Reading is an intimate and involving act. When we read, we’re very open and engaged, but at the same time, we’re very close up against our personal prejudices, fears and desires and that can take us into some dangerous territory. When I was last talking about reading, I used the example of Mister Litlove and I eating a meal while he was reading the paper and my own sense that this wasn’t the done thing. Anyone reading that scene is going to be making a few swift, unconscious assessments, on a scale that reaches from various kinds of disapproval (‘What is she making such a fuss about?’) to sympathetic solidarity (‘The exact same thing used to happen to me’) through to the triggering of memory (‘I remember when my husband was reading the paper at table and I so wished he’d put it down because I wanted to tell him I was pregnant/overdrawn/unemployed’, etc). At the same time, the reader will be assessing the scene within the overall context of the story being told. Is the information something s/he wishes to know or is it something that seems irrelevant or discomforting?
This is all reading ever is in its immediate engagement – a process by which we match our expectations and attitudes against those present in the text and judge accordingly. The best books, I think, are those that know how to keep on the right side of our sympathy, or to use our negative responses in powerful ways. But all books are continually taking the risk that they might stumble over something unforgiving in the mind of the reader, that they might embody perspectives and opinions that are anathema. When I wrote about Mister Litlove, I was writing to an audience who knows me and, knowing me, would give me the benefit of the doubt, making the best of whatever I said. But if you didn’t know me, there’d be no need for that kind of negotiation. This is the joy of books: we don’t need to fear for the finer feelings of the characters. We can respond to them exactly how we choose, with no holds barred. Reading is a way of keeping us up close to the feelings and attitudes that are most authentic in our souls, and by this very process, reading means we express a very great deal about ourselves whenever we judge a book.
I’m really curious as to how we can write about books personally and do more than just say whether they seemed good or bad. The interaction between book and reader seems to me so complicated and so rich that it must hold many alternative possibilities. And it was in this frame of mind that I started to read Geoff Dyer’s Out Of Sheer Rage. It’s a very funny book about Dyer doing his best not to write a book about D. H. Lawrence. He actually wants to write something quite badly, but just not badly enough to really do anything about it. And instead he has written this book as a kind of ode to procrastination and to the merits of random dithering. He goes to visit Lawrence’s house in Sicily and learns nothing from the occasion; he ponders the picture of Lawrence sitting under a tree that seems to hold some essence of the man (although he doesn’t know where Lawrence is or why he was there). He spends a lot of time trying to find a place to write, knowing that any kind of ideal writing location will instantly prove an impossible place to write in. It’s all surprisingly clever and engaging for a piece of such directionless non-fiction.
But then he went and spoiled it all for me by suddenly rounding on academia, after someone gave him a book entitled A Longman Critical Reader on Lawrence, containing essays that dared to use theory. ‘How could it have happened?’ he wails. ‘How could these people with no feeling for literature have ended up teaching it, writing about it? […] That is the hallmark of academic criticism: it kills everything it touches. Walk around a university campus and there is an almost palpable smell of death about the place because hundreds of academics are busy killing everything they touch.’ The book puts him such a terrible rage he has to burn it. ‘Such books form the basis of literary study in universities and none of them has anything to do with literature.’ By this point, I was feeling pretty mad myself. I felt hurt. I felt outraged. I felt personally insulted. Not least because, although his methods of writing about Lawrence were not ones I would ever use myself, and not ones that were telling me things I would very much like to have known about Lawrence, I’d been perfectly open to accepting them as his method, and to seeing where it took us. Why couldn’t he have extended that courtesy to me and my approach? Why did his way of appreciating books have to come at the expense of mine?
I was also somewhat appalled by the egotism inherent in his statement. Who had given him the right to decide what literature was? His case wasn’t helped by the fact that he went on from this loathsome rant about academics to an account of rereading The Rainbow, which he hadn’t wanted to reread, and which had only proved to him that there was in fact no need to reread this novel, or indeed any of Lawrence’s novels, why should he? And I found that inside my head a voice was saying things like: well, chum, why ever should anyone think that the books themselves have anything to do with literature? You go ahead and not read them. And it occurred to me that I had come across this kind of thing before, that it was a very old, very tedious attitude, one that glorified a perfectly intangible form of literary sensibility, so exquisite that it didn’t have to be proved in any act of actual interpretation, but only in dismissing (with sneers of disgust) the interpretations of others. In fact, Dyer’s literary sensitivity to Lawrence’s works was so highly refined that it turned out he didn’t even have to read them to be perfectly attuned to Lawrence’s contribution to literature.
At this point my thoughts were interrupted by Mister Litlove, who was heading off to a rowing regatta. ‘Don’t spend the whole day arguing inside your head with Geoff Dyer,’ he suggested. ‘But he’s really annoyed me!’ I replied. ‘He has insulted me and my kind!’ ‘Yes, yes,’ chortled Mister Litlove. ‘You’re very funny.’
And of course, I did have to laugh because here was a clear-cut case of me reading personally, and not academically at all. I’d felt as if Dyer’s hand had emerged from between the pages and slapped me, and the rush of subsequent emotions had drowned out any sort of reason. Why couldn’t I read those statements of his and just say ‘Silly man. He’s wrong.’ And leave it at that? Evidently his words had touched a raw nerve. And the more I thought about it, the more I had to realize that I hated what he had put because I really fear for the literary academic these days. I fear that academic approaches to books won’t be understood because they don’t make themselves understandable. I often feel I have to plead for academia in the face of the evidence. It’s so easy to dismiss it that I worry no one will see what’s potentially good about what it does.
And what’s good about it, for me, is that it invites readers to see their responses as being in the first instance, emotional. It’s a precious mindset that means we see and own our prejudices, and then recognize that they might not be the whole story. That there might be layers of meaning beyond the ones we instantly pick up on, and that everything is more complicated, more multi-faceted than, for the sake of convenience, we like to think it is. Being obliged to own our opinions and to accept that they may not always be right is the real value in studying stories (even if it’s not readily apparent from books on critical theory). And if we don’t learn that, then war, dogma, tyranny and madness are that bit closer. Not to put forward an emotive argument for my own opinions, you understand, but Dyer started it and so I feel justified in picking up the gauntlet.
What was really disappointing was that a potentially new way of writing about books and their authors was spoiled for me by this outburst of prejudice on Dyer’s part. Had he owned it as his opinion, and tried to explore why he reacted the way he did, he’d have kept my sympathy. But now I’m not even sure I’ll return to the book and finish it. This is the problem of reading personally, if it leads the reader into such opinionated territory that others cannot follow. Yet, I still feel there must be many productive ways of talking personally about books without having to offend or exclude others. It’s a great shame that Out of Sheer Rage didn’t manage to do that.