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.

Literary Curmudgeonism

While schmoozing in the home ofNew Haven Review editor Mark Oppenheimer, we started speaking of our respective experiences as college instructors. He noted how much he preferred teaching nonfiction writing to literature because he neither wrote nor knew all that much about literary criticism—a gross understatement on his part, really. I chimed in, stupidly perhaps, "I don't really understand why we teach students how to write literary criticism at all."

But is such a sentiment all that stupid?  In spirit of making a go of this bit of devil's advocacy, I boldly ask: why do we teach students how to write literary criticism? Make no mistake, it is a type of writing that can approach the status of art in the right hands. But even for experts it is a far more difficult form of nonfiction to produce—in my humble view—than those ol' classroom chestnuts: narration, description, and argumentation.

Now, technically, literary criticism is a subdivision of the last, but it remains one of the hardest to do well. I attribute this difficulty not only to the inability of students to read and write well but to the inherent complexity of trying to formulate an argument about something as slippery as a well-wrought story or poem.

In my experience, the slipperiness of the literary artifact comes directly from the story-like nature of this species of discourse. So when I taught the art of lit crit—and probably not all that well, to be honest—my students continuously wrestled with the Herculean (or rather Sisyphean) task of unwinding authors from their characters, storytellers from their stories, the telling from the showing. Even I still have difficulty with the boxes-within-boxes or hall-of-mirrors (pick your metaphor) nature of this discursive mode. And, mind you, I have a doctorate in literature.

I'm currently convinced that high school teachers and college professors teach students how to write literary criticism not because it instructs them in how to "think critically" or "formulate an argument" better. These can be done just as easily—actually more easily—focusing on more concrete topics, like reproductive rights or drunk-driving laws. Instead, I hold that many teachers, in their heart of hearts, would rather not teach students how to write literary criticism at all. What they'd prefer is reading works of literary quality and talking about them intelligently—like a book club but with the teacher's authority intact for guiding novitiates. That certainly was my experience as a college instructor.

I loved selecting, teaching, and discussing (or more appropriately discoursing on) the work at hand. What I despised to no end was marking my students' papers, which were poorly written, generally incoherent, and pretty pedestrian in their analyses. And most literary instructors I speak with echo this sentiment—although I'm happy to be flamed to the contrary.

Marking papers probably explains why I became a professional editor: I grew tired of commenting on people's dry runs. If someone is going to write poorly, and I'm going to have to redline it into readable prose, I might as well make sure the fruits of my labor see light of day in published form.

On occasion, I do yearn for those halcyon days teaching a great short story, a fine novel, or shockingly brilliant poem. I even sometimes miss the stress and strain of writing literary criticism—no easy task, even for me. But the idea of teaching students to write literary criticism, as if that constituted training for something other than, well, writing literary criticism—heck, lit crit isn't even a solid basis for the art of book reviewing—is a misbegotten notion that serves no one other than the instructors who recognize this chore as the price they must pay for the pleasures of reading and discussing literature worth talking about.