And Yet Do I Read

(This is a meditation on how I read. Here are my thoughts on why and what.)

As you probably know I wrote a book, a historical romance set during the American Civil War called Brave in Heart. It released in July and a handful of people read it. Some went so far as to write things down about it. Some of the things were joyous and celebratory, others were more measured or censorious, but still: people read what I had written and said thoughtful things about it. All together, it was one of the nicest intellectual experiences I’ve had.

In becoming an author, in adding creator to reader and scholar in my list of bookish roles, I began to wonder about the process of reading–and not just reading but evaluation. How do we do it? And how should we?

My first contention is that books ask things from us. They ask us to be certain kinds of readers.

I’m always interested by scenes of reading and writing in books because I think these can tell us something about the process of the book’s creation and also demonstrate for us how the author thinks about reading.

To give just two examples, I want to consider two scenes of reading from Jane Austen: Elizabeth reading Darcy’s letter in Chapter 36 of Pride and Prejudice and Anne reading Wentworth’s letter in Chapter 23 of Persuasion.

Obviously spoilers abound.

In chapter 36 of P&P, Elizabeth Bennet has rejected a marriage proposal from Fitzwilliam Darcy citing his treatment of both her sister, Jane, and a man with whom she has a flirtation, George Wickham. The next day, Darcy presents her with a (lengthy) letter attempting to explain his actions.

Upon reading it, the narrator tells the reader, Elizabeth’s “feelings as she read were scarcely to be defined.” Respecting Jane, “He expressed no regret for what he had done which satisfied her; his style was not penitent, but haughty. It was all pride and insolence.”

This is classic telling (versus showing). No MFA program would let her get away with this, not to mention modern editors or readers. But, there’s some slippage here. Is Darcy all pride and insolence or is Elizabeth? It becomes difficult to separate the narrator’s characterization of Elizabeth’s reaction from Elizabeth’s characterization of the letter.

Further down we’re told, “But when this subject was succeeded by his account of Mr. Wickham—when she read with somewhat clearer attention a relation of events which, if true, must overthrow every cherished opinion of his worth, and which bore so alarming an affinity to his own history of himself—her feelings were yet more acutely painful and more difficult of definition.”

That’s a rather impressive sentence. All of those commas and dashes and independent clauses! What are they doing? Well, I would argue that the grammar represents Elizabeth’s emotional state. This isn’t a representation of interiority like readers will find seventy years later in something like Henry James, but it is colliding the point of view of the reader of Pride and Prejudice with that of Elizabeth Bennet. We are her, she is us. Our reading process of the book is her reading process of Darcy’s letter. And her emotional state is projected onto us.

As she begins to re-read the letter, “every line proved more clearly that the affair, which she had believed it impossible that any contrivance could so represent as to render Mr. Darcy’s conduct in it less than infamous, was capable of a turn which must make him entirely blameless throughout the whole. … How differently did everything now appear in which [Wickham] was concerned!”

We’ve seen her initial reaction, now she works back through the text changing her mind. She treats Wickham as a text, one with unstable meaning in need of translating and decoding.

And finally she turns her analysis to herself: “She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. … re-considering events, determining probabilities, and reconciling herself, as well as she could, to a change so sudden and so important[.]”

Up to this point in the novel, the reader has shared Elizabeth’s position. We possessed the same information she did, we were presented with the same behavior from Darcy and Wickham, and thus we came to perhaps the same conclusions. Therefore, like Elizabeth, we must change. We must reconsider and determine and reconcile, processes which the text represents grammatically and thematically. It’s a really powerful lesson in how Austen wants us to read.

The example from Persuasion is less extended but no less powerful. Anne Elliott is unsure how her former fiance, Frederick Wentworth, feels about her until she receives one of the best love letters in all of literature. (For serious, go read it again. I’ll wait.)

Before she reads the letter, the narrator says, “On the contents of that letter depended all which this world could do for her. Anything was possible, anything might be defied rather than suspense.” In other words, there is absolute potentiality and chairos in that moment.

After Anne reads it we’re told, “Such a letter was not to be soon recovered from. Half an hour’s solitude and reflection might have tranquillized her; but the ten minutes only which now passed before she was interrupted, with all the restraints of her situation, could do nothing towards tranquillity. Every moment rather brought fresh agitation. It was overpowering happiness. And before she was beyond the first stage of full sensation, [her cousins] all came in.”

Good reading, the best reading, exhausts one emotionally. It is agitating. It brings multiple waves of response, each of which must be processed. It is absorbing and interruption is not to be borne.

As with Elizabeth, Anne’s reading causes her to see action as text. When she confronts Wentworth a few minutes later, “He … only looked.” He’s looking to her to see a reaction which he can then decode. Suddenly, she’s the author and the text.

In response, “Anne could command herself enough to receive that look, and not repulsively.” It’s all she can do to look him in the eye because she knows that in and of itself is encouragement. Further, “The cheeks which had been pale now glowed, and the movements which had hesitated were decided. He walked by her side.” The things she probably can’t even control–her blush, for example–become textual.

In this moment, both Anne and Wentworth are both author and reader. They’ve become the perfect scholars for one another’s lives.

To leave Austen, what I see in both these examples is that all reading is translating. There’s a gap between the word and the idea (the signifier and the signified). When we see the characters in a novel struggle to make meaning out of texts–and to make meaning out of each other, as they do often do in romance–the writer is giving us a Rosetta Stone for the book in hand.

However, we don’t have to do what the books want. Indeed, there is value in being a resisting reader, particularly for women reading in a patriarchal literary culture.

I love seventeenth-, and eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century literature. Love it. But I struggle with the politics of narratives that over and over again argue strong and unruly women will pay for their transgressions with their lives or with their chastity and happiness. Indeed, pre-twentieth century texts are littered with the bodies of women, strewn there at some level as a warning.

Daisy Miller. Lily Bart. Emma Bovary. Anna Karenina. Charlotte Temple. Edna Pontellier. Ophelia. Cordelia. Cleopatra. Juliet. Lady MacBeth. The Lady of Shallot. Tess Durbeyfield. Clarissa Harlowe. Catherine Earnshaw. Zenobia. Lucy Tartan (Delly Ulver also).

To read these novels is to put on armor and to go to battle with what they want of me.

So I bring my New Historicism. I bring my feminism. I bring my Marxism. I bring my resistance.

I break these texts down and deny them power. I put them back together again and shift the focus. I mock the heros, I mock the values, and I mock the writing. More than anything I take up the pen and I fight back.

But just as we are not locked into doing what the texts want us to do as reader, we are not locked into a single framework. We can have a deep tool box and bring different ideas to bear at different moments. I can love the writing in The Blithedale Romance and hate that Zenobia dies. I can hold both in my hands at once.

But this is how we read–or how I read. The more difficult question, perhaps, is how we evaluate. How, in other words, do we know if a text is “good”?

When we are speaking of romance, we must also consider the pesky question of emotion. We have all heard readers say, “I know the writing was bad, but I don’t care, it’s was like crack” or “Yes, the hero was an alphahole, but the book still worked for me.” When are texts manipulating us? How much of our emotional response can we bring to bear on evaluative questions?

So while I had hoped to wrap-up this series here with “how we read,” I realize that I need one more post–how we evaluate.

(Note: the section about Austen first appeared on my personal, non-writing blog.)

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6 thoughts on “And Yet Do I Read

  1. “More than anything I take up the pen and I fight back.”
    Yes. That’s it exactly. That’s why we write, read, study, ponder.

    But there are some heroines who flout social norms who are triumphant in the end. Helen Huntingdon from the Tenant of Wildfell Hall comes to mind–marries the bad boy, thinking she can reform him, is proven wrong, and successfully escapes him (and takes their child). When she does return, it’s not under his power–it’s so she can nurse him through his final illness. That always struck me as quite a victory for her.
    (And I’ve always found Agnes Grey to be a lovely little romance of equals. Can you tell I’m a big Anne Bronte fan?)

    I find your choice of the word “manipulation” when asking what texts do to us to be interesting. Is it still manipulation when the emotion it engenders in us is purely “good”? (The sweet beta hero, who’d never hurt a fly, gets his girl. No pesky questions of alphaholes or bad writing.)
    Or is the text then simply “moving us”?

    • Both the Austen heroines discussed here make unusual choices (turning down marriage proposals!) and live. So do many of the EDEN Southworth heroines I love so dearly. (And in general, there are loads more feisty heroines in popular literature than in Literature.) So there are certainly some. But teaching lit surveys right now reminds me how many dead unruly women there are in the western canon.

      Manipulation…okay, I was thinking about something very specific there, James Baldwin’s review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” I’m a major league defender of Sentimentalism and proponent of emotion as a legitimate way to experience the world and simply to know. But I’ve been struggling with the line between legitimate (ethical?) uses of emotional and illegitimate ones.

      Read the Baldwin if you haven’t and let’s talk about it!

      • I was being a bit provocative when I brought up manipulation. But it’s interesting to me that when an evoked emotion is “bad”, the author is manipulating us, and when the emotion is “good”, the author is moving us.

        I definitely sympathize with Baldwin’s issues on sentiment and Stowe’s use of it, but I get deeply uncomfortable when people assign legitimacy (or ethics, or even morals) to the use of emotion. I certainly assign ethical and moral assessments to actions, but tend to shy from doing so with emotions and even manipulation of emotions. It tends to get a little too close to Thoughtcrime for me and kind of infantilizes the free will of the reader.

        To bring up an example closer to romance, it reminds me of the debate around 50 Shades–namely the assertion that “less-educated” women won’t see it as a fantasy and therefore might enter into abusive relationships. Which is so, so offensive to me. Let the reader make up her own mind!
        (And everything I’ve read about the 50 Shades phenomenon indicates that it’s not abusive relationships that are increased because of this book–it’s women’s sexual satisfaction. And that’s an action I think is good.)

        (And in one last sally in defense of my dear Anne–none of Austen’s heroines have ever done anything so transgressive as leaving their husband and taking his heir!)

  2. At one point, I was having a conversation with a university-connected person about the best books of 2012 and “The Fault in Our Stars” came up. I said, “I cried like a baby at the end.” And the person said me, “Me too. But I felt really bad afterward.” Bad why? For having an emotional reaction to a text? All texts–even those that aren’t sentimental–evoke emotion. That’s one of the major goals of literature: creation of emotion, empathy, and human connection.

    re: Baldwin

    For me, the sentimental has two parts: 1) the use or valorization of emotion and 2) extending that emotion to build connections across status divides (e.g., benevolence). In terms of the first, I think the question is how much emotion is excessive.

    It’s a bit like purple prose–which I’ve been taught means something like descriptive language or inflated diction over and above what’s called for by the context. How much emotion (in the case of the sentimental) is too much? How much description (in the case of purple prose) is too much? If we’re talking about intimate human pain, or intimate human joy, is there really such a thing as excessive?

    In terms of the second (benevolence), I can more easily see the potential for condescension. For the sort of “but it’s done with love charity” that drove the horrors in “Angela’s Ashes” or Indian schools or countless other examples.

    So…yes. Emotion is part of literature’s project but I think what an author thinks s/he is up to matters. “I’m going to show the fallen woman to instill discipline” (which Susanna Rowson more or less says in the intro to Charlotte Temple) seems notable. But when we don’t know an author’s intent, or when an author’s intent backfires, let alone how the reader’s free will fits into this, is an entire other issue. And I guess this is what I get for sending half-formed thoughts into the world. ; )

    (And yes, I’m guilty here of one of my most aggrieved sins, conflating true subversion some kind of with vague feistiness. None of Austen’s heroines are truly transgressive. Theirs is a change in attitude, not real action.)

    • If anyone’s thoughts here are half formed, it’s mine. :)
      I agree that explicit authorial intent can be problematic, especially in those novels you cite where the intent is almost toxic.
      I was trying to think of a more recent example of this and the only one that came up was Life of Pi, where it says something in the beginning about this story making you, the reader, believe in God. A friend and I were discussing it and we agreed that there was nothing in the story that actually made us rethink our approach to faith (or lack there of) and that failure on the part of the author really diminished our opinion of the novel. So explicit authorial intent can really backfire.
      Then there’s also the authorial intent that’s expected in genre literature. In romance, it’s expected that the author lead you on this emotional journey from falling in love, to the black moment, then to the triumph of the reunited lovers. Other genres also have this expectation–horror should scare you, mysteries should should make you feel clever when you figure it out–or surprise you when it doesn’t, etc.
      So there’s a definitely a line where authorial intent is intrusive and when it’s expected.

      • Yup, I totally agree.

        I said in class the other day that the difference between Literature and literature is that Literature is more concerned with form and literature is more concerned with content. One of my students pointed out that literature is way more concerned with form, actually, because of tropes and generic convention. Romance readers want a relationship-centric text and a happy ending, and so on.

        So I had to amend myself. Big-l Literature is more concerned with formal experimentation and literature is more concerned with formal conservative. Or something. ; )

        I’ll try to get the rest of this worked out in my head for the “how do we evaluate” post.

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