Reading Well

Some time ago, I joined friends in New Haven for a Friday night meal. Their daughter was in town, back from college, and over the course of dinner conversation, I asked if she had any professors who stood out from the rest. She immediately described two of her instructors, who were notable for their passion and commitment to quality literary criticism. An English major now, just as I had been when I attended the University of Chicago twenty years earlier, she asked after a half hour into her own passionate description why I inquired.

I admitted that I wanted to compare her experience with my own, to find the link between what these special folks had done for her and what mine had done for me. Actually, I had one particular individual in mind, someone whose own classroom performance was responsible for my liberation as a reader. That person was William Veeder, who, I have since learned, apparently produced enough of a pedagogical impact to earn himself a Wikipedia article. The article, which outlines his literary theories, is largely a tribute. I'm especially tickled by the classroom quotes, or "Veederisms," as they're aptly described.

While some of what appears in the article is familiar from my classes with him, what I recall most is what fails to show up in it. The article rightly records Veeder's emphasis on the how to derive meaning from a literary work through the intersection of words submitted by an author and your response to that assemblage of words. This intersubjective take on the reading experience is hardly uncommon.  If anything, it is an eminently practical approach to how writers, texts, and readers engage. But what the article's author(s) fail to capture is the degree to which Veeder's application of that idea, and application of it within the classroom, empowered readers: no small thing for the first- or second-year college student seriously considering a major in English. In short, intersubjectivity was his way of reducing the authority of authors.

Now this is not to say that Veeder took great stock (or, let's just say, all of his stock) in some variant of Roland Barthes' "death of the author." Veeder did believe in authors and their authority, but it was an authority much limited. To make this point he would tell a wonderful story that, even if apocryphal, rings true in the only way these things matter.

At some point in his education, Veeder had taken a course in which the class found itself reading a D.H. Lawrence novel. The classroom conversation had become lively and insightful. The classroom instructor then distributed a short essay on the work by a contemporary of Lawrence's and asked for the students' feedback. They all agreed that the critic had clearly misconstrued the novel. The instructor then revealed that the critic was...Lawrence himself. Most interesting of all? Not a single mind was changed: the class responded--rightly in Veeder's view--that Lawrence had simply failed to understand fully his own achievement. As slippery as this slope seems, Veeder held firmly to the view that literature is always first and foremost a literary experience, and that experience takes at least two to tango--a reader and a text--sometimes three if the author insists on butting in and the reader lets him or her.

It was the follow-up question in my class, and Veeder’s answer, that sealed the deal for me. A classmate asked if an author's assertion about what a text is "about" should have any standing in our interpretations of a text. Veeder's response was artful: authors do not have the kind of authority that we (and sometimes authors) imagine. Once the text is born, it is, like a child, sent out into the world to fend for itself; the author may have brought the work to term but her relationship to it thereafter changes forever as she becomes just another reader.

OK, well maybe not just any other reader. Veeder's term of choice was a "privileged" reader, but a reader nonetheless. Privileged, in Veeder's construction, meant that the author had a special, not definitive, relationship to the text— in the D.H. Lawrence case, as the aforementioned novel's progenitor. But need I add that if the author's work were about, say, his mother, such as Augusten Burroughs' Running with Scissors, wouldn’t the author's mother also be something of a privileged reader, one with her own special relationship to the text?

But even this privileged relationship is problematized by the fact that we all have unique relationships to texts, not only because we are unique in relation to one another but because we are unique even to ourselves over time. In my mid-forties, I'm just not the same person reading Heart of Darkness that I was when I struggled with it at 18.

The net effect of Veeder's insight was to empower me as a reader by depriving authors of the kind of mystical authority that they simply do not have. True, authors are bound to be frustrated by perceived misreadings of their work--think Salman Rushdie, certain Muslim readers, and his Satanic Verses--but there is no getting around the reality of the situation. Readers will make what they will of what they read, which is why, though it be a classic, I still find The Scarlet Letter a dreadful bore while my neighbors consider it a thrilling and tragic romance.

Let me add that this does not make all readings equal in value or cogency. But that is an entirely different issue. The first step in reading well that Veeder taught was not about being right but about being bold. And in order to be bold, a painfully obsequious deference to the author is the first thing to go out the window.

Sorry, Mr. Dickens.