It’s possible that I am just too superficial and intellectually bankrupt to understand the necessity of taking literature apart as a means of understanding it. Reading a blog post about domestic violence in the “Twilight” books, and the “New Moon” movie in particular, I was cold-cocked by the statement that author Stephanie Meyers clearly “wasn’t educated in critical perspectives on race, class and gender.” I had flashbacks, terrible, vivid, flashbacks of the days when I was not allowed to read without a “critical perspective”of some sort or another dangling over my reading lamp. This requisite analyzing, criticizing and general buzz-killery was part of what it meant to be a serious student of literature, and, while I played the game pretty well, I think that reading that way must be very similar to the sexual experience of a man wearing an extraordinarily thick condom. You can feel it, but it’s not the same.
I was the kid who had to be told not to bring the book to the dinner table, and who carried piles of books on vacation to protect against a printless moment. I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Elizabeth Enright, “Heidi,” the “All of a Kind Family” books, the “Boxcar Children,” Nancy Drew, and “Cherry Ames, Student Nurse.” I loved “Little Women” most of all, because I believed that I was Jo March. (I still do). I read so much about English children in the 1920s and 1930s that I began to write “colour” and talk about my “maths” homework. I was reading critically in the sense that I liked or disliked books, and knew what did and didn’t make sense or appeal to me, but there was not, at that blissful time in my life, any imposition of an external standard of quality or any requirement that I investigate the author’s prerogatives or background.
Books were “good” or “bad” for me, and although I learned early that creators of books, advertisements and political campaigns had agendas and ideas that were not always patent, I didn’t have to delve deeply into the behind-the-scenes world of a book to understand or enjoy it. I believed, and still believe that reading a book is a private affair between an author and a reader, and that it is largely unnecessary to rely on intercessory interpretation as a means of understanding of the writer’s message. If anything, a third-party, be it Northrup Frye or an English teacher, did nothing so much as muddy the waters of my reading life by suggesting meaning and context that was foreign to my understanding of a book, and sometimes, probably, to the author’s intent in writing it.
As soon as I took “real” literature classes in school, I became facile at the parlor tricks that would carry me through high school and a degree in English; these included decoding what I read based on symbolism, historical facts, and the life of the author. I did it well, but it really was just a game – my reading was not enhanced by associating darkness with Iago or knowing that Poe had worked in the Baltimore Post Office. There were authors (Dickens, Austen, Wharton, Lewis and Dreiser come to mind) whose work was enhanced by an understanding of their sociopolitical zeitgeist, but I would have sussed out that information on my own if I had wondered about whether orphans were really sent to institutions or if small town America in the 1920s was as smugly closed-minded as it was in “Main Street” and “Babbit.”
Studying literature involved what seemed to me to be a desecration of art based on bizarre and irrelevant external standards. There are people who do not merely admire the Rolls Royce or the Rolex, but want to understand their mechanical underpinnings; I am not one of those people. I might need to understand how my car worked in order to fix it or maintain it properly, but I do not need to see, fix, repair or disassemble the “works” of a novel or poem in order to have the experience intended by the author. If I do, there is something wrong with one of us.
One example of this death-by-analysis occurred in a Shakespeare class, in which a young woman opined that it was unfair that Shakespeare had originally been performed with men playing the roles of female characters. She was earnest in her feminism, and genuinely outraged, but as the discussion whirled around me, I could think of nothing but poor Will Shakespeare spinning under the green grass of Stratford. I think that he imagined his female characters as female, and while he may have made some choices based on the theatrical conventions of his day, he saw Lady Macbeth, Cordelia, Miranda and Desdemona as wholly women, from their motivations to their actions. There are so many interesting things to say about Shakespeare that one could spend years speaking only of the use of language, the humor or the relationships; I was gobsmacked by the perceived need to debate an historical circumstance that was not of Shakespeare’s choosing, and was (in my opinion) collateral to the art he produced.
I am not suggesting that the study of literature should more closely resemble the mommy book club in which the focus is on drinking wine, gossiping and talking about whether or not one “liked” the book, or the characters therein. I think there is real value in discussing the setting, the characters, the themes and the language in literature as a means to deeper appreciation and understanding; it does matter why characters do what they do, and “what the ending means.” It’s part of hearing the author’s voice, and taking in what she wanted to give you. It can also be useful to stretch one’s own understanding by looking through the eyes of other readers, and a vigorous debate can help a reader question assumptions, examine personal biases and change or solidify his solitary understanding.
This collaborative and book-focused process seems to me to honor the art as art, and to address it as a missive sent to us by the writer rather than teasing it apart based on whatever external “isms” are currently in vogue. If a writer lived in a previous century and in an entirely different culture, it may be interesting to observe that he or she has written in a way that might now be characterized as sexist, racist, classist or otherwise “unenlightened,” but I see no point in actual criticism or categorization of work based on the fact that it is insufficiently politically correct based on standards unimaginable by the writer. There are, in fact, things written in the here and now that are intentionally or unintentionally sexist, racist, and otherwise anathema to certain people, but that is a matter between the writer and the reader.
Similarly, the writer’s education, sexual orientation, marital history, political and religious beliefs might be interesting to know, but I would hate, as a writer, to have my work defined as “straight, liberal, white woman” lit. What if the writer (an artist, after all) has something to say that completely defies anything one might expect based on her “typing.” If it seems that the work contradicts what one would expect, does that make it ironic? Angry? Disingenuous? Is the imaginative power of an artist limited by where he grew up, how he votes or what he eats for breakfast? What is gained by the picking, the dissecting, the categorizing and the smug analyzing of what was intended, in the first place, to be an expression of something personal and unique, floated in the literary ether to be absorbed by readers only imagined by the writer?
As a writer and a reader, I hereby formally reject the “officious intermeddler” with his big bag of symbols, “isms,” and critical perspectives. You may pity my tiny mind, judge me as unsophisticated, or wonder at my lack of critical rigor, and that’s okay with me. Right now, I just want to read.