What does it mean to be a “good” reader?
Last weekend delivered a hat trick of essays on critical reading, two on KJ Charles’s m/m novel Think of England, and one on Deborah Fletcher Mello’s The Sweetest Thing, in which Liz McCausland also addresses the intertwined issues of “good writing” and “good reading.” More specifically, she argues,
I don’t think people should be afraid to talk about issues of quality if they want to. Criticism loses some of its power if there aren’t people willing to assert strong opinions that go beyond purely personal taste into reasoned argument. Of course these judgments are more or less subjective and open to debate, because language itself, and even more ideas of “good writing,” is a social construct. There are no scientific, objective standards, so a claim about quality should be backed up with reasons, examples, and an explanation of criteria (which may differ from reader to reader).
I’d agree with Steve Donoghue that some readers are better than others, but I think the definition of “good reader” varies a lot according to context. It means one thing in the classroom, another when one is reading for pleasure. We probably all have our own definitions of what constitutes a “good reader.” And when we’re reading–and reviewing/being critics–just for the love of it, we should be whatever kind of readers and critics we want. I do think, though, that when Romanceland discussion in general is reluctant to engage with questions of prose quality (just as with any other substantive craft issue), the genre suffers. Why write better if no one cares?
Her post, in combination with the multiple discussions about the religious and ethnic slurs in Charles’s Think of England, which include a long thread on Willaful’s review here, as well as Ann Somerville’s examination of the novel’s “unexamined bigotries” and Sunita’s commentary on the Romance community’s growing resistance to open critical discussion got me thinking about how we may be conflating the value of reading with certain values we associate with reading.
The distinction between these two things is evident in the distinction Liz makes between the stylistic and idiomatic elements of Mello’s book that she was unfamiliar with and the writing weaknesses that were a function of craftsmanship and not social or cultural context. In the first case, there is no judgment of quality made, because Liz admits her lack of familiarity with the stylistic choices of an author writing from a different cultural perspective. When it comes to those writing issues that can be objectively identified as incorrect, however, Liz’s experience of reading the book is compromised in a way that may lead to a judgment about the book’s quality.
I remember when I first started reading genre Romance, and among my first books were Judith Ivory’s Black Silk and Laura Kinsale’s The Shadow and the Star. The Ivory book made sense to me, because its prose was so similar to the literary fiction I was used to in my scholarly work with sentimental novels. The Kinsale, however, made use of genre tropes I was very unfamiliar with, and because of that. I initially judged them quite harshly. In that sense, I was not necessarily a good genre reader, because I lacked the knowledge and experience of those tropes, even though I was trained to be a strong critical reader and to identify “good” writing.
As Liz notes, there may be overlap between these two types of value judgments, because not everyone identifies the same “errors” or finds the same kind of prose to be superior. Stylistic differences may be identified as right or wrong, better or worse, strong or weak craftsmanship. One way around this has been to distinguish storytelling from writing, but as Liz points out, that has created a situation where the writing itself is often not addressed at all, perhaps because of the concern that readers may feel judged for tolerating or not identifying particular writing weaknesses or mistakes. The ability to identify specific “errors” may be perceived as “good” reading, while a tolerance for or the lack of recognition of specific “rules of composition” may be perceived as “bad” or “inadequate” reading.
And beyond the prose, we get into the question of reading tropes, like the use of “dago” in the Charles book, which, as Sunita points out, is both a religious and an ethnic slur. The difficulty here is that Think of England is an m/m Romance that many readers have praised for its craftsmanship, especially its writing, which creates kind of a double bind. On the one hand, is it easier to tolerate certain tropes is a book is well-written? And when it comes to m/m Romance, which is often openly interrogating social prejudices and inequities, how does a reader balance that progressive project against the use of a regressive trope that may not be well examined or challenged? Again we get to that place where readers may feel judged or defensive for not identifying all of the alleged weaknesses of a book and consciously calculating them into their overall reception of the book.
One of the particular difficulties with m/m, I think, is that there has been a movement to view reading the subgenre as an act of civil rights, which can add a layer of pressure to reading that makes it even more difficult to manage other, regressive elements of a text. It’s that whole ‘how to be a fan of problematic things’ dilemma. Reading Romance as a feminist genre can set up the same sort of dilemma, because those elements of a text that challenge or undermine that ideal (however the reader defines it) may create a feeling of discord for the reader that is unresolvable to the detriment of the reading experience.
Without question, social values are reflected in the books we read, because all of us are struggling with a variety of conflicts in the world we inhabit, and those conflicts will be communicated through what we write and what we read. So when we go into a book — either as readers or writers – with the expectation that the world represented there will be free of those social, cultural, religious, gender, sexual, racial, and ethnic conflicts, we may very well be setting a bar that can never be met. Add to that the way in which we will each see (or not) different things in the same book, we can begin to layer judgments about what kind of reader we are that seem much more like what kind of person we are. And it may very well be that those judgments are coming from inside the reader, not from anyone else, even though they may be triggered through someone else’s review or through discussion with other readers.
Of course, sometimes those judgments are made by others – case in point, the Goodreads review Sunita discusses in her post, which was somehow manipulated to sit at the top of the review queue and admonish readers who found fault with Charles’s novel. This is another level of the good reader/bad reader dichotomy, one that is tied to author loyalty, where being a good reader is tied up with representing the author and even perhaps filling in blanks that he or she may leave in the books themselves. For example, the more familiar one is the a certain author’s work, the easier it might be to assume that a trope is being used in a certain way, either to the advantage or detriment of the book, depending on the extent to which the reader likes or dislikes the author’s work. There is a whole different set of value judgments here that go beyond basic reading to interpretation and even identification with and as the authorial voice.
Although these issues make it seem like we’ve taken a big step backwards in terms of critical discourse, I think they’ve arisen as a result of the somewhat unstructured and broad-based online writing, reading, and reviewing environment. In some ways we may be lacking a vocabulary that helps us distinguish between aesthetic judgments and ethical/moral judgments in our critical exchanges, such that we can tackle these complex and problematic issues without feeling like we’re judging or being judged.
All texts present “problems” in the sense that they need to be interpreted and understood by a reader. In this sense, texts being problematic is value neutral, because there is an expectation of multiple interpretations. Some aspects of those texts also implicate the cultural values and contexts of both author and reader, and ideally, we should be able to exchange perspectives and insights without feeling like we need to defend ourselves — either in pointing out something problematic or in enjoying a problematic trope.
Years ago, when I was being trained as a graduate student writing instructor, I was required to read Mina Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing, which pushed against the denigration of non-standard usage as “bad” or other equally pejorative terms. Shaughnessy understood that the way we value so-called “good” writing as adhering to a certain standard can create a perceived hierarchy of values that interferes with both the teaching of writing and the process of learning to be a better writer.
I feel like we need a similar system, one that relies on a value-neutral vocabulary and an assumption of difference between reader and text, as well as the ability to share our reading experiences without an assumption of judgment about whether we’re good readers in some ethical, moral, or proper sense. We are all going to be strong readers in certain ways, and in other ways we may need to strengthen our skills. In other ways, we will all have different insights into texts, and that doesn’t mean that one insight is more or less valuable than another in an objective sense. Being good readers doesn’t mean we all have to read the same way.
Because of my own background in academia, I feel like if we got to a place where we could discuss the problematic aspects of books in a more open and intentional way, it would be good for both the genre (in terms of writing and the evolution of its tropes) and its readership. That it would encourage deeper engagement with the genre in all directions and to all kinds of ends – from thorough enjoyment to rigorous critique. But what do you think – do we need to come up with better, more value-neutral ways of talking about what it means to be a “good” reader, or is everything good enough as it is?