation when outlining my own. Well, it turns out that I wasn't hard enough on it; in the meantime I discovered a rather more insidious version of that argument, coming from John Green himself.

Before I begin, I want to preface this all by saying that I respect John Green's commitment to public education very much; I find his Internet presence kind, compassionate, and otherwise admirable; his politics seem empathetic, and in general he seems well-intentioned. My impression is that he is likable, and worthy of being liked. But at the same time there are some problems with his theory of interpretation, and I hope you'll agree with me when I'm done here that those problems require attention.

John Green published the following Tweets (on a date which I have not been able to determine):

The transcription reads like this:
I was sedated for an endoscopy today and was told to stay off social media for a day. So you know what that means: Twitter rant. | I've been marathoning Twilight movies all day, which has been totally enjoyable... | ...and I'm thinking about how easy it is to dehumanize the creator or fans of something extremely popular. | I've done this, too. I made fun of the Twilight movies without even having watched them. I'm sorry for that, and embarrassed. | When we make fun of Twilight, we're ridiculing the enthusiasm people have for unironic love stories. Have we nothing better to satirize? | Yes, you can read misogynistic gender dynamics into the stories, but tens of millions of people have also proven that you don't HAVE to. | Do we really believe that tens of millions of people who found themselves comforted and inspired by these stories are merely wrong? | Isn't our disdain FAR more misogynistic than anything in the stories? | Art that is entertaining and useful to people is a good thing to have in this world. And I'm grateful for it and celebrate it. | So big ups to the Twilight fandom, and to Stephanie Meyer, who has been relentlessly attacked professionally and personally over Twilight... | ways that male authors of love stories never are. I'm gonna go back to watching the movies now. /rant
(I used "|" rather than "/" to indicate line breaks because Green used a "/" himself.) Of course Green is saying some important things in this rant: it is maybe inadvisable to criticize something that one hasn't read (though this varies depending on the quality of the sources you have read which describe the text); the way in which criticism of the Twilight fandom resorts to insulting age and gender is a problem; if female authors of love stories are attacked in a way that male authors are not (and I have no reason to doubt Green's observation), then this is a serious problem, too. I don't mean to detract from any of these valuable claims. And I haven't read Twilight, so I guess I can't give you a good reading of it. But I can notice, and will notice, that John Green is using an enormously troubling theory of interpretation in the middle of his rant. Essentially, he places the responsibility for a text's meaning entirely on the reader's shoulders.

Green at first seems only to be claiming that "misogynistic gender dynamics" are not inherent to the books or films, but are rather something that certain readers have manufactured: he writes, "Yes, you can read misogynistic gender dynamics into the stories..." (emphasis mine), and the phrase "read into" is usually used to imply that the interpretation is something the reader added to the text. In the terms of biblical studies, "read into" indicates eisegesis rather than exegesis. So far Green seems to be making a typical anti-intellectual claim about feminist interpretation: the text is only what it appears to be with a naive reading, and any further meanings are simply added by the interpreter, so neither the text nor the author are responsible for those meanings. But Green then makes a strange move when he writes, "...but tens of millions of people have also proven that you don't HAVE to. Do we really believe that tens of millions of people who have found themselves comforted and inspired by these stories are merely wrong?" This exhortation suggests a different theory of interpretation than the one which insists on a naive reading of a text; rather, it suggests that interpretation is an act of agency on the part of the reader, and it suggests that the number of people who support a particular interpretation gives that interpretation legitimacy.

This a whole new spin on "books belong to their readers." In this version, a text has no independent meaning outside of how different readers have read it: if readers choose to read Twilight as having misogynistic gender dynamics, then it does; if readers choose not to, then it doesn't. And since nothing can be said about the text in itself, the only meaningful distinction between interpretations is whether or not they will produce a valuable reading experience. But Green goes further: the meaning of a book seems to derive from its readers collectively. He seems to say that if "tens of millions" of people interpret a book in a particular way, then that is the best way to interpret it; at the very least he suggests that if millions of people interpret a book in a particular way, then it's a legitimate interpretation.

Of course this theory of interpretation is almost certainly false, and texts do have a set of meanings intrinsic to themselves; see Part I of my Theory of Reading series for that. But I also want to suggest that Green's error here isn't innocuous. If the meaning of a text is determined entirely by the reader, then no criticism of any text is possible: the Mein Kampfs and Marc Discoll's sermons of the world are only awful because we interpret them that way. Such inability to criticize gives those people who are harmed by such texts no ability to explain that harm, and it prevents us from holding people accountable for what they say and write. Or, alternately, if the majority interpretation of a work is taken to be correct, then we are holding authors responsible for things that they did not write. Neither situation is at all desirable: the meaning of what people is independent of its readers and we can therefore hold them accountable for what they actually wrote, but the "books belong to their readers" theory denies us that necessary ability. This applies not just to the fringe cases of hate speech, but to any speech act at all.

What Green wants to protect, I think, is the value that those millions of readers have gotten from Twilight: "Do we really believe that tens of millions of people who found themselves comforted and inspired by these stories are merely wrong?" But this is a question wrongly asked: there's no reason that latent (or not-so-latent) misogyny would make those readers' comfort and inspiration somehow wrong or inauthentic. Rather, Twilight proves capable of providing comfort and inspiration in spite of its misogyny. (It's also possible that the comfort and inspiration is based on the readers' internalized misogyny, such that what seems to be a good reading experience is a detrimental one, but I don't want to rely on that argument because I've been feeling queasy lately about suggesting people have false consciousness when they disagree with me about what's been good for them.) This is why it's both useful and true to distinguish between the reader's experience and the text's meaning.

The irony, of course, is that John Green regularly relies on the independent existence of a text's meaning. The first is in his practice of literary interpretation, which is part of his professional career. There is no point whatsoever in interpreting texts if whatever interpretation you like is admissible: you could read the phone book as a communist epic if you wanted to under his stated theory. (Of course, it may be possible to read the phone book as a communist epic with legitimate interpretation, but the point is that it also may not be possible, and you can't tell until you try.) But, furthermore, John Green's own books are regularly misread, and he insists that those are misreadings. It is often charged that his novel Paper Towns is an example of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl story, where by loving a quirky girl character the boy protagonist is freed from a boring life, and often frees the quirky girl in some way, too. Green rejects the interpretation:
Have the people who constantly accuse me of this stuff read my books? Paper Towns is devoted IN ITS ENTIRETY to destroying the lie of the manic pixie dream girl; the novel ends (this is not really a spoiler) with a young woman essentially saying, “Do you really still live in this fantasy land where boys can save girls by being romantically interested in them?” I do not know how I could have been less ambiguous about this without calling the novel The Patriarchal Lie of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Must Be Stabbed in the Heart and Killed [source].
He knows perfectly well that his intentions are not relevant to the conversation (source), so on what does he rely to claim that this is a misreading? Well, he relies on the text's own features, the only thing on which he can rely: he offers a brief analysis of the novel using paraphrases of the text itself.


So who is responsible for the meaning of a text?

The author, I would say, in terms of moral responsibility: it is the author's actions which produced the text. And we apply all of the concerns of moral responsibility to the question when we are asking whether an author is culpable for problems with the text. The author's intention does not determine whether or not the text caused harm; on the other hand, the author's ability to anticipate whether the text would cause harm isn't irrelevant, either. It the text's harm is utterly unpredictable, then the author cannot really be held responsible for that harm.

But how can we tell if an author could predict a book's harm? Look at Paper Towns: many many teenage boys read this as an endorsement of treating their female colleagues like Manic Pixie Dream Girls (or so I've read on tumblr). Could Green have predicted this frequent misreading?* I don't know if I can answer that, but his culpability relies on the answer. My guess is that he's not on the hook for Paper Towns, at least not insofar as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is concerned. But the sheer purported ubiquity of the misreading gives me pause: how plausible is it that a frequent misreading is all that wrong? It's still wrong, absolutely, but I'm inclined to say that there's something about the text which lends itself to being misread in that way. In the case of Paper Towns, a reader who knows nothing about feminist criticism, or who is already invested in the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, might be prone to misreading the book in this particular way.

This discussion throws up a strange consequence, though: it looks like readers are responsible for their reading, in some senses. Namely, insofar as authors aren't responsible for misreadings of their tests, are readers then responsible for whatever misreadings they commit? I suspect so, but it's hard to say. There could be a middle space of simple error, where no one is at fault (or maybe there's a middle space of overlap, where both are). And there's still a lot left unanswered: the "insofar" in the second sentence of this paragraph will be really hard to determine, for example. I admit that it is really hard for me to say how charitable we ought to be when working out whether an author could have predicted the way zer book was interpreted. Fortunately, the stakes aren't often very high, but when they are, I feel strongly that we need to keep clearly in mind the distinctions between the author's knowledge of the text, the text's internal meanings, and the reading experience.


*I have not read Twilight, but I have read Paper Towns, and it is my assessment that Green's claim is right: the book deflates the Manic Pixie Dream Girl narrative. However, his critique only becomes obvious in the last quarter of the novel. For the first half, the novel appears to be the sort of story it is critiquing, and I'm not sure I'd fault someone for putting the book down during that time if the apparent MPDG narrative was upsetting them.


UPDATE: My friend Jon wrote the following on my Facebook in response to this post, and gave me permission to share it here:
Yes, you can read a critique of the MPDG trope into PT, but hundreds of thousands of people have also proven that you don't HAVE to. | Do we really believe that hundreds of thousands of people who found themselves comforted and inspired by the hope that they can save a girl by being romantically interested in her are merely wrong?

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