Musing on Reading Non-Literally

No between-the-lines reading means no spoofs or satires!
Several years ago, I posted a review of a book about Oprah's Book Club. In my review, I reproached the otherwise insightful author for comparing books to television--different mediums, I argued, should not be judged in the same way. Television is not "shallow" while books are "deep." Each are deep or shallow depending on entirely separate criteria.

In the same review, I commented that how people respond to television and books has as much to do with what they bring to a particular medium as what it has to offer--a reader is as capable of coming away with a "shallow" understanding of War & Peace as a viewer is capable of coming away with a "shallow" understanding of Frasier.

Personally, I think "shallow" is fine--everyday life offers plenty of angst-producing moments all on its own. There's no reason why entertainment shouldn't be shallow.

But the point remains. And leads to what I call "literalism" in my thesis (for lack of a better term).

Literalism goes something like this: imagine a passage from a book (or a scene from an episode) where a character is reacting with anger to a suggestion. The reader or viewer could deduce that the character is afraid or uncertain or guilt-ridden. But another character says to the first, "You are murderous!"

What does the reader or viewer ultimately deduce?

Surprisingly enough, a number of readers and viewers deduce that the first character is murderous.

Truly. I've encountered this scenario so often in the classroom that I will sometimes have to open the discussion by saying something like, "Okay, the character is not murderous. The second character has limited knowledge."

In my Interpersonal Communications textbook, the writers argue that people who pay too much attention to microexpressions are worse at pinpointing liars than others. The Murr quote indicates why: they miss obvious verbal cues.  On the other side, paying too much attention to verbal cues seems to produce a surfeit of literalism. Both misreadings originate--or appear to originate--in the same impulse: There's one right answer, and I will figure out what it is from a "hint"! Now I know the absolute truth! 

When it comes to interpersonal communication, I suggest going with the obvious verbal and body language cues/hints simply because it makes communication so much easier. Trying to second guess what people might be thinking is fraught with unguessable weirdness.

But when it comes to understanding literature/fiction, literalism can often miss the point entirely.

Except that when it comes to literature/fiction, what a person looks for is--to an extent--what a person gets.

So, for example, people who define "moral" fiction by exactly how many naked bodies they see (zero to 100) are in fact experiencing a lack of offense when they see none.

Those who think that what constitutes a moral experience is entirely contextual may get offended despite seeing none, totally offended by seeing two, and not offended at all by seeing three. I've watched PG-13 movies that left me wanting to take a long shower to wash away the ewww feeling despite the lack of anything obviously, literally immoral. And I've seen movies that despite parental warnings didn't hit my internal "G" rating.

My point is not a critique of the rating system (even if I think it is kind of silly) but that what a person gets from a piece of art is going to depend on what that person hopes to find there.

At least Barney knows a bargain when he sees one!
I'm not arguing subjectivity (Moby Dick is a critique of NASA!) but rather dumpster diving or bargain shopping.

I am a terrible bargain shopper--the wrong person to go with if you are looking to hunt down that special deal, especially when it comes to clothes. My approach to clothes shopping is to pick one Saturday, go to Goodwill, force myself to try on sixty pairs of pants and thirty to forty shirts (it takes all day) and leave, finally, with the three to five items I found that actually fit and look nice.

And NOT repeat the experience for another year.

My failure to find good deals at higher end shops (or at Goodwill, for that matter) is not the fault of the shops. Nor does it mean that the deals aren't there. I don't find the deals because (1) I'm not looking; (2) I'm not that type of shopper; (3) I don't care.

And how would literary analysts explain that?!
I think reading/viewing is not dissimilar. A reader/viewer can hone his or her eye, but some natural interest or talent or desire needs to be there in the first place. If a person decides that television has nothing to offer, that person will find nothing there. If a reader decides that a book only offers a geo-socio-political meaning (the kind of literalism I encountered in my Master's program) that's what the reader will "discover" (I have to use "quotes" here--it isn't all that clever to "discover" geo-socio-political meaning in literature; anyone with the right intellectual language/training can "discover" such meanings on the back of a cereal box).

And if reader or viewer doesn't employ a between-the-lines approach (there's more here than what the characters or narrator tells me, and the creator intended me to find more), then the spaces between those lines will remain entirely opaque.

Can reading between-the-lines be taught? After all, when I bargain shop with friends, I find more stuff and have more fun!

When it comes to art, I would say, "Uh, maybe . . . not." As an English student, I went through four years of Literature courses with fellow students whose only take-away from the assigned reading was "the message" or lesson, the application to themselves (as opposed to a broader thematic view*) and whether "the message" was good or bad or helpful, etc. As a teacher, I often (though not always) encounter the literalism I mentioned earlier. And how people react seems to be almost entirely disconnected from their education or reading habits. They either read between the lines . . . or they don't.

The end of these musings . . . for now . . .  

*The difference (to me) between a thematic view and application is that the thematic view reflects on the human condition while application assigns "use" (as C.S. Lewis would say) to a novel or piece of art. In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis remarks that he enjoys reading works embodying themes with which he disagrees because he can appreciate the perspective they add to the universe, a statement that always reminds me of A.E. Housman's "To An Athlete Dying Young," a poem that I adore despite its fatalistic theme.

"Use" or application, however, insists that the worth of a piece of art is found entirely in the importance or appropriateness of its message to the reader or to society.

It's the difference between "Wow, we live in a weird world surrounded by disparate people all trying to comprehend each other and the universe--let's find out more!" and "But will it make us better people?"

My entirely personal view is that fiction should do the former and radio pundits can have the latter (with my blessing).

1 comment:

FreeLiverFree said...

Gene Wolfe mentions in an essay he encountered a confused reader who couldn't understand why a characters description of certain events differed from the text. Wolfe was surprised that the reader couldn't figure out the reader was lying. Wolfe relies often on unreliable narrators and such so there is a lot of room open to interpretation. Often some parts of his works are completely baffling the first time is blatantly obvious the second time. I wonder what a literalist would make of something like Wolfe's works which rely heavily on inference.