Monday, August 16, 2010
On the pleasures of reading, pt. 1
I wrote and "presented" a paper about this at the AWP pedagogy forum in Denver this year, but I'll give you the cleaner, sweeter, less academic version:
Basically, we are failing our students.
Perhaps we also list "language," which refers to the selection of phrasing and words.
Likewise, setting would seem to imply the possibility of settings in time and space rather more diverse than "somewhere the author has lived or visited as it is commonly understood to have existed within the past hundred years" but generally this is understood as the only valid version of setting. Structure is understood largely in terms of 1) section breaks, 2) major events, and 3) perhaps most importantly, the arc of intensity (emotional, thematic, etc.) within the story. It almost never refers to the use and structure of language. Plot is often viewed derisively; the less said on "theme," the better.
First, we should understand that while most stories will have most of these elements, some will not. The cult of character in fiction, for instance, is troubling to me. Yes, I love character. Yes, I think most people will have good results if they emphasize it. No, I do not think that emphasizing character above all else is a universal solution, nor do I always want to read stories about character. The same goes for all of these other elements, apart from language -- one can rarely write a story without language. (Plot is similar in that it's difficult to write a story in which "nothing happens" -- if nothing else, the text itself happens, and often this seems to be the plot.)
Though both are canonical writers, Flannery O'Connor's stories happen not only in a different time and place from those of Joyce, but in different universes with their own logics, their own rules, their own styles of character, their own language. A Flannery O'Connor story couldn't happen in Dubliners for more reasons than the most obvious. Though I think we instinctively understand this, we often reduce it to a question of style or perspective, while ignoring the clear implication that if two writers operating in ostensibly realist modes can be so different, there must be logics and universes of story that would strike us as entirely alien, though they have their own powerful coherence (or powerful incoherence).
A more flexible way to look at the work in question would be, then, to consider what pleasures are present in the text (how is it pleasurable to read the text in its current incarnation), what pleasures are potential in the text (how might the text be altered to create more pleasure based on its current hows and whys), and what other possibilities present themselves after careful reading. This is, at its heart, another way of trying to do what we almost always say we mean to do, which is to focus on letting the story become what it wants to be rather than what we as individual readers want it to be. But ultimately I think it works better, for reasons I'll explain and illustrate in future posts.