“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Putting Down the Pen: How School Teaches Us the Worst Possible Way to Read Literature

(4,036 words. Link to printable version.)   
Storytelling comes naturally to humans. But there is a special category of narratives that we’re taught from an early age to approach in the most strained and unnatural of ways. The label we apply to this category is literature. While we demand of movies and television shows that they envelop us in the seamlessly imagined worlds of their creators’ visions, not only whisking us away from our own concerns, but rendering us oblivious as well, however fleetingly, to the artificiality of the dramas playing out before us, we split the spines of literary works expecting some real effort at heightened awareness to be demanded of us—which is why many of us seldom read this type of fiction at all.

Some of the difficulty is intrinsic to the literary endeavor, reflecting the authors’ intention to engage our intellect as well as our emotions. But many academics seem to believe that literature exists for the sole purpose of supporting a superstructure of scholarly discourse. Rather than treating it as an art form occupying a region where intuitive aesthetic experience overlaps with cerebral philosophical musing, these scholars take it as their duty to impress upon us the importance of approaching literature as a purely intellectual exercise. In other words, if you allow yourself to become absorbed in the story, especially to the point where you forget, however briefly, that it is just a story, then you’re breaking faith with the very institutions that support literary scholarship—and that to some degree support literature as an art form.    

The unremarked scandal of modern literary scholarship is that the tension between reading as an aesthetic experience and reading as a purely intellectual pursuit is never even acknowledged. Many students seeking a deeper and more indelible involvement with great works come away instead with instructions on how to take on a mindset and apply a set of methods designed specifically to preclude just the type of experience they’re hoping to achieve. For instance, when novelist and translator Tim Parks wrote an essay called “A Weapon for Readers” for The New York Review of Books, in which he opined on the critical importance of having a pen in hand while reading, he received several emails from disappointed readers who “even thus armed felt the text was passing them by.” In a response titled “How I Read,” Parks begins with an assurance that he will resist being “prescriptive” as he shares his own reading methods, and yet he goes on to profess, “I do believe reading is an active skill, an art even, certainly not a question of passive absorption.” But, we might ask, could there also be such a state as active absorption? And isn’t that what most of us are hoping for when we read a story?
Tim Parks and Pen
Tim Parks

For Parks, and nearly every academic literary scholar writing or teaching today, stories are vehicles for the transmission of culture and hence reducible to the propositional information contained within them. The task of the scholar and the responsible reader alike therefore is to penetrate the surface effects of the story—the characters, the drama, the music of the prose—so we can scrutinize the underlying assumptions that hold them all together and make them come to life. As author David Shields explains in his widely celebrated manifesto Reality Hunger, “I always read the book as an allegory, as a disguised philosophical argument.” Parks demonstrates more precisely what this style of reading entails, writing, “As I dive into the opening pages, the first question I’m asking is, what are the qualities or values that matter most to this author, or at least in this novel?” Instead of pausing to focus on character descriptions or to take any special note of the setting, he aims his pen at clues to the author’s unspoken preoccupations:

I start a novel by Hemingway and at once I find people taking risks, forcing themselves toward acts of courage, acts of independence, in a world described as dangerous and indifferent to human destiny. I wonder if being courageous is considered more important than being just or good, more important than coming out a winner, more important than comradeship. Is it the dominant value? I’m on the lookout for how each character positions himself in relation to courage.

We can forget for a moment that Parks’ claim is impossible—how could he start a novel with so much foreknowledge of what it contains? The important point revealed in this description is that from the opening pages Parks is searching for ways to leap from the particular to the abstract, from specific incidents of the plot to general propositions about the world and the people in it. He goes on,

After that the next step is to wonder what is the connection between these force fields—fear/courage, belonging/exclusion, domination/submission—and the style of the book, the way the plot unfolds. How is the writer trying to draw me into the mental world of his characters through his writing, through his conversation with me?
While this process of putting the characters in some relation to each other and the author in relation to the reader is going on, another crucial question is hammering away in my head. Is this a convincing vision of the world?

Like Shields, Parks is reducing stories to philosophical arguments. And he proceeds to weigh them according to how well they mesh with his own beliefs.

Parks addresses the objection that his brand of critical reading, which he refers to as “alert resistance,” will make us much less likely to experience “those wonderful moments when we might fall under a writer’s spell” by insisting that there will be time enough for that after we’ve thoroughly examined the text for dangerous hidden assumptions, and by further suggesting that many writers will have worked hard enough on their texts to survive our scrutiny. For Parks and other postmodern scholars, there’s simply too much at stake for us to allow ourselves to be taken in by a good story until it’s been properly scanned for contraband ideas. “Sometimes it seems the whole of society languishes in the stupor of the fictions it has swallowed,” he writes. Because it’s a central tenet of postmodernism, the ascendant philosophy in English departments across the country, Parks fails to appreciate just how extraordinary a claim he’s making when he suggests that writers of literary texts are responsible, at least to some degree, for all the worst ills of society.

read stories as allegories
David Shields
The sickening irony is that postmodern scholars are guilty of the very crime they accuse literary authors of committing. Critics like Parks and Shields charge that writers dazzle us with stories so they can secretly inculcate us with their ideologies. Parks feels he needs to teach readers “to protect themselves from all those underlying messages that can shift one’s attitude without one’s being aware of it.” And yet when his own readers come to him looking for advice on how to experience literature more deeply he offers them his own ideology disguised as the only proper way to approach a text (politely, of course, since he wouldn’t want to be prescriptive). Consider the young booklover attending her first college lit courses and being taught the importance of putting literary works and their authors on trial for their complicity in societal evils: she comes believing she’s going to read more broadly and learn to experience more fully what she reads, only to be tricked into thinking what she loves most about books are the very things that must be resisted.

Parks is probably right in his belief that reading with a pen and looking for hidden messages makes us more attentive to the texts and increases our engagement with them. But at what cost? The majority of people in our society avoid literary fiction altogether once they’re out of school precisely because it’s too difficult to get caught up in the stories the way we all do when we’re reading commercial fiction or watching movies. Instead of seeing their role as helping students experience this absorption with more complex works, scholars like Parks instruct us on ways to avoid becoming absorbed at all. While at first the suspicion of hidden messages that underpins this oddly counterproductive approach to stories may seem like paranoia, the alleged crimes of authors often serve to justify an attitude toward texts that’s aggressively narcissistic—even sadistic. Here’s how Parks describes the outcome of his instructions to his students:

There is something predatory, cruel even, about a pen suspended over a text. Like a hawk over a field, it is on the lookout for something vulnerable. Then it is a pleasure to swoop and skewer the victim with the nib’s sharp point. The mere fact of holding the hand poised for action changes our attitude to the text. We are no longer passive consumers of a monologue but active participants in a dialogue. Students would report that their reading slowed down when they had a pen in their hand, but at the same time the text became more dense, more interesting, if only because a certain pleasure could now be taken in their own response to the writing when they didn’t feel it was up to scratch, or worthy only of being scratched.

It’s as if the author’s first crime, the original sin, as it were, was to attempt to communicate in a medium that doesn’t allow anyone to interject or participate. By essentially shouting writers down by marking up their works, Parks would have us believe we’re not simply being like the pompous idiot who annoys everyone by trying to point out all the holes in movie plots so he can appear smarter than the screenwriters—no, we’re actually making the world a better place. He even begins his essay on reading with a pen with this invitation: “Imagine you are asked what single alteration in people’s behavior might best improve the lot of mankind.”
storytelling weapon and literature
Jonathan Gottschall

            The question postmodern literary scholars never get around to answering is, given that they believe books and stories are so far-reaching in their insidious effects, and given that they believe the main task in reading is to resist the author’s secret agenda, why should we bother reading in the first place? Of course, we should probably first ask if it’s even true that stories have such profound powers of persuasion. Jonathan Gottschall, a scholar who seeks to understand storytelling in the context of human evolution, may seem like one of the last people you’d expect to endorse the notion that every cultural artifact emerging out of so-called Western civilization must be contaminated with hidden reinforcements of oppressive ideas. But in an essay that seemingly echoes Parks’ most paranoid pronouncements about literature, one that even relies on similarly martial metaphors, Gottschall reports,

Results repeatedly show that our attitudes, fears, hopes, and values are strongly influenced by story. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than writing that is specifically designed to persuade through argument and evidence.
What is going on here? Why are we putty in a storyteller’s hands? The psychologists Melanie Green and Tim Brock argue that entering fictional worlds “radically alters the way information is processed.” Green and Brock’s studies show that the more absorbed readers are in a story, the more the story changes them. Highly absorbed readers also detected significantly fewer “false notes” in stories—inaccuracies, missteps—than less transported readers. Importantly, it is not just that highly absorbed readers detected the false notes and didn’t care about them (as when we watch a pleasurably idiotic action film). They were unable to detect the false notes in the first place.

Gottschall’s essay is titled “Why Storytelling Is the Ultimate Weapon,” and one of his main conclusions seems to corroborate postmodern claims about the dangers lurking in literature. “Master storytellers,” he writes, “want us drunk on emotion so we will lose track of rational considerations, relax our skepticism, and yield to their agenda.”
Melanie Green
Melanie Green 

            Should we just accept Shields’ point then that stories are no more than disguised attempts at persuasion? Should we take Parks’ advice and start scouring our books for potentially nefarious messages? It’s important to note that Gottschall isn’t writing about literature in his essay; rather, he’s discussing storytelling in the context of business and marketing. And this brings up another important point: as Gottschall writes, “story is a tool that can be used for good or ill.” Just because there’s a hidden message doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad one. Indeed, if literature really were some kind of engine driving the perpetuation of all the most oppressive aspects of our culture, then we would expect the most literate societies, and the most literate sectors within each society, to be the most oppressive. Instead, some scholars, from Lynn Hunt to Steven Pinker, have traced liberal ideas like universal human rights to the late eighteenth century, when novels were first being widely read. The nature of the relationship is nearly impossible to pin down with any precision, but it’s clear that our civilization’s thinking about human rights evolved right alongside its growing appreciation for literature.

            A growing body of research demonstrates that people who read literary fiction tend to be more empathetic—and less racist even. If literature has hidden messages, they seem to be nudging us in a direction not many would consider cause for alarm. It is empathy after all that allows us to enter into narratives in the first place, so it’s hardly a surprise that one of the effects of reading is a strengthening of this virtue. And that gets at the fundamental misconception at the heart of postmodern theories of narrative. For Shields and Parks, stories are just clever ways to package an argument, but their theories leave unanswered why we enjoy all those elements of narratives that so distract us from the author’s supposed agenda. What this means is that postmodern scholars are confused about what a story even is. They don’t understand that the whole reason narratives have such persuasive clout is that reading them brings us close to actual experiences, simulating what it would be like to go through the incidents of the plots alongside the characters. And, naturally, experiences tend to be more persuasive than arguments. When we’re absorbed in a story, we fail to notice incongruities or false notes because in a very real sense we see them work just fine right before our mind’s eye. Parks worries that readers will passively absorb arguments, so he fails to realize that the whole point of narratives is to help us become actively absorbed in their simulated experiences.

            So what is literature? Is it pure rhetoric, pure art, or something in between? Do novelists begin conceiving of their works when they have some philosophical point to make and realize they need a story to cloak it in? Or are any aspects of their stories that influence readers toward one position or another merely incidental to the true purpose of writing fiction? Consider these questions in the light of your own story consuming habits. Do you go to a movie to have your favorite beliefs reinforced? Or do you go to have a moving experience? Or we can think of it in relation to other art forms. Does the painter arrange colors on a canvas to convince us of some point? Are we likely to vote differently after attending a symphony? The best art really does impact the way we think and feel, but that’s because it creates a moving experience, and—perhaps the most important point here—that experience can seldom be reduced to a single articulable proposition. Think about your favorite novel and try to pare it down to a single philosophical statement, or even ten statements. Now compare that list of statements to the actual work.

            Another fatal irony for postmodernism is that literary fiction, precisely because it requires special effort to appreciate, is a terribly ineffective medium for propaganda. And exploring why this is the case will start getting us into the types of lessons professors might be offering their students if they were less committed to their bizarre ideology than they were to celebrating literature as an art form. If we compare literary fiction to commercial fiction, we see that the prior has at least two disadvantages when it comes to absorbing our attention. First, literary writers are usually committed to realism, so the events of the plot have to seem like they may possibly occur in the real world, and the characters have to seem like people you could actually meet. Second, literary prose often relies on a technique known as estrangement, whereby writers describe scenes and experiences in a way that makes readers think about them differently than they ever have before, usually in the same way the character guiding the narration thinks of them. The effect of these two distinguishing qualities of literature is that you have less remarkable plots recounted in remarkably unfamiliar language, whereas with commercial fiction you have outrageous plots rendered in the plainest of terms.

            Since it’s already a challenge to get into literary stories, the notion that readers need to be taught how to resist their lures is simply perverse. And the notion that an art form that demands so much thought and empathy to be appreciated should be treated as some kind of delivery package for oppressive ideas is just plain silly—or rather it would be if nearly the entirety of American academia weren’t sold on it. I wonder if Parks sits in movie theaters violently scribbling in notebooks lest he succumb to the dangerous messages hidden in Pixar movies (like that friends are really great!). Our lives are pervaded by stories—why focus our paranoia on the least likely source of unacceptable opinions? Why assume our minds are pristinely in the right before being influenced? Of course, one of the biggest influences on our attitudes and beliefs, surely far bigger than any single reading of a book, is our choice of friends. Does Parks vet candidates for entrance into his social circle according to some standard of political correctness? For that matter, does he resist savoring his meals by jotting down notes about suspect ingredients, all the while remaining vigilant lest one of his dining partners slip in some indefensible opinion while he’s distracted with chewing?

            Probably the worst part of Parks’ advice to readers on how to get more out of literature is that he could hardly find a better way to ensure that their experiences will be blunted than by encouraging them to move as quickly as possible from the particular to the abstract and from the emotional to the intellectual. Emotionally charged experiences are the easiest to remember, dry abstractions the most difficult. If you want to get more out of literature, if you want to become actively absorbed in it, then you’ll need to forget about looking past the words on the page in search of confirmation for some pet theory. There’s enough ambiguity in good fiction to support just about any theory you’re determined to apply. But do you really want to go to literature intent on finding what you already think you know? Or would you rather go in search of undiscovered perspectives and new experiences?
Moonwalking with Einstein and Literature

            I personally stopped reading fiction with a pen in my hand—and even stopped using bookmarks—after reading Moonwalking with Einstein, a book on memory and competitive mnemonics by science writer Joshua Foer. A classic of participatory journalism, the book recounts Foer's preparation for the U.S. Memory Championships, and along the way it explores the implications of our culture’s continued shift toward more external forms of memory, from notes and books, to recorders and smartphones. Since one of the major findings in the field of memory research is that you can increase your capacity with the right kind of training, Foer began looking for opportunities to memorize things. He writes,

I started trying to use my memory in everyday life, even when I wasn’t practicing for the handful of arcane events that would be featured in the championship. Strolls around the neighborhood became an excuse to memorize license plates. I began to pay a creepy amount of attention to name tags. I memorized my shopping lists. I kept a calendar on paper, and also in my mind. Whenever someone gave me a phone number, I installed it in a special memory palace. (163-4)

Foer even got rid of all the sticky notes around his computer monitor, except for one which read, “Don’t forget to remember.”

            The most basic technique in mnemonics is what cognitive scientists call “elaborative encoding,” which means you tag otherwise insignificant items like numbers or common names with more salient associations, usually some kind of emotionally provocative imagery. After reading Foer’s book, it occurred to me that while the mnemonics masters went about turning abstractions into solid objects and people, literary scholars are busy insisting that we treat fictional characters as abstractions. Authors, in applying the principle of estrangement to their descriptions, are already doing most of the work of elaborately encoding pertinent information for us. We just to have to accept their invitations to us and put the effort into imagining what they describe.
memories and pictures
Linda Henkel

             A study I came across sometime after reading Foer’s book illustrates the tradeoff between external and internal memories. Psychologist Linda Henkel compared the memories of museum visitors who were instructed to take pictures to those of people who simply viewed the various displays, and she found that taking pictures had a deleterious effect on recall. What seems to be occurring here is that museum visitors who don’t take pictures are either more motivated to get the full experience by mentally taking in all the details or simply less distracted by the mechanics of picture-taking. People with photos know they can rely on them as external memories, so they’re quicker to shift their attention to other things. In other words, because they’re storing parts of the present moment for the future, they have less incentive to occupy the present moment—to fully experience it—with the result that they don’t remember it as well.

            If I’m reading nonfiction, or if I’m reading a work of fiction I’ve already read before in preparation for an essay or book discussion, I’ll still pull out a pen once in a while. But the first time I read a work of literature I opt to follow Foer’s dictum, “Don’t forget to remember,” instead of relying on external markers. I make an effort to cast myself into the story, doing my best to think of the events as though they were actually happening before my eyes and think of the characters as though they were real people—if an author is skilled enough and generous enough to give a character a heartbeat, who are we to drain them of blood? Another important principle of cognitive psychology is that “Memory is the residue of thought.” So when I’m reading I take time—usually at section breaks—to think over what’s already happened and wonder at what may happen next.

I do eventually get around to thinking about abstractions like the author’s treatment of various themes and what the broader societal implications might be of the particular worldview represented in the story, insofar as there is a discernable one. But I usually save those topics for the times when I don’t actually have the book in my hands. It’s much more important to focus on the particulars, on the individual words and lines, so you can make the most of the writer’s magic and transform the marks on the page into images in your mind. I personally think it’s difficult to do that when you’re busy making your own marks on the pages. And I also believe we ought to have the courage and openheartedness to give ourselves over to great authors—at least for a while—confident in our ability to return from where they take us if we deem it necessary. Once in a while, the best thing to do is just shut up and listen.


Also read: How Violent Fiction Works: Rohan Wilson’s “The Roving Party” and James Wood’s Sanguinary Sublime from Conrad to McCarthy

And: Rebecca Mead’s Middlemarch Pilgrimage and the 3 Wrong Ways to Read a Novel

And: Sabbath Says: Philip Roth and the Dilemmas of Ideological Castration