Adventures on the Foreign Intrawebs and Subtext in Literature

I recently came across a neat little blog written by Anne-Sophie Demonchy, called La Lettrine (it's in French, but I'll recommend it to monolingual English-speaking readers anyway on the basis that Google Translate is often better than nothing).  Actually, it's not little, it's huge.  Book reviews galore.  There was one entry in particular which interested me concerning what motivates people to read.  I'll attempt to summarize:  She got into a discussion with another blogger at a conference about whether or not readers of crap and romance novels could naturally progress to reading books of substance.  Her fellow blogger thought yes, she thought no.  Weeks later, she ran into a girl on the train who seemed interested in the book she was reading.  The girl told Anne-Sophie that she liked to read but that she didn't have much time what with work and so on, and she asked for recommendations.  It turned out, upon further discussion, that this girl was a reader of "romans de gare" (second-rate novels; I've heard it described as being sort of a dated term, but she uses it here), but that it seemed she really did have an interest in something new, just no idea where to start.  Anne-Sophie gave her the titles of some books that she thought would be simple enough to read, but which also contained interesting ideas.  A couple days later, when she was at an author event, a man in the audience asked the writers present what the "piment" of their books was (literally "hot pepper" but often used as "spice" in contexts sexual or otherwise; here I think it comes across as somewhat vulgar, like he was asking for the selling point), which led to an awkward silence followed by a discussion on the "sel" (literally salt, figuratively "spice" or seasoning, in any case more tending toward the overall savory quality) of the books, rather than the "piment."  The man ended up talking more to the authors and buying their books.  Anne-Sophie concludes there are in fact a certain number of people who are not in the habit of reading but who do have a genuine interest in being exposed to new texts.

I think the sel/piment metaphor is a good way of organizing an idea I struggle with often, as I find myself in the uncomfortable position of being a writer who feels the need to reserve judgment about how important writing actually is.  I lack the kind of heartfelt "eat your greens" enthusiasm that may be necessary to advocates and educators.  It ruins it for me.  If someone is reluctant to vote, read, eat spinach or bathe, there is of course a possibility that that person might be better off just being disciplined or educated into being a better citizen.  But if I believed that were really always the case, I would not write in the first place, and I would probably be in a perpetual state of suicidal depression.  The fact that the person might have actual reasons, on the other hand, for not doing those things, is where the kind of imagining that drives writing in the first place begins for me.  I therefore find it counter-intuitive to bark at people for not knowing their Dickens.  I'd be killing off characters word-by-word as soon as I opened my big mouth.

That's my disclaimer against snobbishness before I admit that there are, along a certain line of thinking, two types of readers.  There are those who go looking for subtext and those who don't.  This is why books that have managed to be both popular and substantial (like Salinger's work, for instance) are books that can be read both ways.  Catcher in the Rye is a simple story written in everyday language that is at times entertaining and humorous, but it also leaves open doors through which presumptions can be made about the main character that don't actually appear on paper.  That there is a space between the way Holden Caulfield presents himself and how he actually is, and that this understanding can exist without being explicitly stated is what makes the book art rather than just a rambling treatise on how crummy life can be.  So to finally take on the question presented by Anne-Sophie, does that mean that Catcher can be a gateway drug?  "Can" is the operative word here.  "Should" is another question worth considering, but we'll leave it out of the equation for now.  To be honest, I think so.  I don't know, myself, whether high school English class lectures or books like Catcher were my gateway to the likes of Virginia Woolf and Nabokov.  I do know that I first encountered the stories of James Joyce in an intro class on rhetoric my freshman year of college, but rediscovered the whole of Dubliners along with the stories of Flannery O'Connor on my own, on a whim, while basking in a vast psychological living space that might have only been given to me by a prototypical working class job.  Because I was free from all academic pressures and constraints, I was able to finally think honestly and seriously about what was to be gotten out of reading.  It was a great relief.

At the same time, I have no proof that the beliefs of more academic-oriented acquaintances are not correct when they insist on the importance and necessity of, for example, diagramming the story arc of The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell on the blackboard for their students.  I'm not one to scoff at the idea that such an exercise could better equip someone for the task of becoming a lifelong reader or even an adult in general.  I had a ridiculously good public education, English was the only required class for all four years at the high school I attended, and the people who attended it with me who I'm now friends with on Facebook appear to nearly invariably be thoughtful, tolerant, well-spoken individuals.

But I still reject the simplicity of this notion of education, because I instinctively don't believe it, and I think it's too often accepted as a shiny whole, the finer points glossed over.  What I think is really active in the brain of someone who develops a taste for literature is a sense of permission and also an idea of the benefits of digging deeper in the first place.  It could be that these are things that can most easily be gotten from a good public education to begin with.  But I think it's dangerous to assume that the act of the teacher drawing the diagram on the blackboard is in itself more important than the subtext of the situation such as, you are someone who is smart enough to be able to gain something useful from the deeper exploration of these themes and ideas.  This is something that is generally seen as being reserved for smart people, but you are ONE of those people.  This is a door that you can step through, or not, but here it is.

There are other factors present, of course, many of them socio-economic.  The kid with a shitty or just less-than-ideal home life who's sleeping in the back is likely to miss the subtext or even the surface message altogether, despite the fact that it's right in front of her face.  Permission in this case is given, but rejected, ignored or misunderstood.  If reading were as common as television, on the other hand, permission would be implicit, because even people who miss or don't care about subtext in reading glean it from other sources.  But even here, there is good television and bright shiny television.  There is, just as in books, plenty of overlap, and the bright and shiny elements are ripe to be picked for re-arrangement and re-contextualization in various art forms.  I think it's fine to see the division, but a mistake to see it as a static one, or to assume that what divides it is something as theoretical as a line, rather than the often very physical elements of everyday life.  I think it's also a mistake to see reading books as a direct road to a more intelligent mind; reading and writing is rather active intelligence, active expression and stimulation.  I'm sure it's true that the exposure to complex fiction at a certain age might aid in certain developmental processes, but that doesn't necessarily mean that those who don't read aren't going to make use of or develop resources that produce other types of intelligence.  Some of these types of intelligence might just be less compatible with society and language as a universal tool; they might not provide opportunities to express oneself with and to the rest of the world, which is probably actually the best argument in favor of literacy and language arts education.

I would like to return to Catcher briefly, which is a great example for this subject not only because of its bi-textual applications but because of its subject matter, the lead character himself being a bad student (and not even for simple socio-economic reasons), but also an avid reader.  So where does Holden Caulfield get the motivation and/or permission to read when he can't apply himself to schoolwork?  Well, his brother is a writer, so that's already something.  Another factor in my own upbringing was the fact that my mom kept a fairly sizable collection of classic French and English literature in the house.  There was summer vacation, and I got bored.  I sometimes preferred, like Holden, the relief of measured, expansive prose to people, who I saw more often than not as being hurried, shrill, and bad listeners.  That might have been it.  I'm glad that I had a good education, I'm even glad that I went to college, and I know for a fact that I learned some valuable things there, but I feel that it mostly gives me an edge in terms of knowing the difference.  No one can shame me into saying that I would feel different about something if I had just gone to college, because I tried that.  Authority, permission.  These are psychological assets, but they are not inherent to academia, even concerning subjects that seem to have become almost exclusively academic. The danger, as I see it, is in swallowing the little pill that makes you believe language arts classroom education simply adds up to better, more intelligent adults.  To a certain extent perhaps it does, but it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The system in which it does is a closed one where literature is seen as a snobbish university preoccupation and serious writers as people whose university status is a badge of authority.  Whose fault is this?  No one's, and on the other hand, everyone's.  We're here for a number of complicated reasons, and I don't see any easy solution myself, but I do think that being aware of the boxes we live in is not a bad first step.  Both for would-be readers and those looking over from the other side.

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