Feb 13, 2011

The Sunday Salon – “Not All Readings Are Created Equal”

The Sunday Salon.comThe introduction of the above saying into any discussion always leaves me with mixed feelings, even though at a fundamental level I very much agree with it. Literature is by definition open to multiple interpretations, but at the same time meaning is certainly not arbitrary. Therefore, it’s perfectly possible to make claims about a story that lack textual support, to disregard cogency, or to commit factual errors when interpreting a book. People have done and continue to do this in both amateur and professional literary discussions. I fully believe that criticism is subjective, but its subjectivity must exist in an informed context. You can’t really say that “red” in fact means “blue” and base your whole reading of a text on such a claim (or rather, you can, but I know I’ll stop listening).

Before I got any further, a little bit of context for this post: there have been some fiery discussions lately about the legitimacy of book bloggers (yes, again), as well as about the potentially apocalyptic and civilisation-ending consequences of people who supposedly have no qualifications writing about literature on the Internet (the horror!). In addition to this, I’ve been thinking about the potential problems of a particular reading of a text being legitimised by an authoritative source to such an extent that further conversation are closed down; that subsequent discussions no longer take place on a level playing field.

There are a lot of ways of doing this, and even the tone of a review or piece of criticism can have hints of that. I find the whole process fascinating, if sometimes infuriating – which brings me back to the saying “not all readings are created equal”. This is, as I was saying, a fair enough point. But I don’t like how a lot of the time it becomes a plea for credentials. ‘You read this text in such and such way? Who are you anyway? Are you even a professional?’ When a discussion crosses the line into this kind of territory, it becomes about power and authority. Not, mind you, the kind of authority that naturally springs from competence and insight, but rather the kind that is merely the result of being endorsed by the right people or institutions. Of course, a lot of the time the former comes with the latter – I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that education and professional experience are meaningless. But this doesn’t mean they are one and the same.

This type of appeal to authority is a well-known logical fallacy, and yet I see it happen again and again in literary discussions. Let me give you a concrete example of what I’m talking about: a professor I otherwise quite liked once dismissed a point I was trying to make in a classroom discussion by telling me that my reading of Mathew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” was “not the official interpretation”. Briefly, what we were discussing had to do with me disagreeing that “Dover Beach” is a socially conservative poem that clamours against the rapid social change and rise in religious doubt that characterised the nineteenth-century. While it’s certainly a dark poem, I feel that the predominant emotion is fear, not some sort of righteous outrage – that the speaker is someone who is part of all this change, rather than someone who stands outside it tut-tutting it.

There are, of course, many reasons why this professor might have said what she did – maybe she had a specific plan for the class in mind, and the point I was trying to bring up would deviate from it. I can understand that, but at the same time, the ease with which a discussion can be silenced by an appeal to authority worries me. (Later in the semester, I dug up a reputable critic’s reading of the poem that was fairly close to my own and used it as the basis for an assignment. I had a good mark, but it saddened me that it took me having to play the authority game myself for my point to me considered at all. And I mean this quite separately from the standard academic practice of citing trustworthy sources, of course.)

The reason why I believe in democratising critical discourse is not because I think every single person in the world will make incredibly insightful, relevant and well-argued points about literature at all times (however you define those). It’s rather because I believe that we should recognise who does and does not make sense based on what they’re saying, not who they are or who they associate with. I’m not arguing against anyone’s right to take some viewpoints, readings or interpretations of a book more seriously than others; merely against following a pre-packaged formula to decide who you take seriously or not. It saddens me to see intelligence and insight be defined solely by the right sort of allegiance. This inevitably results in the dismissal of a lot of excellence points, and also in a lot of badly disguised idiocy being treated with subservience.

I’m often at odds with both sides of these kinds of conversations: on the one hand, I’m not one to go “criticism schmiticism; just tell me if I should read it!” I like criticism. I like listening to people I respect talk about things they’re more familiar with than I am. I enjoy reading critical essays, and engaging with them, and feeling that in my own small way I’m participating in a community of ideas. But on the other hand, I cringe every time I see someone suggest that what we need are people out there whose role is to “shape the public’s taste”; that in this day and age “authoritative critical voices” are more needed than ever; that you have to be a published writer yourself before you have the “right” to join literary conversations at all [no link because the post making this claim has apparently been deleted]. How is intellectual subservience or blind submission to authority in any way conductive to creating more engaged readers and more thoughtful readings?

(Credit to Chris and Teresa, who linked to the above articles and helped inspire this post, and also to Pam, who brought another recent brouhaha to my attention.)


  1. This problem is something I noticed greatly when I first went to university, as opposed to what I'd experienced in high school. We very much experienced the same thing you did with that one particular professor; if our opinions didn't line up with the official stance, then they just weren't good enough, and were sidelined in favor of previously formed interpretations. I can't think how many kids are turned off literature because their views are dismissed as invalid.

    In university, in vivid contrast, our opinions were all welcomed and discussed fairly. In fact, we hardly ever brought actual literary criticism into the discussion we had - our views was all that was there, and the critics were only brought into play when writing papers more formally. This is one of the things I adored at my university, that we had such free rein to form our own thoughts and opinions about literature, and only later did we think about what we had considered in light of what others had established and written about in turn before us.

    I very rarely engage in detailed literary criticism on my blog, mostly by choice, because I like it but I don't think I'm very good at it; but overall my education has helped immensely with my ability to feel free to engage with books on my own terms, even if my opinions and thoughts are simplistic. I doubt I would have had the courage to do it if I'd stopped taking English literature classes after high school. It does irritate me that people try to 'shape public taste'. If teachers listened in our early formative years, perhaps we would feel freer to take on difficult texts because we trusted ourselves to grapple with them. I find that few people actively dislike literature, it's just that they start believing it's too hard and they need a 'guide' to it. A guide never hurts, unless it's something like Sparknotes, but it isn't necessary. Unfortunately, this is certainly what I was taught in my younger years, and I think it prevents many from taking that leap to considering wider issues in their own reading (and perhaps keeps them from reading at all). The attitude of these people who denigrate book bloggers are, in my mind, just making it all worse.

  2. "If teachers listened in our early formative years, perhaps we would feel freer to take on difficult texts because we trusted ourselves to grapple with them. I find that few people actively dislike literature, it's just that they start believing it's too hard and they need a 'guide' to it. "

    Yes! I absolutely agree. I honestly enjoy both processes - approaching a book on my own and seeing how I respond to it with no guidance at all, and then considering what others have said and using that to contextualise my reaction. I think they're both immensely valuable, but you need to feel comfortable and confident to be able to enjoy them. Yet so many attitudes out there - about bloggers, about "common readers", about education - seem to actively discourage that feeling of being at ease among literary works. I also suspect you're very much right about things like this discouraging people from reading at all. :\

  3. Totally agree with you here. Although I'm not one to say all opinions are equally valid (as I think you know), I try to evaluate people's readings on the content of those readings, not on who the person is. Academic training can improve one's skills, but it's not necessary to intelligent reading.

    Like Meghan, I was lucky enough in my literature classes to have professors who tended to push students to come up with our own ideas, supported by textual evidence, rather than to learn "official interpretations." Even our papers were usually supposed to be our own readings. I would have liked more opportunity to engage with academic criticism, only because I feel something was missing in my education, but I am glad that my professors trusted us to be smart readers on our own.

    And your reading of "Dover Beach" doesn't sound off the wall to me. I've always read that poem as more sad and fearful than furious. Had no idea that my reading differed from the "official" one.

  4. I loved this post, Ana. So much. You know, I've never been comfortable enough to even call my babbling "reviews," let alone "criticism." And of course, I've gotten to the point where I don't even feel comfortable enough to even babble anymore. I like what Teresa said in her comment there: "Academic training can improve one's skills, but it's not necessary to intelligent reading." I do feel that my lack of formal literary education leaves me wanting of the skills and the language to talk about books in that manner. And I have never once pretended that I do have those skills.

    But does that mean that as a human being, living in this world, experiencing joy and sorrow and any number of other things, I'm still not qualified to read a book and then talk about it. No, not in any "professional" sort of way. But just talk about it. I sometimes get the feeling that that's the way some people, even some book bloggers, think. But if a literary education or some sort of sanctioned credentials becomes a prerequisite to chatting about books, well, I do believe that the publishing industry is going to be in a hell of lot more trouble than it already is.

  5. Very good post Ana. I'm not sure I have much to add. I'm the sort of person who believes that individual interpretation of a book is more important to the individual than the "official" interpretation, though perhaps the "official" might be more important to literary thought as a (general, collected) whole.

  6. Teresa: I'm not even sure how official that "official interpretation" really is. I certainly didn't have any trouble at all finding a critical piece that matched my own reading! It seems that both readings exist out there, but I have no idea which, if any, is the predominant one.

    Debi: I think both tendencies exist even in blogging, but personally I notice the opposite one more - the belief that it's inadequate for bloggers to ever really do more than give quick recommendations (longer posts without a star rating at the end have been called "self-indulgent" and "ranty" on more than one occasion). I have nothing whatsoever against people doing quick reviews, using ratings or giving clear recommendations, but surely there's a place here for us all. Anyway, as I'm sure you know I do very much agree with you: publishing will be in serious trouble if to be able to talk about a book you're required to do more than have read it. (And even then, we can talk about books we WANT to read :P)

    Amanda: That's a very good point about personal relevance versus wider cultural importance!

  7. Many great points. It seems to me there are two different issues. In an academic setting, it should be a *given* that a professor would expose students to multiple interpretations, as well as encouraging them to articulate their own responses. When that doesn't happen (as in the case with the Arnold poem), it's a subtle form of indoctrination, not literary criticism.

    However, I often find that some people are uncomfortable with the uncertainty of this approach. They want to be told what the 'official' or or 'correct' interpretation is because the idea that there isn't that kind of objective evaluation out there makes them feel like the world is too squishy and disorienting.

    As for online discussions about books, part of this comes from turf protection, but there's another factor we don't often take into account. When you or I post a thoughtful, well-reasoned response -- say in the comments to a blog posting or article in a newspaper web site -- we feel like an individual presenting an individual point of view. But when you're the writer, and especially if you're not used to getting that feedback, it's very easy to view the comments as an indistinguishable 'lump', with the stupidest and most mule-headed dragging down the rest.

    People slam Amazon review all the time because, as we all know, some of them are spectacularly dumb. But others are intelligent and still others represent readers trying very hard to describe their response to a book even when they don't have the vocabulary or critical tools to do it. Amazon reviews are a mixed bag, but it's very easy to view them as a mass characterized by the lowest common denominator because none of the markers of personhood that we perceive in real-life encounters are there to distinguish them.

    I think that online debates can also lead to the sort of credentialism you complain about because it *is* a way to evaluate someone's credibility quickly even if you can't see or hear them or have ancillary conversations with them the way you would if you met at a dinner party.

    People are impatient online, they want to cut to the chase. They don't necessarily want to invest the time in online communities where they *can* get to know someone and get a sense of their judgement. They want to know who is the most 'trustworthy' right away. It's an environment of one-to-five-star ratings and search engine rankings. Academic or professional credentials are another shortcut (and a socially sanctioned one) for quickly singling out the most authoritative speaker, or for scoring a point against an opponent (a Harvard professor agrees with me, so I must be right).

  8. I totally agree with Amanda. However I will say that I *wish* I were the sort of person who could see deeper allusions in what I read and all that, but I don't think that skill is necessarily related to being associated with an "authoritative source." In any event, I like *both* types of reviews - both certainly have their place, I think as *evidenced* by the popularity of book blogs.

  9. I had something similar happen to me in college. A professor humiliated me in class when I told him my interpretation of a poem. He told me I was wrong in no uncertain terms and that there was no room for discussion. That encounter has ruined my enjoyment of poetry.

    I think some of these experts forget that many people read for enjoyment and really aren't interested in a critique - they just want to know if the book will give them a few hours of escape.

  10. After reading this I feel very lucky to have attended a university that didn't shun my ideas because they weren't the "authoratative" reading of a book. Actually, we were stressed to challenge the critics and see new meanings within a text. As long as we could back up our points and theses, then we pretty much had free reign. True it wasn't the most erudite of colleges that I attended, but what a shame to be stiffled. You're right, how is that conducive to learning?

  11. I think it's very interesting that many of us who obviously love to read (or we wouldn't be having this discussion) had negative experiences with education that swayed us negatively...mine was with poetry as well...and with a story that is important to my soul, The Awakening in grad level Literary Criticism class. I am scared to death of poetry to this day...not poetry itself but my inadequacies in reading it as taught to me by a slew of English teachers from high school forward.
    The philandering white male perspective that squashed mine and anyone else in the class's reading of The Awakening just made me mad...mad enough to re-read and re-read and assign and re-assign the piece myself. Imagine though how students who are not like us feel in these situations. No wonder so many students come to us having never read ANYTHING.
    It's that same power and authority that you are talking about...who's worthy of interpreting literature...no wonder our literacy levels in this country are so ridiculously low. Maybe if we gave students more opportunities to think, analyze, interpret, etc. we'd have a more intelligent general population than we do now...rather than that group that just wants to know the answers.
    This post hit a nerve with me...I work with teachers everyday who are like this...and complain about how "dumb" our students are...it never even occurs to them that they are a large part of the problem. Grrrrr!

  12. I wonder sometimes - to an extent we ALL build these heirarchies of trust (for instance, some may have trouble trusting me because I just misspelled hierarchy... ;O), I know I do. There are some blogs that now, after reading them for some time, that when I see a review in my reader, I'll read it if it's from blogger A, but probably not if it's from blogger B. I trust A, more, and there is only so much time - I spend too much time playing already. So, in a sense, I judge whether to listen to people's opinions by their credentials - choosing books is much the same, honestly, if I read a really great book from Author A, and there next book has a plot that otherwise I would probably not have picked up, I might pick it up anyway, even if I wouldn't had it been written by Author B who I've never read before. If someone is only on the edges of a community -a nd most of the world isn't book bloggers after all - then if they want to know something about a topic, they turn to those who the society at large respects as experts, in the hopes that perhaps this at least gives a good starting place to harvest direction from. In the same sense that, if I were learning about Global WArming, about which I know very little, I will probably use the credentials of the scientist to judge their work, since I lack the expertise to judge the merits of the work on it's own. This is hwy science is peer reviewed, right? So that those experts can help the science that is strongest to rise to the top. I wonder if literary opinion could work better this way, if we could have 'peer reviewed' journals of literary thought in a sense - I get this on the technical side, because there are blogs that I follow that do nothing but curate the opinions of others, finding for me little gems that ar worth reading - because I don't have the time or expertise to pick these out of the noise myself.

  13. Thanks for linking to me. I've had people comment that they are reluctant to post their thoughts on classics and I think that they've had a similar experience to yours. Luckily, that hasn't happened to me. I don't have a problem doing it on my blog because I know I'm not an authority just a reader. I never considered that I shouldn't post my thoughts on any book, classic or not. I might be all wrong but those are my personal thoughts shaped by my experiences.

    I enjoy discussions with my book club or the commenters on my blog because we can bounce ideas off each other safely. We can ask questions and express ourselves without someone telling us we don't know what we're talking about. But I also enjoy hearing an authority discussing those books.

  14. What a thought-provoking post! For years I've regretted that I wasn't an English major in college, feeling that I've missed out on learning about so many great books. However, your post has given me something else to think about -- maybe I wouldn't have enjoyed literature nearly as much if I were forced to accept one scholar or professor's point of view. By reading the classics on my own or with an book discussion group (both online and IRL), I'm allowed to interpret them myself or simply read them for pure enjoyment without having to study them for the "deeper meaning."

    Sometimes I do feel like I've missed out on background, themes, etc. that I might have understood better if I'd learned about them in an academic setting, but now I think I'm glad that I'm freely allowed to form my own opinions without being worried about a grades or humiliation.

    When I write book reviews on my blog (and they're really not reviews as much as my own reactions) I tend not to analyze too much, probably I hate plot spoilers and am loath to post them myself. I've never claimed to have a literary background or brilliant insights, just a person who loves to read.

    And I think your professor was pretty terrible for telling you flat-out that you were wrong -- and in a classroom setting, no less. That's a pretty poor professor -- isn't university supposed to be a place for an exchange of thoughts and ideas? Unless you were actually discussing it with the person who WROTE the poem, who's to say you were wrong?

  15. Very interesting post! I have a lot of students who say things like "it's all a matter of your personal interpretation," so I find myself pointing out that that's not exactly true -- some readings ARE better than others and you need evidence to back your point up. But I also get students saying, well here's what the author said about the work, so that's the answer, that's what it's about. A little contradictory! If anything, though, I err on the side of accepting the students' interpretations, even if they seem off to me. I want them to experience the process of coming to their own conclusions. It's not easy as a teacher to find the right balance of encouragement and correction.

  16. Laura Miller: Very good point about the impatience of the online world and credentials being used as pointers or shortcuts. I can see why they're useful to have around for this reason, but at the same time, it worries me to see people come up with equivalent shortcuts for "incompetent and untrustworthy; do not take seriously". The Spectator comment about bloggers being stay-at-home moms is a good example of this. (Of course, that comment also feed into the whole history of domesticity being devalued).

    Jill: I agree with you there. And as a side note, I suspect you might be undervaluing your own skills. I've been reading your blog for a long time now and it's certainly not lacking in insight or analytic skills!

    Kathy: I'm really sorry to hear that you had an experience that scared you away from poetry :\ I wonder how often things like that happen to students.

    Trish: To be fair on my university, I had a lot of professors like yours as well. Even this one professor didn't shut us up very often. I don't know about erudite, but searching for new meanings is by far my preferred approach!

    Pepperminth PhD: It upsets me to hear about that happening with The Awakening in particular - considering the context of the test, how would a reading that disregarded feminism even work? I'm so sorry you had an experience like that, and at grad school level no less!

    Jason: Good point about all of us creating those hierarchies - but I think it works slightly differently when done individually rather than institutionally. First because we create them based on the history of what that person has said in the past and how much it resonated with us. Secondly, exactly because they're personal hierarchies. They're not ready-made, and we don't go around trying to impose them on other people or evoking them to silence discussions in which we don't like what's being said, you know? Your point about scientific expertise and the peer review process is interesting, and it's something I've thought about before. I'm much more likely to trust experts when it comes to science than when it comes to literature, and the reason why is because in science experts have access to (hopefully solid) research and empirical data that backs up their claims. In literature, the equivalent of research is a close reading of the text, perhaps accompanied by information on its historical context. And that's something I can do on my own a lot more easily than I can replicate a scientific experiment. So citations in literary criticism aren't really to say "x has proved this through this or that experiment" as they are part of the process of bouncing ideas back and forth. Or, like you said, finding gems of thought and lifting them out of the noise. Which is certainly a valuable process in itself.

    Chris: I really like your point about blogs being safe spaces where we can examine all sorts of ideas.

    Karen: It seems that the kind of experience English majors have varies wildly from university to university and even professor to professor. To be fair, most of mine were fortunately not in any way similar to the negative one I mentioned on the post! I'd go even further and say that even the person who wrote the poem can only go so far in telling a reader they're wrong - as long as the alternative interpretation is supported by the text, we can safely go beyond authorial intent.

    Dorothy W: Yes, I imagine how this must be incredibly difficult to balance for someone in education. On the one hand, there is such a thing as a mistaken reading. But on the other hand, you wouldn't want to encourage too much submission to the "right" answer. It's probably a wise idea to err on the side of acceptance, though, as evidenced by the other commenters who had professors scare them away from poetry!

  17. Well I've sat through many a literary conference in my time and I can assure you that the work of professional readers is a mixed bag! I've often heard dull, bizarre and confused readings from trained critics. But I've also heard excellent, thrilling ones. There is something just so exciting about hearing or reading a critique that really nails a book or takes your understanding of it to a whole other level. For that reason, I couldn't possibly go along with the idea that all readings are equal. The point is for all of us, no matter what our training in critique is (or isn't) to pay attention, to learn and to improve what we do on our own terms, in our own unique style.

  18. Litlove: Your last few sentences say it perfectly. I find that I can't go along with either extreme of these conversations. It's so hard to find balance!

  19. Nothing really to add - just saying nice job and I agree.

    I would hate for my own students to fear reading because they aren't getting the "right" things out of it, or aren't "getting it." It's much more important to learn how to make sense of the text and to support interpretations than it is to understand/find the "official" one.

  20. As always, you make excellent points and consider the issue from all different sides.

    As an English major, I spent a lot of time writing papers about various texts, passionately arguing that they meant X (and backing up my points with textual references and papers/books by professional scholars). Even though sometimes (not always -- sometimes I was just making sh*t up) I believed that the arguments I was making were good and valid and really what the author was trying to do, even in those cases it was obvious that someone else could come along and say the exact opposite and back it up equally well. So although I loooove literary criticism with all my heart, and enjoyed being an English major, I think I don't buy into the belief that professional readers are necessarily more legitimate than averageish ones. Backing things up with text doesn't make them true. As I well know, and I am sorry for the things I pretended I thought Faulkner was trying to say.

  21. When I taught critical thinking to my adult students (a step AFTER teaching reading...reading is simply the ability to get the information off the page, critical thinking is what you do with it) we used what were fairly simple stories with questions. These questions had clear right or wrong answers, but often students would come up with a different answer. As long as they could reasonably back up their answers from text, we'd give it to them. It was less about coming up with what the expected right answer was and more about internalizing the story and coming up with reasonable ways to defend what you thought. Trust me, these students were SHY about this process--they only wanted to know if they got it right or not, years of baggage over reading ability and intelligence were coming into play.

    And I guess that's what I think in general. If your interpretation makes sense to you, if you've been able to think through it and it doesn't clearly contradict the text that's what matters.

    I enjoy reading different intrepretations of things, and I am skeptical at times of using education as a means to determine authority. Education is only our best guesses coming into play, not leaving room for innovative thinking or important work coming from new places. I do think it's important, though, I just don't think it's the only thing..like you.

  22. Mmm... I've never understood why authors would want to call attention to themselves like that. Especially when book bloggers have such a big "voice" now.

  23. Another great post, Ana. One of the comments includes "teachers listening in our formative years" and I feel very lucky being able to work in an environment where this actually happens. We start "book discussion" in lower elementary and continue on through middle school. I wish all of us had had that kind of respect in our schools.

  24. TopherGL: You sound like the kind of teacher I've always loved :)

    Jenny: Yes, exactly! Textual support makes an interpretation valid, but that's not really the same as "right" or "true".

    Amy: I share your scepticism, and your middle paragraph perfectly defines my own stance :)

    Ladytink: I know! You have to wonder what she was thinking, shooting herself in the foot like that.

    Gavin: I wish the same, but it makes me happy to hear that it DOES happen in some schools!

  25. Great post! It manages to be fair to both readers and academics alike.

    It's sad that these two "sides" have to be distinguished at all. In a perfect world (IMHO) all readers would be somewhat academic (in that they took joy in structure and allusions and a little lit crit) and all academics would be readers as well (in that they still get swept up in the beauty of the language and the thrill of a good story).

    I've been a professor of literature but even then I'd like to think I was a reader first and foremost with an open mind.

  26. Great post Nymeth. I think reading is a very personal experience and everyone has their own interpretations about it. When someone says that a certain text is supposed to mean something else, it basically means we are saying everyone should think alike.I wish these people understood that. When it comes to learning literature in a classroom, the more opinions the better. It makes a person look at something he/ she overlooked, it broadens your mind.

  27. I'm oblivious to what's been said about bloggers but I enjoyed your post and ensuing discussion so I've added a few thoughts of my own to a post today.

    Anyone who thinks they're the literary gospel and the rest of us are bottom feeders are sorely mistaken.

  28. Hurrah for this! Having nothing really to add to the excellent comments I'd like to tell you about an article on lit-crit:

    Recently Prof John Sutherland said that literary theory has made people afraid that they don't understand literature and can't engage with it on a deeper level. All the terms and the different fields (many of which depend on knowing some historical context, or general social theory) kind of fence off literature and make it look (like the science fields do to many of us) like an area that needs a few grand wizards to interpret. At the same time (I don't think he actually said this, but it's a chain of thought I followed) the grand wizards, liking their power, encourage this kind of thinking.

    Then later in the article he talks about how depsite these unfortunate consequences theory is great and useful to readers. He goes on to talk about some of the different areas of theory he would like to ask people to engage with and illustrates these areas of investigation with questions. And this is in an article which is basically an ad-op piece for his entry into the 50 Things You Need to Know About... series (things you need to know about literature). He, a big wizard in the world of literature, is out to demystify and empower the general reader in a way they can afford.

    Authoritative voices are so often used, as you say, for setting opinions, so it makes me all kind of misty to see someone with so much authority behind them working to empower the reader to be confident in analysing a text for themselves. It's like cheap, mass printing and growing literacy taking the interpretation of the Bible out of the hands of the priests (except you know on a much smaller scale, ok that was hyperbolic wasn't it?;)

  29. This is a wonderful post and a great discussion! I don't have much to add. It's sad that, from such an early age, we have educators standing between us and the literature we read, as if we can't be trusted to get anything out of it without professional help.

  30. Conversations like this are why I started my blog, and what gives me the impetus to continue it. Because teaching, especially at the college level, doesn't get the message across to a wide enough audience that you don't have to read in a prescribed way to enjoy it and get something out of it.

    My suggestion, as always, is for bloggers to stop using the word "opinion" (or "thoughts") and use the word "viewpoint," as in "this is how I see it."

  31. Wonderful post, Ana! As always your Sunday Salon rocks :) I enjoyed your post so much and I loved your observation - "I believe that we should recognise who does and does not make sense based on what they’re saying, not who they are or who they associate with." I also loved your observation - "I fully believe that criticism is subjective, but its subjectivity must exist in an informed context."

    My own take is that literary criticism changes over time and sometimes the value of a work of literature changes significantly in the perspective of the critics across the decades and the centuries. Hence, sticking to one point of view and saying that this is the only way of interpreting a text, is purely dogmatic, in my opinion.

    I read a book called 'What Good are the Arts?' by John Carey sometime back. It asks some interesting questions about what is art and what 'good art' or 'high art' and whether we can objectively define these concepts. He also talks about literature in this context. It is one of my most favourite books. I hope you get to read it. I think you will like it.

  32. I really want to leave something well written and insightful here but as usual will just say so well said and written. I fully agree!

  33. This post made me realize how great my Lit teacher is. Whenever we discuss a poem or a short story, he leaves us subtle clues so that we could analyze the poem for ourselves, and he never dismisses our own personal interpretations. Somehow, we end up discussing his own "professional" interpretations, and he connects it to my and my classmates' interpretation.

  34. Anton: Thank you! That is great to hear, especially from someone who comes from the "other" side. I agree with you about professionals remembering that they're readers and readers striving to truly engage with the text - a perfect world for me as well :)

    Violet, well said. The world would be so much more boring if we all read the exact same way.

    Marieke: Loved your post!

    Jodie: Wonderful! He sounds like my kind of person :P

    Stephanie: It is sad, but it makes me happy to hear from educators who try to do the exact opposite!

    Jeanne: It's a good suggestion. The way I use those words is pretty close to "viewpoint", but you're right that they don't have the same connotation.

    Vishy: Thank you! And thank you so much for reminding me of What Good Are The Arts? It's been on my wishlist for a while because Nick Hornby raved about it in one of his essay books. Thanks to your reminder I went to check if the library has it - and it does, so I put it on hold :D

    Amy: It's good to know we're of one mind :)

    Darlyn: That sounds like a wonderful teacher indeed!

  35. Terrific piece! Thank you. I posted a link to it on my FB page, and, in reply, a colleague posted a link to this Chomsky article because he felt it was relevant. I found it fascinating and thought you might too : )


  36. Hope you enjoy reading John Carey's 'What Good are the Arts?', Ana! I am really looking forward to reading your thoughts on it. I think you review will be as wonderful as the book :)

  37. I don't think there is a correct reading of a text unless it's the one the author gives. Even so, readers often come with their own set of issues and ideas depending on when they read that you'll never get the same response. It's great when people agree, but it's actually more interesting when they disagree. And frankly, if you've read the book and have even spent money on it, then you are entitled to discuss it. Great post Ana.

  38. Celine: Thank you so much for sharing that article - that was indeed fascinating! I feel like I could use it as the basis for a whole other post.

    Vishy: I'm about 50 pages in and I'm LOVING IT. Where has this book been all my life? Needless to say, you have my eternal gratitude :P

    Sakura: I actually disagree about even the author being able to say what's right or wrong. Death of the author and all that :P But I do very much agree about a diversity of perspectives making literature more interesting!

  39. I also think that some readers also have this notion of authority - I read but I don't know how to critically read so I just won't do it because it is scary.

    I belong to a fairly new book group and at least three of the members have no training in criticism nor have they ever "studied" literature". They have always simply read for pleasure and, as they freely admit, without much thought.

    After a year of reading some really good books and some fairly poor books, I love to listen to what they have to say - they have found their voice, they make really pertinent and critical comments.

    There are many people like this who blog and it would be a shame to dismiss what they have to say because of their lack of approved credentials.

    I have a degree from a fairly good institution with really good professors (although I have had my encounters like many have mentioned) and I don't think my degree gives me a boost up. Quite frankly I got a degree in English because I could get a degree reading everything I would have read anyway.

    I want my reviews have substance because I am, hopefully, able to translate to the person reading my blog the value I derived from reading a particular book. And that viewpoint comes from experience, perception, and a whole host of other factors (my degree being only a minor one).

    Thank you for the discussion.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.