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“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?.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Are 1 in 5 Women Really Sexually Assaulted on College Campuses?

Falsely Accused Duke Lacrosse Players
            If you were a university administrator and you wanted to know how prevalent a particular experience was for students on campus, you would probably conduct a survey that asked a few direct questions about that experience—foremost among them the question of whether the student had at some point had the experience you’re interested in. Obvious, right? Recently, we’ve been hearing from many news media sources, and even from President Obama himself, that one in five college women experience sexual assault at some time during their tenure as students. It would be reasonable to assume that the surveys used to arrive at this ratio actually asked the participants directly whether or not they had been assaulted. 

            But it turns out the web survey that produced the one-in-five figure did no such thing. Instead, it asked students whether they had had any of several categories of experience the study authors later classified as sexual assault, or attempted sexual assault, in their analysis. This raises the important question of how we should define sexual assault when we’re discussing the issue—along with the related question of why we’re not talking about a crime that’s more clearly defined, like rape. Of course, whatever you call it, sexual violence is such a horrible crime that most of us are willing to forgive anyone who exaggerates the numbers or paints an overly frightening picture of reality in an attempt to prevent future cases. (The issue is so serious that PolitiFact refrained from applying their trademark Truth-O-Meter to the one-in-five figure.) 

            But there are four problems with this attitude. The first is that for every supposed assault there is an alleged perpetrator. Dramatically overestimating the prevalence of the crime comes with the attendant risk of turning public perception against the accused, making it more difficult for the innocent to convince anyone of their innocence. The second problem is that by exaggerating the danger in an effort to protect college students we’re sabotaging any opportunity these young adults may have to make informed decisions about the risks they take on. No one wants students to die in car accidents either, but we don’t manipulate the statistics to persuade them one in five drivers will die in a crash before they graduate from college. The third problem is that going to college and experimenting with sex are for many people a wonderful set of experiences they remember fondly for the rest of their lives. Do we really want young women to barricade themselves in their dorms? Do we want young men to feel like they have to get signed and notarized documentation of consent before they try to kiss anyone? The fourth problem I’ll get to in a bit.

            We need to strike some appropriate balance in our efforts to raise awareness without causing paranoia or inspiring unwarranted suspicion. And that balance should be represented by the results of our best good-faith effort to arrive at as precise an understanding of the risk as our most reliable methods allow. For this purpose, The Department of Justice’s Campus Sexual Assault Study, the source of the oft-cited statistic, is all but completely worthless. It has limitations, to begin with, when it comes to representativeness, since it surveyed students on just two university campuses. And, while the overall sample was chosen randomly, the 42% response rate implies a great deal of self-selection on behalf of the participants. The researchers did compare late responders to early ones to see if there was a systematic difference in their responses. But this doesn’t by any means rule out the possibility that many students chose categorically not to respond because they had nothing to say, and therefore had no interest in the study. (Some may have even found it offensive.) These are difficulties common to this sort of simple web-based survey, and they make interpreting the results problematic enough to recommend against their use in informing policy decisions.

            The biggest problems with the study, however, are not with the sample but with the methods. The survey questions appear to have been deliberately designed to generate inflated incidence rates. The basic strategy of avoiding direct questions about whether the students had been the victims of sexual assault is often justified with the assumption that many young people can’t be counted on to know what actions constitute rape and assault. But attempting to describe scenarios in survey items to get around this challenge opens the way for multiple interpretations and discounts the role of countless contextual factors. The CSA researchers write, “A surprisingly large number of respondents reported that they were at a party when the incident happened.” Cathy Young, a contributing editor at Reason magazine who analyzed the study all the way back in 2011, wrote that

the vast majority of the incidents it uncovered involved what the study termed “incapacitation” by alcohol (or, rarely, drugs): 14 percent of female respondents reported such an experience while in college, compared to six percent who reported sexual assault by physical force. Yet the question measuring incapacitation was framed ambiguously enough that it could have netted many “gray area” cases: “Has someone had sexual contact with you when you were unable to provide consent or stop what was happening because you were passed out, drugged, drunk, incapacitated, or asleep?” Does “unable to provide consent or stop” refer to actual incapacitation – given as only one option in the question – or impaired judgment?  An alleged assailant would be unlikely to get a break by claiming he was unable to stop because he was drunk.

This type of confusion is why it’s important to design survey questions carefully. That the items in the CSA study failed to make the kind of fine distinctions that would allow for more conclusive interpretations suggests the researchers had other goals in mind.

The researchers’ use of the blanket term “sexual assault,” and their grouping of attempted with completed assaults, is equally suspicious. Any survey designer cognizant of all the difficulties of web surveys would likely try to narrow the focus of the study as much as possible, and they would also try to eliminate as many sources of confusion with regard to definitions or descriptions as possible. But, as Young points out,

The CSA Study’s estimate of sexual assault by physical force is somewhat problematic as well – particularly for attempted sexual assaults, which account for nearly two-thirds of the total. Women were asked if anyone had ever had or attempted to have sexual contact with them by using force or threat, defined as “someone holding you down with his or her body weight, pinning your arms, hitting or kicking you, or using or threatening to use a weapon.” Suppose that, during a make-out session, the man tries to initiate sex by rolling on top of the woman, with his weight keeping her from moving away – but once she tells him to stop, he complies. Would this count as attempted sexual assault?

The simplest way to get around many of these difficulties would have been to ask the survey participants directly whether they had experienced the category of crime the researchers were interested in. If the researchers were concerned that the students might not understand that being raped while drunk still counts as rape, why didn’t they just ask the participants a question to that effect? It’s a simple enough question to devise.

The study did pose a follow up question to participants it classified as victims of forcible assault, the responses to which hint at the students’ actual thoughts about the incidents. It turns out 37 percent of so-called forcible assault victims explained that they hadn’t contacted law enforcement because they didn’t think the incident constituted a crime. That bears repeating: a third of the students the study says were forcibly assaulted didn’t think any crime had occurred. With regard to another category of victims, those of incapacitated assault, Young writes, “Not surprisingly, three-quarters of the female students in this category did not label their experience as rape.” Of those the study classified as actually having been raped while intoxicated, only 37 percent believed they had in fact been raped. Two thirds of the women the study labels as incapacitated rape victims didn’t believe they had been raped. Why so much disagreement on such a serious issue? Of the entire incapacitated sexual assault victim category, Young writes,

Two-thirds said they did not report the incident to the authorities because they didn’t think it was serious enough. Interestingly, only two percent reported having suffered emotional or psychological injury – a figure so low that the authors felt compelled to include a footnote asserting that the actual incidence of such trauma was undoubtedly far higher.

So the largest category making up the total one-in-five statistic is predominantly composed of individuals who didn’t think what happened to them was serious enough to report. And nearly all of them came away unscathed, both physically and psychologically.

            The impetus behind the CSA study was a common narrative about a so-called “rape culture” in which sexual violence is accepted as normal and young women fail to report incidents because they’re convinced you’re just supposed to tolerate it. That was the researchers’ rationale for using their own classification scheme for the survey participants’ experiences even when it was at odds with the students’ beliefs. But researchers have been doing this same dance for thirty years. As Young writes,

When the first campus rape studies in the 1980s found that many women labeled as victims by researchers did not believe they had been raped, the standard explanation was that cultural attitudes prevent women from recognizing forced sex as rape if the perpetrator is a close acquaintance. This may have been true twenty-five years ago, but it seems far less likely in our era of mandatory date rape and sexual assault workshops and prevention programs on college campuses.

The CSA also surveyed a large number of men, almost none of whom admitted to assaulting women. The researchers hypothesize that the men may have feared the survey wasn’t really anonymous, but that would mean they knew the behaviors in question were wrong. Again, if the researchers are really worried about mistaken beliefs regarding the definition of rape, they could investigate the issue with a few added survey items.

The huge discrepancies between incidences of sexual violence as measured by researchers and as reported by survey participants becomes even more suspicious in light of the history of similar studies. Those campus rape studies Young refers to from the 1980s produced a ratio of one in four. Their credibility was likewise undermined by later surveys that found that most of the supposed victims didn’t believe they’d been raped, and around forty percent of them went on to have sex with their alleged assailants again. A more recent study by the CDC used similar methods—a phone survey with a low response rate—and concluded that one in five women has been raped at some time in her life. Looking closer at this study, feminist critic and critic of feminism Christina Hoff Sommers attributes this finding as well to “a non-representative sample and vaguely worded questions.” It turns out activists have been conducting different versions of this same survey, and getting similarly, wildly inflated results for decades.

            Sommers challenges the CDC findings in a video everyone concerned with the issue of sexual violence should watch. We all need to understand that well-intentioned and intelligent people can, and often do, get carried away with activism that seems to have laudable goals but ends up doing more harm than good. Some people even build entire careers on this type of crusading. And PR has become so sophisticated that we never need to let a shortage, or utter lack of evidence keep us from advocating for our favorite causes. But there’s still a fourth problem with crazily exaggerated risk assessments—they obfuscate issues of real importance, making it more difficult to come up with real solutions. As Sommers explains,

To prevent rape and sexual assault we need state-of-the-art research. We need sober estimates. False and sensationalist statistics are going to get in the way of effective policies. And unfortunately, when it comes to research on sexual violence, exaggeration and sensation are not the exception; they are the rule. If you hear about a study that shows epidemic levels of sexual violence against American women, or college students, or women in the military, I can almost guarantee the researchers used some version of the defective CDC methodology. Now by this method, known as advocacy research, you can easily manufacture a women’s crisis. But here’s the bottom line: this is madness. First of all it trivializes the horrific pain and suffering of survivors. And it sends scarce resources in the wrong direction. Sexual violence is too serious a matter for antics, for politically motivated posturing. And right now the media, politicians, rape culture activists—they are deeply invested in these exaggerated numbers.

So while more and more normal, healthy, and consensual sexual practices are considered crimes, actual acts of exploitation and violence are becoming all the more easily overlooked in the atmosphere of paranoia. And college students face the dilemma of either risking assault or accusation by going out to enjoy themselves or succumbing to the hysteria and staying home, missing out on some of the richest experiences college life has to offer.

            One in five is a truly horrifying ratio. As conservative crime researcher Heather McDonald points out, “Such an assault rate would represent a crime wave unprecedented in civilized history. By comparison, the 2012 rape rate in New Orleans and its immediately surrounding parishes was .0234 percent; the rate for all violent crimes in New Orleans in 2012 was .48 percent.” I don’t know how a woman can pass a man on a sidewalk after hearing such numbers and not look at him with suspicion. Most of the reforms rape culture activists are pushing for now chip away at due process and strip away the rights of the accused. No one wants to make coming forward any more difficult for actual victims, but our first response to anyone making such a grave accusation—making any accusation—should be skepticism. Victims suffer severe psychological trauma, but then so do the falsely accused. The strongest evidence of an honest accusation is often the fact that the accuser must incur some cost in making it. That’s why we say victims who come forward are heroic. That’s the difference between a victim and a survivor.

Trumpeting crazy numbers creates the illusion that a large percentage of men are monsters, and this fosters an us-versus-them mentality that obliterates any appreciation for the difficulty of establishing guilt. That would be a truly scary world to live in. Fortunately, we in the US don’t really live in such a world. Sex doesn’t have to be that scary. It’s usually pretty damn fun. And the vast majority of men you meet—the vast majority of women as well—are good people. In fact, I’d wager most men would step in if they were around when some psychopath was trying to rape someone.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

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

  All artists are possessed of the urge to render through some artificial medium the experience of something real. Since artists are also possessed of a desire to share their work and have it appreciated, they face the conundrum of having to wrest the attention of their audience away from the very reality they hope to relay some piece of—a feat which can only be accomplished with the assurance of something extraordinary. Stories that are too real are seldom interesting, while the stories that are the most riveting usually feature situations audiences are unlikely to encounter in their real lives. This was the challenge George Eliot faced when she set out to convey something of the reality of a provincial English town in the early nineteenth century; she had to come up with a way to write a remarkable novel about unremarkable characters in an unremarkable setting. And she somehow managed to do just that. By almost any measure, Eliot’s efforts to chronicle the fates of everyday people in a massive work many everyday people would enjoy reading were wildly, albeit complicatedly, successful.

Before Middlemarch, the convention for English novels was to blandish readers with the promise of stories replete with romance or adventure, culminating more often than not with a wedding. Eliot turned the marriage plot on its head, beginning her novel with a marriage whose romantic underpinnings were as one-sided as they were transparently delusional. So what, if not luridness or the whiff of wish-fulfillment, does Eliot use to lure us into the not-so-fantastic fictional world of Middlemarch? Part of the answer is that, like many other nineteenth century novelists, she interspersed her own observations and interpretations with the descriptions and events that make up the story. “But Eliot was doing something in addition with those moments of authorial interjection,” Rebecca Mead writes in her book My Life in Middlemarch before going on to explain,

She insists that the reader look at the characters in the book from her own elevated viewpoint. We are granted a wider perspective, and a greater insight, than is available to their neighbors down in the world of Middlemarch. By showing us the way each character is bound within his or her own narrow viewpoint, while providing us with a broader view, she nurtures what Virginia Woolf described as “the melancholy virtue of tolerance.” “If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally,” Eliot once wrote. “The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.” (55-6)

Eliot’s story about ordinary people, in other words, is made extraordinary by the insightful presence of its worldly-wise author throughout its pages.
Rebecca Mead

But this solution to the central dilemma of art—how to represent reality so as to be worthy of distraction from reality—runs into another seeming contradiction. Near the conclusion of Middlemarch, Dorothea, one of the many protagonists, assures her sister Celia that her second marriage will not be the disaster her first was, explaining that the experience of falling in love this time around was much more auspicious than it had been before. Celia, wanting to understand what was so different, presses her, asking “Can’t you tell me?” Dorothea responds, “No, dear, you would have to feel with me, else you would never know” (783). The question that arises is whether a reader can be made to “imagine and feel the pains and joys” of a character while at the same time being granted access to the author’s elevated perspective. Can we in the audience simultaneously occupy spaces both on the ground alongside the character and hovering above her with a vantage on her place in the scheme of history and the wider world?

One of the main sources of tension for any storyteller is the conflict between the need to convey information and provide context on the one hand and the goal of representing, or even simulating experiences on the other. A weakness Eliot shares with many other novelists who lived before the turn of the last century is her unchecked impulse to philosophize when she could be making a profounder impact with narrative description or moment-by-moment approximations of a character’s thoughts and feelings. For instance, Dorothea, or Miss Brooke as she’s called in the first pages of the novel, yearns to play some important role in the betterment of humankind. Mead’s feelings about Dorothea and what she represents are likely shared by most who love the book. She writes,

As Miss Brooke, Dorothea remains for me the embodiment of that unnameable, agonizing ache of adolescence, in which burgeoning hopes and ambitions and terrors and longings are all roiled together. When I spend time in her company, I remember what it was like to be eighteen, and at the beginning of things. (43)

Dorothea becomes convinced that by marrying a much older scholar named Casaubon and helping him to bring his life’s work to fruition she’ll be fulfilling her lofty aspirations. So imagine her crushing disappointment upon discovering that Casaubon is little more than an uninspired and bloodless drudge who finds her eagerness to aid in his research more of an annoying distraction than an earnest effort at being supportive. The aspects of this disappointment that are unique to Dorothea, however, are described only glancingly. After locating her character in a drawing room, overwhelmed by all she’s seen during her honeymoon in Rome—and her new husband’s cold indifference to it all, an indifference which encompasses her own physical presence—Eliot retreats into generality:

Not that this inward amazement of Dorothea’s was anything very exceptional: many souls in their young nudity are tumbled out among incongruities and left to “find their feet” among them, while their elders go about their business. Nor can I suppose that when Mrs. Casaubon is discovered in a fit of weeping six weeks after her wedding, the situation will be regarded as tragic. Some discouragement, some faintness of heart at the new real future which replaces the imaginary, is not unusual, and we do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity. (185)

The obvious truth that humans must be selective in their sympathies is an odd point for an author to focus on at such a critical juncture in her heroine’s life—especially an author whose driving imperative is to widen the scope of her readers’ sympathies.

            My Life in Middlemarch, a memoir devoted to Mead’s evolving relationship with the novel and its author, takes for granted that Eliot’s masterpiece stands at the pinnacle of English literature, the greatest accomplishment of one of the greatest novelists in history. Virginia Woolf famously described it as “the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” Martin Amis called it “the central English novel” and said that it was “without weaknesses,” except perhaps for Dorothea’s overly idealized second love Will Ladislaw.  Critics from F.R. Leavis to Harold Bloom have celebrated Eliot as one of the greatest novelists of all time. But Middlemarch did go through a period when it wasn’t as appreciated as it had been originally and has been again since the middle of the twentieth century. Mead quotes a couple of appraisals from the generation succeeding Eliot’s:

“It is doubtful whether they are novels disguised as treatises, or treatises disguised as novels,” one critic wrote of her works. Another delivered the verdict that her books “seem to have been dictated to a plain woman of genius by the ghost of David Hume.” (217)

And of course Woolf would have taken issue with Amis’s claim that Eliot’s novel has no weaknesses, since her oft-quoted line about Middlemarch being for grownups contains the phrase “for all its imperfections.” In the same essay, Woolf says of Eliot,

The more one examines the great emotional scenes the more nervously one anticipates the brewing and gathering and thickening of the cloud which will burst upon our heads at the moment of crisis in a shower of disillusionment and verbosity. It is partly that her hold upon dialogue, when it is not dialect, is slack; and partly that she seems to shrink with an elderly dread of fatigue from the effort of emotional concentration. She allows her heroines to talk too much. She has little verbal felicity. She lacks the unerring taste which chooses one sentence and compresses the heart of the scene within that. ‘Whom are you doing to dance with?’ asked Mr Knightley, at the Weston’s ball. ‘With you, if you will ask me,’ said Emma; and she has said enough. Mrs Casaubon would have talked for an hour and we should have looked out of the window.

Mead’s own description of the scene of Dorothea’s heartbreak in Rome is emblematic of both the best and the worst of Eliot’s handling of her characters. She writes,

For several pages, Eliot examines Dorothea’s emotions under a microscope, as if she were dissecting her heroine’s brain, the better to understand the course of its electrical flickers. But then she moves quickly and just as deeply into the inward movement of Casaubon’s emotions and sensations. (157)

Literary scholars like to justify the application of various ideologies to their analyses of novels by comparing the practice to looking through different lenses in search of new insights. But how much fellow feeling can we have for “electrical flickers” glimpsed through an eyepiece? And how are we to assess the degree to which critical lenses either clarify or distort what they’re held up to? What these metaphors of lenses and microscopes overlook is the near impossibility of sympathizing with specimens under a glass.
Casaubon, Dorothea, and Ladislaw in the BBC miniseries

            The countless writers and critics who celebrate Middlemarch actually seem to appreciate all the moments when Eliot allows her storytelling to be submerged by her wry asides, sermons, and disquisitions. Indeed, Middlemarch may be best thought of as a kind of hybrid, and partly because of this multifariousness, but partly too because of the diversity of ways admirers like Mead have approached and appreciated it over the generations, the novel makes an ideal test case for various modes of literary reading. Will Ladislaw, serendipitously in Rome at the same time as the Casaubons, converses with Dorothea about all the art she has seen in the city. “It is painful,” she says, “to be told that anything is very fine and not be able to feel that it is fine—something like being blind, while people talk of the sky.” Ladislaw assures her, “Oh, there is a great deal in the feeling for art which must be acquired,” and then goes on to explain,

Art is an old language with a great many artificial affected styles, and sometimes the chief pleasure one gets out of knowing them is the mere sense of knowing. I enjoy the art of all sorts here immensely; but I suppose if I could pick my enjoyment to pieces I should find it made up of many different threads. There is something in daubing a little one’s self, and having an idea of the process. (196)

Applied to literature, Ladislaw’s observation—or confession—suggests that simply being in the know with regard to a work of great renown offers a pleasure of its own, apart from the direct experience of reading. (Imagine how many classics would be abandoned midway were they not known as such.) Mead admits to succumbing to this sort of glamor when she was first beginning to love Eliot and her work:

I knew that some important critics considered Middlemarch to be the greatest novel in the English language, and I wanted to be among those who understood why. I loved Middlemarch, and loved being the kind of person who loved it. It gratified my aspirations to maturity and learnedness. To have read it, and to have appreciated it, seemed a step on the road to being one of the grown-ups for whom it was written. (6-7).

What Mead is describing here is an important, albeit seldom mentioned, element in our response to any book. And there’s no better word for it than branding. Mead writes,

Books gave us a way to shape ourselves—to form our thoughts and to signal to each other who we were and who we wanted to be. They were part of our self-fashioning, no less than our clothes. (6)

The time in her life she’s recalling here is her late adolescence, the time when finding and forging all the pieces of our identities is of such pressing importance to us—and, not coincidentally, a time when we are busy laying the foundations of what will be our lifelong tastes in music and books.

It should not be lost on anyone that Mead was close in age to Dorothea in the early chapters when she first began reading Middlemarch, both of them “at the beginning of things.” Mead, perhaps out of nostalgia, tries to honor that early connection she felt even as she is compelled to challenge it as a legitimate approach to reading. Early in My Life in Middlemarch she writes,

Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree. (16)

Much later in the book, though, after writing about how Eliot received stacks of letters from women insisting that they were the real-life version of Dorothea—and surmising that Eliot would have responded to such claims with contempt—Mead makes a gesture of deference toward critical theory, with its microscopes and illusory magnifications. She writes,

Such an approach to fiction—where do I see myself in there?—is not how a scholar reads, and it can be limiting in its solipsism. It’s hardly an enlarging experience to read a novel as if it were mirror of oneself. One of the useful functions of literary criticism and scholarship is to suggest alternative lenses through which a book might be read. (172)

As Eliot’s multimodal novel compels us to wonder how we should go about reading it, Mead’s memoir brilliantly examines one stance after another we might take in relationship to a novel. What becomes clear in the process is that literary scholars leave wide open the question of the proper way to read in part because they lack an understanding what literary narratives really are. If a novel is a disguised treatise, then lenses that could peer through the disguise are called for. If a novel is a type of wish-fulfillment, then to appreciate it we really should imagine ourselves as the protagonist.
George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)

             One of the surprises of Middlemarch is that, for all the minute inspection the narrator subjects the handful of protagonists to, none of them is all that vividly rendered. While in the most immersive of novels the characters come to life in a way that makes it easy to imagine them stepping out of the pages into real life, Eliot’s characters invite the reader to step from real life into the pages of the book. We see this in the way Eliot moves away from Dorothea at her moment of crisis. We see it too in the character of Tertius Lydgate, a doctor with a passion for progress to match Dorothea’s. Eliot describes the birth of this passion with a kind of distant and universal perspective that reaches out to envelop readers in their own reminiscences:

Most of us who turn to any subject we love remember some morning or evening hour when we got on a high stool to reach down an untried volume, or sat with parted lips listening to a new talker, or for very lack of books began to listen to the voices within, as the first traceable beginning of our love. Something of that sort happened to Lydgate. He was a quick fellow, and when hot from play, would toss himself in a corner, and in five minutes be deep in any sort of book that he could lay his hands on. (135)

Who among the likely readers of Middlemarch would object to the sentiment expressed in the line about Lydgate’s first encounter with medical texts, after “it had already occurred to him that books were stuff, and that life was stupid”?

Mead herself seems to have been drawn into Middlemarch first by its brand and then by her ready ease in identifying with Dorothea. But, while her book is admirably free of ideological musings, she does get quite some distance beyond her original treatment of the characters as avatars. And she even suggests this is perhaps a natural progression in a serious reader’s relationship to a classic work.

Identification with character is one way in which most ordinary readers do engage with a book, even if it is not where a reader’s engagement ends. It is where part of the pleasure, and the urgency, of reading lies. It is one of the ways that a novel speaks to a reader, and becomes integrated into the reader’s own imaginative life. Even the most sophisticated readers read novels in the light of their own experience, and in such recognition, sympathy may begin. (172-3)

What, then, do those sophisticated readers graduate into once they’ve moved beyond naïve readings? The second mode of reading, the one that academics prefer, involves the holding up of those ideological lenses. Mead describes her experience of the bait-and-switch perpetrated against innumerable young literature aficionados throughout their university educations:

I was studying English literature because I loved books, a common enough motivation among students of literature, but I soon discovered that love didn’t have much purchase when it came to our studies. It was the mideighties, the era of critical theory—an approach to literature that had been developed at Yale, among other distant and exotic locales. I’d never heard of critical theory before I got to Oxford, but I soon discovered it was what the most sophisticated-seeming undergraduates were engaged by. Scholars applied the tools of psychoanalysis or feminism to reveal the ways in which the author was blind to his or her own desire or prejudice, or they used the discipline of deconstruction to dispense with the author altogether. (Thus, J. Hillis Miller on George Eliot: “This incoherent, heterogeneous, ‘unreadable,’ or nonsythesizable quality of the text of Middlemarch jeopardizes the narrator’s effort of totalization.”) Books—or texts, as they were called by those versed in theory—weren’t supposed merely to be read, but to be interrogated, as if they had committed some criminal malfeasance. (145)

What identifying with the characters has to recommend it is that it makes of the plot a series of real-time experiences. The critical approaches used by academics take for granted that participating in the story like this puts you at risk of contracting the author’s neuroses or acquiring her prejudices. To critical theorists, fiction is a trick to make us all as repressed and as given to oppressing women and minorities as both the author and the culture to which she belongs. By applying their prophylactic theories, then, academic critics flatter themselves by implying that they are engaging in a type of political activism.

In her descriptions of what this second mode of reading tends to look like up close, Mead hints at a third mode that she never fully considers. The second mode works on the assumption that all fiction is allegory, representing either some unconscious psychological drama or some type of coded propaganda.  But, as Mead recounts, the process of decoding texts, which in the particular case she witnesses consists of an “application of Marxist theory to literature,” has many of the hallmarks of a sacred ritual:

I don’t recall which author was the object of that particular inquisition, but I do remember the way the room was crowded with the don’s acolytes. Monkish-looking young men with close-shaven heads wearing black turtlenecks huddled with their notebooks around the master, while others lounged on the rug at his feet. It felt very exclusive—and, with its clotted jargon, willfully difficult. (145)

The religious approach to reading favored by academics is decidedly Old Testament; it sees literature and the world as full of sin and evil, and makes of reading a kind of expiation or ritual purging. A more New Testament approach would entail reading a fictional story as a parable while taking the author as a sort of messianic figure—a guide and a savior. Here’s Mead describing a revelation she reached when she learned about Eliot’s relationship with her stepsons. It came to her after a period of lamenting how Middlemarch had nothing to say about her own similarly challenging family situation:

A book may not tell us exactly how to live our own lives, but our own lives can teach us how to read a book. Now when I read the novel in the light of Eliot’s life, and in the light of my own, I see her experience of unexpected family woven deep into the fabric of the novel—not as part of the book’s obvious pattern, but as part of its tensile strength. Middlemarch seems charged with the question of being a stepmother: of how one might do well by one’s stepchildren, or unwittingly fail them, and of all that might be gained from opening one’s heart wider. (110)

The obvious drawback to this approach—tensile strength?—is that it makes of the novel something of a Rorschach, an ambiguous message we read into whatever meaning we most desire at a given moment. But, as Mead points out, this is to some degree inevitable. She writes that

…all readers make books over in their own image, and according to their own experience. My Middlemarch is not the same as anyone else’s Middlemarch; it is not even the same as my Middlemarch of twenty-five years ago. Sometimes, we find that a book we love has moved another person in the same ways as it has moved ourselves, and one definition of compatibility might be when two people have highlighted the same passages in their editions of a favorite novel. But we each have our own internal version of the book, with lines remembered and resonances felt. (172)

How many other readers, we may wonder, see in Middlemarch an allegory of stepparenthood? And we may also wonder how far this rather obvious point should be taken? If each reader’s experience of a novel is completely different from every other readers’, then we’re stuck once more with solipsism. But if this were true we wouldn’t be able to talk about a novel to other people in the first place, let alone discover whether it’s moved others in the same way as us.   
Lydgate in the excellent BBC miniseries

           Mead doesn’t advocate any of the modes of reading she explores, and she seems to have taken on each of them at the point in her life she did without any conscious deliberation. But it’s the religious reading of Middlemarch, the one that treats the story as an extended parable, that she has ultimately alighted on—at least as of the time when she was writing My Life in Middlemarch. This is largely owing to how easily the novel lends itself to this type of reading. From the early chapters in which we’re invited to step into the shoes of these ardent, bookish, big-spirited characters to the pages detailing their inevitable frustrations and disappointments, Eliot really does usher her readers—who must be readerly and ambitious even to take up such a book—toward a more mature mindset. Some of the most moving scenes feature exchanges between Dorothea and Dr. Lydgate, and in their subtle but unmistakable sympathy toward one another they seem to be reaching out to us with the same sympathy. Here is Dorothea commiserating with Lydgate in the wake of a scandal which has tarnished his name and thwarted his efforts at reform:

And that all this should have come to you who had meant to lead a higher life than the common, and to find out better ways—I cannot bear to rest in this as unchangeable. I know you meant that. I remember what you said to me when you first spoke to me about the hospital. There is no sorrow I have thought more about than that—to love what is great, and try to reach it, and yet to fail. (727)

Dorothea helps Lydgate escape Middlemarch and establish himself in London, where he becomes a successful physician but never pushes through any reforms to the profession. And this is one of Dorothea’s many small accomplishments. The lesson of the parable is clear in the famous final lines of the novel:

Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is partly owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. (799)

Entire generations of writers, scholars, and book-lovers have taken this message to heart and found solace in its wisdom. But its impact depends not so much on the reader’s readiness to sympathize with the characters as on their eagerness to identify with them. In other words, Eliot is helping her readers to sympathize with themselves, not “to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.”

            For all the maturity of its message, Middlemarch invites a rather naïve reading. But what’s wrong with reading this way? And how else might we read if we want to focus more on learning to sympathize with those who differ from us? My Life in Middlemarch chronicles the journeys Mead takes to several places of biographical significance hoping to make some connection or attain some greater understanding of Eliot and her writing. Mead also visits libraries in England and the US so she can get her hands on some of the sacred texts still bearing ink scribbled onto paper by the author’s own hand. In an early chapter of Middlemarch, Eliot shows readers Casaubon’s letter proposing marriage to Dorothea, and it’s simultaneously comic and painful for being both pedantic and devoid of feeling. As I read the letter, I had the discomfiting thought that it was only a slight exaggeration of Eliot’s usual prose. Mead likewise characterizes one of Eliot’s contemporary fans, Alexander Main, in a way uncomfortably close the way she comes across herself. Though she writes at one point, “I recognize in his enthusiasm for her works enough of my own admiration for her to feel an awkward fellowship with him,” she doesn’t seem to appreciate the extent to which Main’s relationship to Eliot and her work resembles her own. But she also hints at something else in her descriptions of Main, something that may nod to an alternative mode of reading beyond the ones she’s already explored. She writes,

In his excessive, grandiose, desperately lonely letters, Main does something that most of us who love books do, to some extent or another. He talks about the characters as if they were real people—as vivid, or more so, than people in his own life. He makes demands and asks questions of an author that for most of us remain imaginary but which he transformed, by force of will and need, into an intense epistolary relationship. He turned his worship and admiration of George Eliot into a one-sided love affair of sorts, by which he seems to have felt sustained even as he felt still hungrier for engagement. (241-2)

Main, and to some extent Mead as well, make of Eliot a godly figure fit for worship, and who but God could bring characters into life—into our lives—who are as real and vivid as other actual living breathing human beings we love or hate or like or tolerate?

As Mead’s reading into Middlemarch an allegory of stepmotherhood illustrates, worshipping authors and treating their works as parables comes with the risk of overburdening what’s actually on the page with whatever meanings the faithful yearn to find there, allowing existential need to override honest appreciation. But the other modes are just as problematic. Naïve identification with the heroine, as Mead points out, limits the scope of our sympathy and makes it hard to get into a novel whose characters are strange or otherwise contrary to our individual tastes. It also makes a liability of characters with great weaknesses or flaws or any other traits that would make being in their shoes distasteful or unpleasant. Treating a story as an allegory on the other hand can potentially lead to an infinite assortment of interpretations, all of questionable validity. This mode of reading also implies that writers of fiction have the same goals to argue or persuade as writers of tracts and treatises. The further implication is that all the elements of storytelling are really little more that planks making up the Trojan horse conveying the true message of the story—and if this were the case why would anyone read fictional stories in the first place? It’s quite possible that this ideological approach to teaching literature has played some role in the declining number of people who read fiction.

What’s really amazing about the people who love any book is that, like Alexander Main, they all tend to love certain characters and despise certain others as if they were real people. There may be a certain level of simple identification with the protagonist, but we also tend to identify with real people who are similar to us—that’s the basis of many friendships and relationships. It’s hard to separate identification from fellow-feeling and sympathy even in what seem to be the most wish-fulfilling stories. Does anybody really want to be Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennet? Does anyone really want to be James Bond or Katniss Everdeen? Or do we just admire and try to emulate some of their qualities? Characters in fiction are designed to be more vivid than people in real life because, not even being real, they have to be extraordinary in some way to get anyone to pay attention to them. Their contours are more clearly delineated, their traits exaggerated, and their passions intensified. This doesn’t mean, however, that we’re falling for some kind of trick when we forget for a moment that they’re not like anyone we’ll ever meet.

Characters, to be worthy of attention, have to be caricatures—like real people but with a few identifying characteristics blown all out of realistic proportion. Dorothea is a caricature. Casaubon is for sure a caricature. But we understand them using the same emotional and cognitive processes we use to understand real people. And it is in exercising these very perspective-taking and empathizing abilities that our best hope for expanding our sympathies lies. What’s the best way to read a work of literature? First, realize that the author is not a god. In fact, forget the author as best you can. Eliot makes it difficult for us to overlook her presence in any scene, and for that reason it may be time to buck the convention and admit that Middlemarch, as brilliantly conceived as it was, as pioneering and revolutionary as it was, is not by any means the greatest novel ever written. What’s more important to concentrate on than the author is the narrator, who may either be herself an important character in the story, or who may stand as far out of the picture as she can so as not to occlude our view. What’s most important though is to listen to the story the narrator tells, to imagine it’s really happening, right before our eyes, right in the instant we experience it. And, at least for that moment, forget what anyone else has to say about what we're witnessing.