Good Reader, Bad Reader
November 28, 2017 12:35 PM   Subscribe

Why do bad readers matter? It is because they lead us to the kinds of citizens—the internationalized subjects—that practices of bad reading aspired to produce; and show how these literate subjects used reading to navigate a political climate that championed liberal individualism, on the one hand, while establishing unprecedented forms of institutional oversight, on the other. These subjects’ diverse and often overlapping genres of reading— properly “literary” novels but also “how to” manuals, advertisements, magazines, newspapers, simple novels, and bureaucratic documents—formed a rich textual ecology whose national and geographic limits literary scholars and cultural historians are only just beginning to map. Good Reader, Bad Reader, an essay by Merve Emre in Boston Review [Via Literary Hub]
posted by chavenet (20 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
I haven't gotten very far, but I find it very interesting that I chose almost the exact same answers as Nabokov, but for the reasons of them being the least judgmental and prescriptive, and just being generally useful skills to have.
posted by Zalzidrax at 12:53 PM on November 28 [4 favorites]


I wish this had been adapted differently. It seems like it's arguing, very plausibly, that non-literary types learn to read "literature" in the same ways that they read instruction manuals, biographies, etc, that these methods of reading first arose naturally and then were managed by the state/international organizations to encourage certain types of "self formation" and that the account of this process has not really been written, since the focus has been on the whole "CIA sponsored 'high culture' to compete with the Soviets" deal. But I would really have liked illustrations of self-formation, fewer list sentences, etc. It was harder for me to come to grips with the argument than the complexity of the argument seems to require.

It interests me that anyone could take Nabokov's "quiz" and not immediately feel that one was supposed to choose the last four. The quiz made me want to argue that good readers always see the movie version.

There's a lot of sanctimony around reading, is my take-away. Always a lot of shoulds - is this year's correct position that we should read in a high culture manner? Or is it that we should embrace the 'shameful'? Are we supposed to be "good" readers? Or is this an off year, when one is supposed to champion the "bad", "trashy", etc etc? There's always a correct answer, it just changes.

~~
On another note, as a chronic runner of reading groups, I frequently describe people as "good readers" without really thinking about what I mean. When I consider it, I guess I mean that a "good reader" approaches an unknown text with some spirit of generosity, some assumption that it's possible to get something interesting out of it. A good reader can also control that whole Oedipal-struggle deal where people need to "kill" a text which scares them or makes them envious by proving that it is actually badly written, immoral, pretentious, politically inappropriate, lowbrow or whatever. The biggest challenge in running reading groups was always to get everyone out of that high school English, hostile-to-the-book mentality, which is weird since in theory everyone actually wanted to attend.
posted by Frowner at 1:12 PM on November 28 [24 favorites]


The biggest challenge in running reading groups was always to get everyone out of that high school English, hostile-to-the-book mentality, which is weird since in theory everyone actually wanted to attend.

There's a great bit in an episode of Bob's Burgers where students are doing book reports, and I love it so much because I feel like it perfectly encapsulates the way most people discuss works of fiction they've engaged with. Not just books but films and television and paintings and everything else as well.
And that's why it truly was like a tale of two cities.

But I feel like maybe next time, focus on the tale of just one city. And maybe that city is like a yogurt shop where cool teens work. I want to work there. Thank you.
(Ok, now to go read TFA and see if this comment was as germane as it felt to me in the moment.)
posted by tobascodagama at 1:21 PM on November 28 [2 favorites]


I kept expecting a full-throated defense of "bad readers" and a critique of the narrowness of "literature", but she never seems to get there. I think that's partly because "what people outside of literature departments [do]" is simply not a category. The writer keeps making completely absurd lists: "lecture transcripts, elocution primers, conduct books, publicity stills, advertisements, consumer guides, ?nancial instruments, magazines, journals, intelligence reports, bureaucratic ?les", or "menu reading, cookbooks, ‘how to’ manuals, comic books, advertisements, magazines, newspapers, and simple novels." This miscellany isn't an alternative to "literature", isn't read all by the same people or for the same reasons, and isn't purposely cultivated by shadowy Cold War institutions.

If you want a literary reference, this sounds like Molière's Bourgeois Gentilhomme, who was tickled to discover that everything he had ever said, including asking his servant to fetch his slippers, was part of the genre of Prose.

Plus, Nabokov was brilliant, but here he's being a snob. His list is intended to cordon off genre fiction, left-wingers, and bestsellers. The general public are "bad readers" because the "good writers" wanted them out of the building before they got to talking.
posted by zompist at 1:46 PM on November 28 [14 favorites]


That's my take on this as well, zompist, at least so far. I suspect that part of the reason that she never quite gets around to defending "bad readers" is that the kinds of people who subscribe to Boston Review likely fancy themselves as "good readers" and cherish the distinction.
posted by tobascodagama at 1:53 PM on November 28


4900 words. Average of 35 words per sentence. Author has spent too much time in literature departments.
Walter Kaufmann bemoaned “the future of the humanities” when, in 1977, it appeared that this future had been bequeathed to “bad readers,” while the monthly magazine College Teacher instructed “bad readers” to steer clear of serious literature and limit their efforts to “menu reading, cookbooks, ‘how to’ manuals, comic books, advertisements, magazines, newspapers, and simple novels.”
That's probably the key quote, which identifies notion that "bad readers" are those who read anything other than "literature," including novels that aren't good enough to be considered "literature."

Article does not seem to define "literature" but I confess to not reading it carefully. I would rather spend my lunch break reading fanfic than articles that either claim I'm a bad reader, or imply that I should not be reading what I love because I'm a better reader than my favorite texts deserve.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:54 PM on November 28 [3 favorites]


Good readers are readers that enjoy my writing. Bad readers are those who do not.
posted by eustacescrubb at 1:55 PM on November 28 [9 favorites]


Too many quotation marks. Not enough sex. It'll never sell.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:03 PM on November 28 [2 favorites]


> Plus, Nabokov was brilliant, but here he's being a snob.

Nabokov was a snob all his life. What do you expect? He was born into the aristocracy, his dad was a government minister, the family lost a fortune when they had to flee Russia; I believe him when he said that's not why he hated the Bolsheviks, but you don't come out of that background and become a fan of the lowbrow. I love his writing intensely, but I've learned to take his judgments of other writers and of culture in general with lots of salt, and to ignore the more idiotic judgments (like his disparaging of Dostoevsky).
posted by languagehat at 2:28 PM on November 28 [3 favorites]


To me, there are no good readers or bad readers. There are only readers and non-readers.

About four years ago I called my beloved boss (at the time) a non-reader. Which she isn't! She doesn't read! She's so many great things but she doesn't read. She's never forgiven me. Every time she can, she'll interject "but what do I know, I'm not a reader" into our conversation.

So now, I keep even that the distinction to myself.
posted by lyssabee at 2:35 PM on November 28 [3 favorites]


1) The set of readers on this list
2) The set of readers not on this list
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 2:50 PM on November 28 [2 favorites]


Well, I'm clearly a bad reader, because I found that to be a total slog, and I'm still not really clear on what her project is. It has something to do with the relationship between Cold War international relations and literary judgment, but I'm not sure what she's arguing that relationship is?

Anyway, that made me glad to be done with grad school, so I can be a bad reader in peace without having to reread stuff like that to try to figure out what the point is.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 3:17 PM on November 28 [6 favorites]


I kept expecting a full-throated defense of "bad readers" and a critique of the narrowness of "literature", but she never seems to get there. I think that's partly because "what people outside of literature departments [do]" is simply not a category.

It appears to me that the author of the essay is attempting to do something very much like that, bring the paraliterary and the so called "bad readers" into literary departments as having an equally important legacy as that of the literary and "good readers". Her summarizing paragraph suggests that rather plainly I think.

Good readers and writers, critics, agents, and publishers, as well as leaders, politicians, and other outstanding public personalities, may all insist on the importance of literature, but they do so in ways that are not easily separable from one another. We must proudly claim the bad readers as our own if we wish to make claims about reading at all.


The intended audience for the article is indeed that of "good readers" and the author doesn't diminish the claims for good reading since there is no good basis for doing so in noting the importance other, more popular, methods of reading. The existence of the latter does not necessarily negate the values of the former, it just adds a demand for added diligence in better comprehending of that importance since it is as integral a part of our literary make up as the high literature.

I'm not really sure what the purpose of this noting would be or for whom it matters since the paraliterary so thoroughly dominates the environment that asking academia to take it on even more is to take away time from the study of "literature" in one of the only places that is valued at a premium standard. Paraliterary readers mostly don't care about literature, which is certainly fine, but literature readers are hardly unfamiliar with paraliterary works since that is the vast majority of writing and no one indulges in reading high literature alone.

Suggesting there is some importance to the history of paraliterary works is unquestionably true as is then noting study of that history has some importance, but without some clearer idea of what exactly is being proposed in drawing attention to paraliterary works by this essay, I can't really respond since it doesn't appear to say much at all that isn't mostly just relabeling things already known by people who'd read the piece.
posted by gusottertrout at 3:40 PM on November 28 [1 favorite]


A good reader reads all the Metafilter comments but doesn't get all the way through the article.
posted by Dmenet at 3:45 PM on November 28 [14 favorites]


tl;dr
posted by ZenMasterThis at 4:06 PM on November 28


I agree that this probably was not well-excerpted, but the author's project sounds like it's descended from a number of studies of reading (both historical and sociological) that are, by and large, about "bad readers," especially readers of middlebrow and romance fiction. E.g. 1 2 3 4 5. The point is not to castigate "bad readers," but to think about how they emerged as a category, and what various Powers That Be want to do with them (or, at any rate, imagine them doing). It's not as though in practice "good readers" and "bad readers" are really distinct, but Emre is arguing that there is/was an industry devoted to seeing them that way...

Nineteenth century Britain defined "literature" far more capaciously than we would (some of the paraliterary texts that Emre identifies would have counted as literature two centuries ago), but literary commentators had their own concept of the "paraliterary"--the "bookmaking" book, a purely ephemeral text that existed for no other reason than to be a commodity, and was supposedly interchangeable with every other book of its type.
posted by thomas j wise at 5:21 PM on November 28 [4 favorites]


I define "Literature" as something that I'd read in the fiction section of The New Yorker, and the only thing making it different from any other genre is tighter editing. Hi-brow fiction can be as dull or obtuse as any pile of words in any other genre.

I don't really get the drift of this article. I like Nabokov, he's a charming writer, and also a snob (which is part of his charm.) But it doesn't quite translate into a coherent theory from my view.
posted by ovvl at 7:16 PM on November 28 [2 favorites]


It is because they lead us to the kinds of citizens—the internationalized subjects—that practices of bad reading aspired to produce; and show how these literate subjects used reading to navigate a political climate that championed liberal individualism, on the one hand, while establishing unprecedented forms of institutional oversight, on the other.

Am I bad reader? It took me four tries to parse that sentence.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 8:06 PM on November 28 [1 favorite]


" A good reader can also control that whole Oedipal-struggle deal where people need to "kill" a text which scares them or makes them envious by proving that it is actually badly written, immoral, pretentious, politically inappropriate, lowbrow or whatever."

Very well put.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:53 AM on November 29 [1 favorite]


I find this style of writing really difficult to follow, but I think the author is saying that the American/English literary culture has a major problem by its own lights; at the end of the article, the two examples of narrative offered by literature critique, a) of literature as political resistance/critique and b) literature as CIA-influenced artistic project are too narrow and stunted, therefore failing to serve the purposes of Literature today. So then the author says the solution is for writers and critics (i.e. people who work in the literature field) to start paying serious attention to actual readership, which is an international mass. So even the internet counts, I think. They (we) make up a global commons (the author uses the term "public" several times), which to me suggests it an ethical argument to do so, to engage with and include this much bigger group.

I think that's really interesting in that the author is pointing out to her peers that there's a lot of good work that can be done to advance the field, and it includes and is necessitated by reconceptualizing what literature is all about.
posted by polymodus at 3:51 PM on November 29 [1 favorite]


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