Reading Well

Some time ago, I joined friends in New Haven for a Friday night meal. Their daughter was in town, back from college. She was an English major, just as I had been when I attended the University of Chicago twenty years earlier.  During our dinner conversation, I asked if she had any professors who stood apart from the rest. She right away sung the accolades two instructors who were notable for their passion and commitment to teaching literary criticism in the classroom in a way that made it just plain enjoyable.

"Only two?" I asked.

"Yep, just two.  Why do you ask?"

Why did I ask? That was easy enough to answer.  I wanted to compare her experience with mine and see if I could isolate the link between what these special folks had done for her and what the one professor who stood head and shoulders above the rest had done for me. My mentor was famous for a kind of literary pyrotechnics that liberated me as a reader and has served me well ever since.

That person was William Veeder, who so many years later apparently produced enough of a pedagogical impact to earn himself a Wikipedia entry. The article there outlines his literary theories, but it is largely a tribute to his work as a teacher--and rightly so. (I'm especially tickled by the classroom quotes, or "Veederisms," as they're aptly described.)

While some of what appears in the entry echoes my recollection of classes with him, what I recall most is what fails to show up in it. The entry authors rightly record Veeder's emphasis on how we derive meaning from a literary work through the intersection of words submitted by an author and our response to that assemblage of words. This intersubjective take on the reading experience is not especially original.  If anything, it is an eminently practical approach to how writers, texts, and readers engage. But what the entry writers fail to capture is the degree to which Veeder's application of that idea in the classroom empowered us: no small thing for any first- or second-year college student seriously considering a major in English. That's because for Veeder, intersubjectivity was the cudgel he wielded for batting away the cringing deference we were all too ready to make to the authority of authors.

Now this isn't to say that Veeder took that much 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 way stories like these should.

The setting: a class in modernism that had come together to discuss 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 badly 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--and sometimes three if the author insists on butting in and the reader lets him.

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 relationship to the text as its progenitor, not a definitive one. And on closer inspection, that makes good sense. Take any work with characters modeled on real persons. Wouldn’t those folks, too, also be something privileged readers, with their 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 a mystical authority that not only don't have but sometimes don't want.  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. When text meets reader at any point in time, it will always be a unique experience, similar to others' in so many ways and dramatically different from others' in unforeseeable ways, which is why I still find The Scarlet Letter a dreadful bore while my best friend thinks it a thrillingly 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, undue deference to the opinions ofauthors is the first thing that should go out the window.

Sorry, Mr. Lawrence.