Reading Personally

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.

15 thoughts on “Reading Personally

  1. “a potentially new way of writing about books and their authors”

    Did you know Out of Sheer Rage is written in an open pastiche of Thomas Bernhard’s style – as is Josipovici’s Moo Pak – with all the ironies of assertion this generates?

  2. Litlove, I think you beautifully expressed the value of such study of literature and it applies beyond literature to every human endeavour. Dyer’s attitude is shared by too many people. It keeps them locked into unsupported opinion in many instances and that is a real danger. Climate change and the resistance to doing anything about it for the last 30 years is just one example.

  3. Thanks for this really interesting post. Reading emtionally is something I’ve found myself thinking about today, coincidently. I’ve been reading a Margaret Atwood novel and loving it, but I can’t put my finger on whether I love it because I think it’s a good novel, or whether I love it because I have always loved reading Margaret Atwood’s writing and her style feels warm and familiar. Your post has given me extra food for thought – thanks.

  4. Steve – no, I had no idea! Well, you remind me yet again that I really must read Bernhard. And Moo Pak (although like so many Josipovici works, I find myself saving it up as I can’t bear to get through them all too quickly).

    Lilian – I actually went back to the book, skipped a huge chunk and then finished it off, to find that where he ends up is in despair and depression. I’m not quite sure how this fits in with Steve’s comment about pastiche, but it seemed to me emotionally resonant. If we cannot accept difference and lack the ability to control others then only despair can result, surely? Thank you for such a kind remark – and oh I am so with you as far as resistance to climate change goes. That’s just terrible on so many levels.

    Kirsty – well, I am completely with you on loving Margaret Atwood! Funnily enough she has always struck me as an unemotional writer, or at least someone in such control of her medium that the emotions are perfectly regulated and perfectly manipulated, and I mean that as a compliment! There is no excess in her works, only power. And that feeling of being in such safe hands is certainly something I appreciate enormously with a writer. Ooh, you’ve made me want to read her, just thinking about her!🙂

  5. 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

    That is a slap in the face, and it’s also absurd. Whatever the peculiarities of academic prose and literary criticism, the academia I inhabit is densely populated with people who are passionate about what they do and communicate that passion endlessly and creatively to generations of students. I have stacks of student evaluations, and I’m sure you do too, in which the most used word is “enthusiasm”: not one ever accused me of “killing everything [I] touch.” One thing they also do is keep alive interest in and knowledge about writers who might find little if any audience today without their advocacy. Many, many of my students have told me how glad they were to be brought into contact with writers they would otherwise have completely neglected and now look forward to exploring further. How many people, I wonder, first read Lawrence under the influence of a passionate professor? I have often lamented the protocols and inhibitions that keep that passion out of most peer-reviewed criticism, but it’s precisely that love of literature that put so many of us in the position of having to produce scholarship of the kind he hates. And burning the book? Really? I guess without understanding the “pastiche” aspect of the work and where the ironies kick in, I shouldn’t assume the worst, but this sure sounds like out-of-control and arrogant anti-intellectualism. He knows everything he needs to about Lawrence and doesn’t need any eggheads to complicate things, or even to reread his primary sources… Really? I think this remark of yours is particularly trenchant: “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.”

    It’s true that this is in some sense a personal reaction, but it’s also a reaction against shoddy thinking and gratuitous and meanspirited overgeneralization. As far as that goes, then, I’d call it a professional reaction, a professional reading.

  6. I loved Out of Sheer Rage, but I felt some rage myself when I read the passage you discuss here. I agree with your assessment of that passage wholeheartedly, although I was able to go on and read the rest of the book with pleasure. I suppose I mentally smacked Dyer upside the head after reading the bit on academics, considered things even and went on🙂 What makes me laugh, though, is that J.C. Hallman included Dyer’s passage on academics in his anthology The Story About the Story, which I thought was a shame because there are so many other great passages, but which is perfectly fitting, because Hallman hates academics and academic criticism too. But I’m not willing to forgive HIM for it🙂 At any rate, consider this another plug for The Story About the Story, which has lots of essays that explore new ways of writing about literature and reading (but it’s not a plug for Hallman himself, let me be clear!).

  7. I should really start thinking about that when writing my book reviews: explaining more my relationship with the narrative and the characters as I read – how they made me feel. Because really that’s the most important quality in a story. If it’s made you feel something, it’s done it’s job. That’s not to be confused with making you feel nothing. Boredom is not something in my book. I see it as a droning nothingness. If you’re bored, you’re disengaged. Therefore, you’re feelings are numbed and lulled.

  8. We do always read personally and emotionally I think even when we are trying to create some distance for professional reasons. To say that we can read something objectively is one of the things that irks me most about old-timey dead white male criticism. I suspect it is Dyer’s blanket statement about academia that set you off, if he had said “some” instead of all, it wouldn’t be bad because then there would be truth in his assertion. It is very sloppy on his part to make such broad generalizations. But perhaps he had a purpose in being provocative?

  9. I’m loving this series of posts, Litlove, but I feel like I have nothing to add as a comment!

    >>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).

    This really struck me, because as someone who’s not involved w/ literature on an academic basis, I still try hard to achieve this in my reading and on my blog. But it’s good to be reminded, and I think I’ll come back to this when I’m not sure how to talk about a book that left me with mixed feelings, or even one that I loved/disliked wholeheartedly.🙂

    Anyway, I just wanted to leave a comment so you know that these posts are being read and appreciated!

  10. Rohan – well, you voice an awful lot of what was going through my mind (only more eloquently!!). Just imagine if this kind of abuse were to be leveled against an ethnic minority, rather than an intellectual one. I don’t know, it’s supposed to be funny and just an opinion and it is delivered by a man who clearly isn’t happy or fulfilled (he ends up with a severe depression). But it is also a blind and unjust attack. I like what you say about keeping books and authors alive. I hadn’t thought of that aspect, but it is perfectly true.

    Dorothy – I thought I recalled you reading this book, so I actually came over and checked out your blog to find your old posts. I was relieved that he had annoyed you, too! Although I do admire your reaction (and you made me laugh). I also remember J. C. Hallman!! I still think there is a real problem with the way some men (it always seems to be men) react to a certain strand of academic thought. Fortunately it happens in intellectual ghettos, not real ones, so no one actually gets hurt!🙂

    Lauren – I agree that boredom is probably the worst thing that can happen to a reader! There’s a quote I love, and I’m going to have to paraphrase it because I can’t remember it exactly (or who said it!) but it was effectively that the mark of a good book was that it made you live life more intensely afterwards.

    Stefanie – absolutely. If he’d been a bit more circumspect he could have had my sympathy and engagement over all that section. I guess he didn’t want that and it was intended to be a mad rant. But to enjoy a rant, you have to agree with it in part at least (or be indifferent), and I didn’t agree at all!🙂

    Eva – that’s really nice of you! I think you are always very fair to books. I also think that it doesn’t matter whether people have university courses under the belt or not – a really good book knows how to guide its reader into a broader perspective and all it takes is to listen attentively to it. No one ever loves (or indeed hates) everything they read, so something is going to click eventually in this respect!

  11. Academics are widely, wildly misunderstood and loathed – this shocking revelation came to me during my PhD years, when it became patently obvious that virtually anyone outside the Academy had no understanding of or respect for what was happening inside. Society at large, at least in Australia, is hugely dismissive and suspicious of academics – sneery is the perfect word, LL. That’s exactly the attitude. I found it really hurtful and confounding – I still do. My educations means the world to me, and I admire and hope to honour the institutions and individuals responsible for nurturing it. With all due respect to their own contribution, to hell with Dyer, Hallman and their ilk.

  12. I find your posts and the comments/discussion so interesting yet like Eva I’m not sure I have anything to contribute. You always manage to talk about a tricky sort of topic or book in a way that is both intelligent yet you relate it in a practical way that makes complete sense. I know I look at reading and literature in such a different way now than I ever have, and am hopefully slowly learning how to write and think about it intelligently.

  13. Interesting post. I have never read fiction “academically” but spent a year or two dissecting New Testament literature which gave me a good feel for sources.

    BTW, I found myself getting angry by reading Thomas Bernhard!

  14. When I was reading this I was thinking how Dyer’s comments about academics killing everything they touch is obviously a huge generalisation and a very limited view. But there is something in there about how the way we speak about things can kill off the experience. I was reading a piece by Adam Phillips on how, in our speaking, we should still retain the knowledge of not being able to speak. Too much intellectualisation (or academic-speak) can, in a way, keep us from our own experiences. But I know that your teaching is not like that. Just a thought.

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