Reading Workshop I

I don’t get to teach literature any more, and so I thought it might be fun to use the blog to think about reading in the ways I used to do with students. I thought I might put forward to you the intriguing little distinction that the critic Roland Barthes made between what he called ‘readerly’ and ‘writerly’ qualities in texts. Only purists may wish to look away as I am about to take all kinds of liberties with his thought (something I rather think Barthes would have enjoyed).

So, you have to imagine Roland Barthes, an important heavy-weight critic but with a tendency to be a little bit cheeky, looking along his bookcase and thinking about the kind of books he most disapproved of. His eye inexorably strays to the chunkster works of Balzac, a great, verbose realist, in the mould of a Tolstoy or a George Eliot or (slightly more arguably) a John Steinbeck. And he realizes what’s been bugging him all these years about this kind of fiction. Balzac’s works are a prime example of literature in which the reader is a passenger on the slow-moving river of an author’s prose. With Balzac, the reader never has to think at all, not beyond the basic mental exertion of making sense. Everything is explained, everything is given. Balzac considered himself as much a social historian as a novelist, and he delighted in lengthy asides in which he explained the role of women in society or the value of art, or what people thought about bankers in those days, so one was never in any doubt as to how to evaluate his characters or what happened to them. Vast descriptions of domestic interiors or dress or city landscape completed the comprehensiveness of his imaginary world, to the extent that the reader barely had to imagine at all. This extreme passivity on the reader’s part was a product of the ‘readerly’ qualities of Balzac’s narrative and Barthes didn’t much care for it. He thought you might as well be in a coma, and dreaming.

Now, you have to remember that Barthes was coming up with all of this at the start of the 1970s, a very exciting time for literary development when experimentation was all the rage. His good friend, Philippe Sollers had just published a novel entirely without punctuation, and this was the sort of thing that perked him right up. Sollers’ work was jam-packed with the ‘writerly’ qualities that Barthes admired. And this meant the kind of radical uncertainty in a narrative that went well beyond any ambiguity of character development or enigmatic plot device. When Barthes spoke of the ‘writerly’ he was talking about the bits of books so utterly bewildering that the reader had no option but to almost write them in him- or herself. He was intrigued by the places in a story where meaning was properly, radically uncertain, where you were really not sure what message you were supposed to be receiving, where contradictory possibilities of sense might emerge even from the same sentence. Barthes liked this kind of writing because he felt it had a truth, a reality, that realism lacked. Realistic novels might have a powerful if superficial resemblance to the world we could perceive around us, but they were pretty untruthful if you looked at the way they manipulated events to create plot, tidied up characters to make them coherent and ended up coming to neat, satisfying resolutions. Realism, in Barthes’ eyes, was a trick to make people think that life was neat, tidy, meaningful, controllable and ultimately understandable. Writerly texts were far more honest about the medium of language, its tricksy and deceptive nature, its internal systems that generated this thing we called ‘truth’ and then drew a cover over the artificial nature of its production. And then again, Barthes really liked the exhilarating play of experimentation. It’s just the kind of guy he was.

But he was also too honest, and too curious, a critic to let the distinction between readerly and writerly qualities stand unchallenged. He started to apply his theories to books and he found that it was not always easy to see where the readerly ended and the writerly began. Now, the delights of teaching university level literature means that I have whiled away many an afternoon with an experimental novel. I’ve read narratives that dispense with the notions of plot and character, that pass through an endless and unmarked series of nameless narrators, that do the no-punctuation thing, that dwindle into a list of aphorisms, or explode into a patchwork of other languages. Fun, fun, fun and sometimes, zzzzzzz. But what you notice with all such playful narratives is that your reading mind is not content to let incoherence and uncertainty stand. It gets stuck right in there, digging characters out of the indistinguishable mud of the prose, identifying patterns, carving out a plot, regardless. Readers are remarkably efficient writers of traditional stories, when push comes to shove. And there are definite limits to what writers can do to shake the remnants of orthodox representation off their heels. Dispensing with grammar, for instance, is a quick way to sink into unpublishable mayhem, and once you have grammar in a sentence, you can’t help but say something. It’s in language’s nature to create an argument, or a mood, or a feeling, and no matter how hard authors have tried, they’ve never been able to make it neutral and non-representational.

Equally, however readerly a book is, however realistic it may seem, there will always be places where mystery and enigma, the hints and the veils of the unsaid, rise up to trouble the smooth flow of communication. No book has yet managed to say everything, in comprehensive, utterly totalitarian fashion. If it did, it would be quite some brick of a novel, and incredibly boring to boot. What’s not said is a significant part of what keeps us reading. It’s also in the nature of language never to be quite transparent to meaning. To always say more than it intends, to conjure up possibilities that set us off on internal flights of fancy, to gesture beyond itself in myriad ways and to tantalize with the shadows of other stories, hiding in the corners of the most realistic of narratives.

‘In a word,’Barthes asks, ‘haven’t you ever happened to read while looking up from your book?’ The next time you catch yourself carrying on reading while staring into space, pause and think for a moment of Barthes readerly and writerly qualities, and understand that you have momentarily been taken hostage by the writerly.  It’s not such a scary thing as all that experimental literature might imply.

21 thoughts on “Reading Workshop I

  1. I have no idea what Barthes looks like but somehow I can still picture him, scanning his bookshelves and muttering to himself 🙂 It is an interesting distinction he makes and I can completely agreee with him that the writerly is more realistic in the sense of being true to what reality is like than the readerly. I also agree with you that the reader reads and tries very hard to put a coherent and sensiscal story together. Maybe that’s what makes writerly writing so fun sometimes because it becomes a sort of game and puzzle to be solved. But of course, you have to trust that the writer had some coherent kernal behind it all and sometimes they don’t which could be why a good many readers get frustrated with “experimental” fiction. Great post!

  2. As you know (or perhaps I’m just playing around), I like and appreciate it very much when you provide this kind of enlightenment from your teaching background, so thanks! I wouldn’t have minded a little extract from an experimental work as a ground to work from, as I fear I know little of such texts – tending to fear them no doubt, but that’s just to carp (a kind of fishing?). I think I have a copy of ‘Mythologies’ somewhere. Doesn’t it [as opposed to he – death of the author] say that everything is enacted through a learned coding, from striptease to wrestling, if I remember aright. If that is the case then Balzac (only ever read Cousin Bette – illiterate lout that I am [unreliable narrator?]),must be presenting a code that we have learned to accept as a representation of “normality”, which is not only him (it) deceiving us, but ourselves deceiving ourselves. Isn’t experimental fiction just a more implausible presentation of another version of “normality” in which we are led to believe that what is presented is done so in a more accurate form, less cramped by preconceptions, whereas it is just another set of conceptions about experience? Or am I just bound in my own confusion? As to Balzac is it not open to us to argue with what is written there? I can’t remember how I responded when I read it as it was long ago. It also strikes me that detective fiction must be an ultimate control narrative. I wonder if that is why it arose in the great tome period of novel writing.
    On another topic, following on from American Wife, I’ve recently read ‘Exit Ghost’ by Philip Roth, his last Zuckermann [as in ‘The Human Stain’] novel, in which he explores the relationship between real life, biography and fiction, through his part-Roth narrator. If you haven’t read it you might enjoy it. Hope some of this makes sense and isn’t entirely off the point!

  3. Interesting. I often fall asleep reading late at night and whilst nodding off carry on reading words that aren’t on the page, but are only in my mind. I see mow I’ve “been taken hostage by the writerly”.

  4. Interesting indeed (please do keep this up it’s like a free, very enjoyable short lecture series). I have a feeling George Elliot was one of those wirters obsessed with talking about how realistic fiction was the only viable option for presenting truth and because I am afraid of her (she seems very hard line from what I’ve read so far, including that essay about how most female writers are not to be taken seriously) and she seems very intelligent I’ve always accepted that she must be right, writers must strive for realism to reveal truth. But of course that doesn’t sit very well with things like magical realism and experimental fiction, both of which I love. It’s good to know there’s another way and that realistic fiction is not always the purest, ideal form.

  5. I like the idea of setting up these two categories and then thinking about the ways the categories are unsatisfactory. They are very useful terms — but useful not so much because we can put books definitively in one category or another but because they open up a conversation. I think I can say I’m a fan of books that have writerly tendencies to them — not necessarily ones that work really hard to defy meaning, but ones that overtly demand some participation from the reader. Josipovici might be a good example of what I mean.

  6. You must be a marvelous teacher. I wish I could see with the same insight you, and others, bring to your reading. For me, I read and I say, “Well, I loved that,” or “This is torture, forget it.” You always see so much more. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I would have loved the opportunity to sit in one of your classes. Today I felt like a student again, who really learned something.

  7. I agree with Grad, you are a marvelous teacher! I love this post. While I was reading along, I was thinking (just as you got to it) that I often read texts that are both readerly and writerly, that those distinctions are sometimes wonderfully meshed! I also think that one good way to prove to yourself that you “read while looking up from your book” is to think of movies adapted from novels that you see after reading the book. So often I am disappointed by the movie, because I have already imagined a whole particular world while reading the book–I’ve set-designed, costumed, and cast the novel, so to speak, and possibly made up backstories and futures for many of the characters. So of course the film version never lives up to what my mind has already embellished!

    Also, on the point of how our minds tidy up stories by themselves, I can think of two examples of how my mind has done that. In both reading Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and in seeing Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall, my mind automatically put both stories in chronological order. Neither story is told that way, but that’s how I remember them! Ah, my conventional story-telling mind!

  8. I’m not sure I agree with the terms ‘readerly’ and ‘writerly’ as Barthes applies them. I don’t like the conflation of the two things when to me they are worth more kept apart. He’s talking about shared processes, methodologies, sensations, fallibilities – I think, however, the differences between writing something and reading something are more marked and more profound. To me, writing is shouting across a void, and I prefer that the gap be unbridged. The perfect reader is someone who is prepared to stand on the other side, in the blackness, and strain to listen. The text, such as it is, exists in the space between the two.

    Moreover, my experience tells me that Art is not conversation or debate or argument. Simply put, someone makes something (or sets a particular set of conditions in which something is to take place) that someone else responds to. So reading a book offers no hope of reciprocity. It is a one-way system, a shouting match between the deaf and the mute, an ego-trip, a tyrannny, a carving cut in stone.

    I understand that Barthes tried to Kill The Author but, actually, I like the closed, causal nature of the relationship between reader and writer. It has a certain poignancy to it. It seems I rather like being acted upon (as a reader, you understand). As for ‘realism’: I find that life tends to happen to me, rather than be effected by my actions or the way I think about stuff.

    My point is not that ‘listening’ is a totally passive act of reception, or that reading precludes our creative faculties, just that it’s fundamentally impossible to be ‘writerly’ unless you’re offering something to be read and that’s a distinction I’m prepared to uphold against all manner of French philosophising. 😉

    I need to re-read Barthes, the old rogue.

  9. What’s not said is a significant part of what keeps us reading.

    I likd that very much. I had a writing professor in college named Alan Burns; he’s back in England, now, where he grew up. He wrote a book “Europe After the Rains” entirely in pronouns. Making sense of it was a creative act; after a while it felt as if you weren’t seeing anything straight on, but seeing it all in peripheral vision.

    He was very much writerly; lately I’ve been reading Penelope Fitzgerald, who is quite comfortingly readerly. 🙂

  10. Ugh.Barthes and I would not have gotten along! By his definitions, I strongly value readerly qualities, whereas extreme writerly qualities like complete lack of punctuation and indeterminacy of meaning leave me cold. I see the value in challenging passivity while reading, but if the reader has to make up his own story, what is the point of having an author? If an author wants to leave an ambiguous ending, I’m all for it, but I do want to be pointed in a direction, I want to have an idea of the author’s opinion. Yes, fiction is artificial, but I feel that the reader can go in with that understanding and gain ideas about ultimate truth within a familiar structure.

  11. I have often thought that I do most of my best reading while looking up from the text … and I like books best that make me do that. Which may be why I have never yet made it through anything by Balzac, Dickens, or Trollope.

  12. Wonderful! I was hooked from your very first sentence. I am just starting Mrs. Dalloway and just love the pacing. I am more like Grad in that I rarely recognize exactly what I like about a book. I do find these workshops intriguing. I love your posts.

  13. I love these sorts of posts as they get me thinking just a little bit more about the way something is written. I’m afraid I’m a Balzac type reader all the way. It’s not that I don’t want to work as I read, but I don’t always deal well in so much ambiguity–I’m very orthodox. It’s sort of weird since aren’t Realists all for showing the world just as it is, yet Barthes is saying that the writerly is the more truthful? It almost seems like one is about the real world and the other is about the mechanics or construction of it. All very interesting–I’ve heard of Barthes but I never knew what his philosophy was.

  14. I love that idea of reading while not looking at your book – I always think of my family’s old vacations to Maine. We drove for three days to get there, so I would bring loads of new books with me in the car, and the really good ones – the ones that became part of who I was – were always the ones that I had to take breaks from and stare out the window for a while.

  15. One thing that interests me with my children is seeing how young story conventions sync in. I wonder if it’s hardwired. Very early on, they noticed that things come in 3’s. If there are trials, the hero will pass through 3 of each type, adn so on.

  16. Stefanie – isn’t it interesting to think about whether the writer has left that kernel there or not, or whether it is purely our minds that project it? The French experimentalists I’ve read seem to have the ghost of coherence, but I’m going to post a bit of David Markson, and that is just wild. What you say in your comment is just right, I think – these texts ARE like games and puzzles.

    Bookboxed – Ah, I did have you in mind as I wrote this! And you are getting ourselves ahead of ourselves – I was going to post on codes next, only then you mentioned having a piece of experimental fiction to work on, and once I’d thought about it, I felt that HAD to be next up. But briefly, you might think of realistic fiction as working with the codes, and experimental as playing with them, messing them up a bit. I’ve never yet had the urge to argue with Balzac, but there’s always the possibility of a first time! 🙂 And thank you so much for the recommendation – you know I always take yours to heart.

    Booksplease – lol! I thought that was just an example of you being taken over by the writerly! 🙂

    Jodie – I get the feeling that the debate about realist vs experimental has caused a few rucktions in the writers’ community over time! I ought to look into that. I know that Jean-Paul Sartre and Alain Robbe-Grillet almost came to blows over it in France. Probably the English are more apathetic than that! I’m quite scared of George Eliot, too. And thank you! I will be doing more of these as it was fun for me, and I’m really pleased if you enjoyed it. 🙂

    Dorothy – Josipovici would be a wonderful example (and I would be bound to say that!). What I love about theory in literary matters is that it is NEVER right, it is only ever an opening onto a text, or a framework that makes things clearer, as you can see what fits and what doesn’t. And that’s really interesting, I think.

    Grad – you are such a dear heart! I wish you had been in my classes! But I will remind you that this has been my job for the past 20 years, and I would be a sorry state if I couldn’t work a text every now and then. I did so laugh at your comment about books being delights or tortures. I do assure you I’ve plowed my way through enough of the latter category myself! 🙂

    Gentle reader – that’s a fine mind you have there, doing its ordering, tidying and sense-making things (and you remind me that in 2010, I must read Kundera). What you say about cinema is a great example – that really shows how much work the mind does in fleshing out a story and interpreting it, even when we aren’t fully aware of what we are doing. Thank you for your lovely comment!

    Mark – lol! You defend yourself against French philosophy all you like! You know I really appreciate your readings of books – you should write your own theory, I think, on the basis of this.

    I said I would take liberties with Barthes, and I think having taken them, I’ve given you the sense that your views are further from his than they really are. That lack of reciprocity you mention between reader and author is exactly the basis of Barthes’ argument for the death of the author. He doesn’t doubt for a moment that we may make all kinds of imaginary transactions with a writer-figure beyond the text, but he does argue that we live in an age where we have to see those transactions are ultimately fantasies, that we can never know what authors thought, what message they really wanted to impart. Do re-read Barthes. I’d be interested to hear what you think.

    Ombudsben – I have never heard of Alan Burns, but wow! What a strategy! And I love Penelope Fitzgerald – writerly, readerly, it doesn’t matter to me if what is done is done brilliantly. And Fitzgerald is just fantastic, I think.

  17. Lokesh – bless you, what a lovely thing to say. 🙂

    Miriam – fortunately, Barthes only wrote about books, he never got to set laws about them, so you can read all the readerly fiction you like. 🙂

    David – I liked the quote when I found it because I do a lot of staring into space! I like Balzac and Trollope although Dickens isn’t quite the right fit for me. But then I also like Nathalie Sarraute, Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau. One day, someone will do more research into what forms reader preferences – that would be rather interesting, I think.

    Care – you are an absolute sweetie, too. Thank you for your lovely comment!

    Danielle – I do love thinking about how books work, so am always delighted when my dear blog friends allow me to indulge myself in it! You make a very intriguing point there, about perceptions of reality through fiction. A large branch of experimental fiction came about through modernism (and Woolf is an excellent example) that was interested in phenomenology, or how we perceive the material world. Woolf’s novel The Waves is a perfect example of reality described with a heavy phenomenological basis (and it’s one of her novels I’ve never managed to get through! 🙂 ). I think you are a very natural student of books!

    Jenny – what a lovely memory! I remember loving being in the car when young as I could daydream for hours. Hate it now, but it was great back then. I know just what you mean about books that stay with you, too.

    Lilian – that’s also a very interesting point indeed. I know just what you mean – children grasp plot and its devices very naturally and quickly. There must be some research available on that – I will have to look into it! 🙂

  18. Lovely post. A good balance between the two qualities works for me. I was remembering how reading brings those other meanings into play. I’ll be writing up a dream and new associations suddenly emerge. Or the writer will throw in those wonderful hints or details that make you read off the page.

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