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.