The Rising Tide of Educated Aliteracy
March 22, 2017 10:25 PM   Subscribe

"Not reading, Bayard believes, is in many cases preferable to reading and may allow for a superior form of literary criticism—one that is more creative and doesn’t run the risk of getting lost in all the messy details of a text. Actual books are thus 'rendered hypothetical,' replaced by virtual books in phantom libraries that represent an inner, fantasy scriptorium or shared social consciousness."

"My first exposure to this type of thinking came, naturally enough, while studying English literature in university. Academics, for no good reason whatsoever, are expected to publish a great deal of stuff that nobody—and I mean nobody—reads. Bayard, referencing David Lodge, is only stating the obvious when he says that most academics don’t read their colleagues’ work. I remember, as a grad student, visiting a professor who had been selected to read the publications of another scholar up for tenure at the same institution. I thought this seemed like a minor inconvenience, having assumed that my acquaintance was already familiar with much of the material since he published in the same area and was a friend of the tenure-seeker. But he was livid. “If they,” the tenure committee that had dropped this unwanted assignment in his lap, “think I’m going to waste any part of my weekend reading all that shit, they can think again!”"
posted by clawsoon (77 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
tl;dr
posted by The otter lady at 10:29 PM on March 22, 2017 [38 favorites]


do the politicsfilter threads count?
posted by ryanrs at 11:18 PM on March 22, 2017 [3 favorites]


From Metropolitan:
Audrey: “You found Fannie Price unlikeable?”

Tom: “She sounds pretty unbearable, but I haven’t read the book.”

Audrey: “What?”

Tom: “You don’t have to have read a book to have an opinion on it. I haven’t read the Bible, either.”

Audrey: “What Jane Austen novels have you read?”

Tom: “None. I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelist’s ideas as well as the critic’s thinking. With fiction, I can never forget that none of it ever happened; that it’s all just made up by the author.”
Tom's been lecturing Audrey on how the weaknesses of Austen, if that's not clear enough from the excerpt. I saw it before I would have noticed mansplaining but I suspect the scene would have some charm even today, because the script knows Tom's a pretentious dolt just trying on opinions for size.

Also, later on Tom actually does read Mansfield Park and finds he likes it. And he can talk about it with Audrey which he finds he also likes.

I suppose I should admit that while I read plenty of novels, I read very few 'good' novels. I would be bad to have on a panel coming up with a transformative novel. I adore Austen though.
posted by mark k at 11:22 PM on March 22, 2017 [11 favorites]


Oh my god, this was so depressing. I've read a lot of depressing shit this week but this took the cake because it felt so personal.

I actually like to read. I read a lot of books, including most of the authors in the article at one point or another. They broaden my horizons. I'd like to believe I'm not alone. This article made me feel like we may as well just pack up this human experiment and put it away. We've poisoned our planet, we've gotten close to world peace and apparently decided it was boring, and we no longer have any broad cultural interest in learning from our species' brightest lights what it means or meant to them to be human.

I mean, what's left? Are we going to opt to go back to "nasty, brutish, and short"?

Ugh.
posted by potrzebie at 11:28 PM on March 22, 2017 [45 favorites]


Next up, doing the literary criticism in black crayon.
posted by happyroach at 11:35 PM on March 22, 2017 [2 favorites]


This essay is one of the more thorough I've read on aliteracy, using the author's term, and while it's examination of the various arguments against reading are well compiled, like most of the other essays on the subject, it offers no great argument against these claims other than what it seems the author takes to be the self evident value of reading as an activity.

While I'm certainly not going to suggest there is no value in reading, I would say that, like with all the arts, there is some vagueness, at best, in making a case for that value. Lacking that, the arguments against reading can carry some considerable validity, as measured at least from the perspectives being argued by those who don't take up the activity.

Moretti's argument for example, while extreme in its conclusion, isn't exactly wrong.

We need distant reading, Moretti argues, because its opposite, close reading, can’t uncover the true scope and nature of literature. Let’s say you pick up a copy of Jude the Obscure, become obsessed with Victorian fiction and somehow manage to make your way through all 200-odd books generally considered part of that canon. Moretti would say: So what? As many as 60,000 other novels were published in 19th-century England—to mention nothing of other times and places. You might know your George Eliot from your George Meredith, but you won’t have learned anything meaningful about literature, because your sample size is absurdly small. Since no feasible amount of reading can fix that, what’s called for is a change not in scale but in strategy. To understand literature, Moretti argues, we must stop reading books.


And from there one might be able to make other reasonable claims, or provoke further questioning of the value. For example, The DaVinci Code was a big read for a lot of people back in the early aughts, and after hearing it discussed and having it recommended to me by a acquaintance, I too read it. The value of reading that versus not reading it isn't, to me, a clear win for the forces of literacy, nor a clear loss exactly either. People who read it and enjoyed it did indeed take something valuable away from the experience, but those of us who read it and didn't enjoy it gained little other than more arguments against Dan Brown. Had it not been recommended or so famous and had I still picked it up, I would have browsed through some of the pages or read a chapter or two perhaps and noticed the lack of what I consider to be compelling craft or art in the writing and would have walked away from the book without considering myself aliterate for doing so, rather the opposite.

The argument then would lead to suggesting that there is a big difference between Dan Brown and Toni Morrison, or Shakespeare, or whatever other "great" author one fancies as obviously worth the time and effort of engaging with their works. While I too would have such a list of authors I consider great, I can't, from there, simply rely on that assertion of greatness as proof of the worth without running into the same argument as in the Dan Brown case where, without first establishing the larger merits, it is simply a case of individual preference, though to be sure with more "experts" favoring the Shakespeares and Morrisons than the Browns.

I'm glad the Metropolitan exchange was mentioned above as it too offers some interesting give and take on the idea. I'm a voracious reader of criticism in all the arts, and have read far more of it than I have novels, so like with many of the other arguments posed in the essay, I can see some basis for Tom's thinking, even though as mark k suggests it is shown as unviable when pushed as being sufficient in and of itself. Criticism of works one has not read or engaged with can provide a better foundation for how one engages with the works one does choose to read, see, or listen to, but it isn't a substitute for that engagement on its own other than sometimes in comparison with other criticism or thoughts on the subjects being examined. (That is really no small thing and to dismiss good criticism would be not unlike dismissing good novels, with the same questions of establishing value still remaining in either case.)

Ultimately, I think, there are such differences in the way people read and the reasons that trying to either attack or defend the activity in some grand general sense is very difficult, at least without running into a good deal of internal contradiction. Many of the writers the author of the essay cites make reasonable claims within a narrowed view of the idea of reading as having value, but none of the writers, including the author of the essay, have been able to really take on the notion of reading or art in its largest sense of meaning and value. That's something that perhaps shouldn't be so surprising given the domain of art is more non-discursive logic than something that can be readily explained in more purely rational terms, and that kind of "felt" experience is mostly singular, tied to the individual, not something so easily shared other than by simply pointing to the work itself and saying "Read this! It's amazing!".
posted by gusottertrout at 12:29 AM on March 23, 2017 [12 favorites]


This article made me feel like we may as well just pack up this human experiment and put it away.
Wouldn't it be easier to just kill all the people who don't read?
posted by fullerine at 12:32 AM on March 23, 2017 [6 favorites]


Not kill them, but, at least in the case of the prominent "A-Lits" (if I may be so bold as to coin this neologism) mentioned above, force them to read Marguerite Young's Miss MacIntosh, My Darling once a year. This will strengthen the resolve of their (what German philosophy students called) "sitting flesh" and cleanse and refresh their literary palates.
posted by Chitownfats at 12:54 AM on March 23, 2017


Christ. I can barely stand talking about books I love - I can't imagine what depths of hopelessness and wastefulness-of-matter I would need to plumb in order to talk about shit I hadn't even read.
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:23 AM on March 23, 2017 [4 favorites]




Sometimes I read a MetaFilter discussion but skip the linked material. I only have so much time to read and I like reading what you all write.

I think a lot of us have experience with alinkeracy.
posted by Songdog at 3:41 AM on March 23, 2017 [38 favorites]


I thoroughly enjoyed this...my two references as I read...
Marveling at the virtues of tradition, I repeat that everything which does not proceed from this tradition is plagiarism.
--Salvador Dali


That the author thoroughly addresses without overusing the word canon as I would have...Except, imo, some of the conclusions about Tom Bissel about 2/3rd through (e.g. streakiest to describe Faulkner which implies Bissel had compared and contrasted a number of titles, or the dig on Austen, that is clearly a personal and aesthetic judgment.)

My second reference was, of course...
A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.
--Mark Twain


Which Good may have considered bromidic and antithetical to the argument that aliteracy is new.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 3:46 AM on March 23, 2017


And I forgot to mention...a friend and editor once said to me he has little patience for negative reviews: Tell me what you like about something.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 3:50 AM on March 23, 2017 [3 favorites]


I already Get Smart like this. On my self defense bookshelf: Tolstoy's War and Peace. Nobody gets through War and Peace!
posted by Nanukthedog at 3:51 AM on March 23, 2017 [2 favorites]


I have Bayard's book, but I've made a point not to read it.
posted by mr vino at 4:00 AM on March 23, 2017 [3 favorites]


The expressed horror here (in the original link) is horror at something that's not really all that new, other than that someone has chosen to put a fancy name to it. People have always pretended to have read books they've never read, seen movies they've ever watched, listened to music they've never heard. The only difference now is that it evidently has become a badge of honor to declare that you've not read something, or, for that matter, anything.
posted by blucevalo at 4:30 AM on March 23, 2017 [2 favorites]


To understand literature, Moretti argues, we must stop reading books.

Obviously, he has a different idea of what the point of books is. Maybe because he thinks Literature is the point.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:35 AM on March 23, 2017 [4 favorites]


I used to read one or two novels a month. I think I read one a year now. I don't have the attention span any more. I read a lot of non fiction and listen to a lot of podcasts, but if I have a ton of time to get into an extended narrative, I'm usually going to binge watch a tv show. I don't have any opinions on novels I haven't read, though, other than Shades of Gray, which I'm sure is terrible.
posted by empath at 4:42 AM on March 23, 2017 [1 favorite]


I have Bayard's book, but I've made a point not to read it.

Which one? Seem he's written a surprising number of books for being someone who doesn't believe that anyone should read them. (This apparent paradox is probably mentioned in the article but I haven't read it.)
posted by effbot at 4:50 AM on March 23, 2017 [5 favorites]


We need distant reading, Moretti argues, because its opposite, close reading, can’t uncover the true scope and nature of literature. Let’s say you pick up a copy of Jude the Obscure, become obsessed with Victorian fiction and somehow manage to make your way through all 200-odd books generally considered part of that canon. Moretti would say: So what? As many as 60,000 other novels were published in 19th-century England—to mention nothing of other times and places. You might know your George Eliot from your George Meredith, but you won’t have learned anything meaningful about literature, because your sample size is absurdly small.

This is something I've pondered for a while myself. Everything is connected to something else, and you can never reach the boundaries, not in a human lifetime. You decide you want to gain an appreciation for short horror film, so you start with anthology films, but you can't appreciate the film medium without a grounding in 20th-century horror comics (q.v. Creepshow), and you can't appreciate the comics without a grounding in radio (where do you think Gaines and Feldstein got their inspiration?) and it just goes on and on forever, and if you surface for even a moment you realize just how much new material has appeared in the interim, and every passing moment carries you farther and farther away from your goal of expertise, no matter how hard you struggle.

Do we need a moratorium on creativity? Just stop making things for a few centuries? Give us a chance to catch up, for God's sake!
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:03 AM on March 23, 2017 [3 favorites]


We need distant reading, Moretti argues, because its opposite, close reading, can’t uncover the true scope and nature of literature. Let’s say you pick up a copy of Jude the Obscure, become obsessed with Victorian fiction...

Gee, it's almost as if the "true nature of literature" is that there's an astoundingly vast and multidimensional range of human experience which it is impossible for one person to "finish", like life isn't a videogame or something
posted by oulipian at 5:15 AM on March 23, 2017 [21 favorites]


gusottertrout: Moretti's argument for example, while extreme in its conclusion, isn't exactly wrong.

Are you sure? His argument seems to boil down to, "When there's too much data, you can only understand it if you stop collecting it."

The other solution to too much data is the combination of random sampling, blinded experiments, metastudies, repeated experiments, and cooperation among researchers. Imagine a new canon of Victorian literature built this way:

Rather than having all students continually re-reading the same blessed books, an international consortium of researchers randomly assigns Victorian novels from among the full 60,000-strong catalogue, with author information stripped, to grad students. Grad students are miserable because they're forced to read lots of stuff they don't want to anyway, so this won't change much for them. All of the thousands/millions/billions of resulting grad student reviews are fed into the sort of database that you might use for a Large Hadron Collider or a Human Genome Project, and a new canon of Victorian literature is found.

I just came up with this idea, which is how I know it's good. I wonder if the resulting new canon would be any more diverse than the existing one.
posted by clawsoon at 5:18 AM on March 23, 2017 [25 favorites]


This is something I've pondered for a while myself. Everything is connected to something else, and you can never reach the boundaries, not in a human lifetime ... Do we need a moratorium on creativity? ... Give us a chance to catch up, for God's sake!

But one would surely need a moratorium on creation - ! If we can never read all the books ever written, and thus never "learn anything meaningful about literature", we are similarly always ignorant of any other subject.

How can one claim to know the nature of stars, if one has not studied each of the billions of stars in each of the trillions of galaxies? How can one know the physics of particles, who has not collided every proton in the universe? What can one know of biological life, or of comedy, who has not dissected every frog? And yet I suggest we should not, need not, judge ourselves against such cosmic standards.

The "expert" is a human phenomenon, existing within her context of place and time; which is to say that all that is necessary for expertise is that you know more than those around you.

That's how I've claimed the golden mantle of expertitude, by inquiring into a subject that no other rational mind would ever deign to study! Yea, I have concentrated my intellect upon my own turds - a schooling utterly unpalatable to every other person who has ever lived, or will ever live. But no common bowel-doctor am I - no, I have mastered copromancy, the art of divination using my own stools! Each day I peer into the toilet bowl, and divine the future from a close reading of my deposits - a little sample of my work thus:

Monday, 20 March: outlook pretty shitty.
Tuesday, 21 March: outlook pretty shitty.
Wednesday, 22 March: outlook pretty shitty.
Thursday, 23 March: outlook pretty shitty.

... and can YOUR so-called "experts" claim a more accurate series of results? I think NOT!
posted by the quidnunc kid at 5:30 AM on March 23, 2017 [13 favorites]


We can never meet, let alone get to know, every human in the world, so the only way to understand humanity is to lock yourself in your room and never come out (internet access optional).
posted by dng at 5:35 AM on March 23, 2017 [7 favorites]


I just read an article about not reading.

I see what you did there.
posted by josephtate at 5:43 AM on March 23, 2017


Apparently he thinks reading a higher-class version of Cliff Notes is more than adequate. Gotta disagree: that didn't count as having 'read the book' back in school, and it still doesn't count now. All it means is that you've read a synopsis of the book; it doesn't mean you truly understand or liked/disliked the book and its use of language.
posted by easily confused at 5:53 AM on March 23, 2017 [2 favorites]


Some of us just have to read more to make up for the others who don't.

I've known more than a few academics who have told me that they are basically writing for a handful of colleague who probably don't read their work because they in turn don't read anything their peers write unless forced to. It seems like a dark star to set your course. These people tend to be bitter.
posted by lagomorphius at 6:13 AM on March 23, 2017


This thread is full of shit.
I know because I haven't read it.
posted by crazylegs at 6:15 AM on March 23, 2017 [2 favorites]


Not to mention the ultimate academic rope trick: "I have no colleagues qualified to understand my work." Heard that more than once, too. Usually in the humanities.
posted by lagomorphius at 6:16 AM on March 23, 2017 [1 favorite]


I guess one could say they literally don't know what they're missing.
posted by klarck at 6:21 AM on March 23, 2017 [2 favorites]


Why does this have to be framed as a binary? Isn't it sort of obvious both approaches can coexist peacefully and don't have to be Dogmas of the One True Way. Just like here, sometimes you might for various reasons (like time or divided attention) only shallow read or skip the article while engaging meaningfully with the ideas generated by the critical response, while other times, if you can close read the original text, that might be a better option (particularly with difficult texts that might include difficult abstract concepts that can't easily be summarized without leaving out important details). I've definitely taken both approaches, and hell, I took a literary criticism course in college that only engaged with critical texts and not source materials.

I guess I just don't get the need to frame everything as a make or break, binary proposition, as seems to be a growing trend in the thinking and writing being done on all kinds of subjects.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:34 AM on March 23, 2017 [4 favorites]


I wish I knew where to find it (perhaps it was in "An Experiment In Criticism"?) but there is a passage where C.S. Lewis describes purchasing the books of a (deceased) renowned scholar. Not the books he wrote, but the books he had commented on. Classical works, I think. Lewis thought that since they contained his annotations and notes, they would be a fascinating and invaluable source of information on his thoughts and thought processes.

Again and again, he discovered that the first few pages of each book were dense with annotations and notes, and after that... they trailed off into nothing. The rest of the pages were clean, as if they had never been touched, much less annotated. The great scholar had read the first few pages of each, and stopped reading.

And gone on to publish criticism and commentary of the same authors, the same works!

But this was a secret shame, not something anyone boasted about.

Boasting about it seems to be a confession that literary criticism is a bullshit job.
posted by edheil at 6:34 AM on March 23, 2017 [1 favorite]


edheil: Again and again, he discovered that the first few pages of each book were dense with annotations and notes, and after that... they trailed off into nothing.

I often find the same thing with used books. A student started the course with enthusiasm, multiple colours of highlighter at the ready. The decline sets in rapidly; it's a marvel to see any markings beyond the third chapter.
posted by clawsoon at 6:41 AM on March 23, 2017 [1 favorite]


tl;dr
posted by Foosnark at 7:06 AM on March 23, 2017


...and apparently I didn't even read the comments here because that was literally the first one.
posted by Foosnark at 7:07 AM on March 23, 2017 [6 favorites]


That's a fair point. Some pomo lit crit I've encountered almost seems to revel in and flaunt its bulshittiness, like the author sees it as a kind of game to wind the reader along with BS that pushes against those boundaries that set off people's BS detectors in ways that make them feel internally conflicted; I always got the sense some of those lit critics think it's clever and important to confront people with seeming paradoxes and logical double binds as a creative act in itself, even though those effects of seemingly unapproachable abstract profundity are more like cheap psychological parlor tricks than meaningful critical engagement.

There is lit crit that isn't pure BS, but most of it dates back to periods when intellectual rigor and scholarship were valued as ends in themselves. There's no real solid foundation for lit crit anymore, no common understanding of what its aims and methods ought to be, what it's good for. Ideas that we study literature as a way of morally and intellectually growing as human beings or out of deep appreciation for the craft of writing aren't fashionable anymore. If authorial intent is irrelevant, there's not even any basis for judging how well executed a particular literary device or technique is in a work of writing. All texts become little more than a Rorschach test that solipsistically can mean whatever the reader wants it to.

I mean, seriously, imagine if we took the idea authorial intent doesn't matter in the slightest in every day life. Imagine how frustrating it would be, trying to explain something to a friend and having that friend constantly insist they know better than you do what you're really trying to say and what your intent is. There'd be no end to the opportunities for others to exploit your own words to paint you in an unfairly unflattering light in their own minds or to deliberately misinterpret your point as a launching off point to push their own idiosyncratic ideas.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:11 AM on March 23, 2017 [6 favorites]


tl;dr
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 7:11 AM on March 23, 2017


Using this logic, I can critique and discuss in-depth a movie simply by watching the trailer.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:14 AM on March 23, 2017


Imagine how frustrating it would be, trying to explain something to a friend and having that friend constantly insist they know better than you do what you're really trying to say and what your intent is.

My friend David still uses this exact rhetorical device, as well as the one where once he realizes that he has misunderstood a particular word or concept in his argument, he abruptly begins arguing in favor of your side and pretending that he was always arguing that and that you were for some perverse reason denying it.
posted by Scattercat at 7:16 AM on March 23, 2017 [3 favorites]


gusottertrout: Moretti's argument for example, while extreme in its conclusion, isn't exactly wrong.

Are you sure? His argument seems to boil down to, "When there's too much data, you can only understand it if you stop collecting it."


It's true enough within the limits of his argument or approach to "understanding" the literature, and certainly would be as meaningful, in its way, as claiming expertise of Victorian literature by dint of reading a small handful of books selected by others as significant without any real basis of comparison save those claims. It's an argument for literature as a study though, not as an individual pleasure or any other notion of engagement, so that is where its value as a method comes close to its end, other than as a tool for comparing word use and possibly themes and the like to some novel one does choose to more thoroughly engage with.

His roundabout pointing towards the canon and its limits has additional merits worth thinking about though, even if that argument in itself doesn't do anything to settle the issue of why one should or shouldn't read any given work oneself. It also, admittedly more vaguely, draws some hint of the issue of expertise itself and the reader's relationship to it into play, where we both trust and distrust claims of expertise over the things we engage with in something close to equal measures.

We might read Hardy because we understand he's seen as someone worth reading, and so trust expertise and history on that matter, but if we find we ourselves do not like Hardy's work we tend to throw those same experts and history out for our own perspective, which, if done, renders our initial trust in that history suspect and suggests there indeed may be far better works which have not gained acceptance by history which we would value more, while at the same time it posits ourselves as either somehow greater experts or challenges the foundations on which the claims by the experts were based and so on. There is, I think, no clear way to balance the accounts of individual pleasure with any greater "meaning" or value without running into these sorts of difficulties and contradictions.

I mean there are two fairly common sayings people have about critics, "nobody likes a critic" and "everyone's a critic", and the tension between those two commonplaces sums up pretty well the difficulty in trying to define a value for art.
posted by gusottertrout at 7:31 AM on March 23, 2017 [1 favorite]


saulgoodman: Ideas that we study literature as a way of morally and intellectually growing as human beings or out of deep appreciation for the craft of writing aren't fashionable anymore.

I was coincidentally thinking about the death of moral relativism on campus. I wonder if that will lead to a revival of the idea of engaging with literature as a moral force.
posted by clawsoon at 7:36 AM on March 23, 2017


It's always the nineteenth century people that are like this. Of course the nineteenth century had its own explosion in writing and publishing -- there's just so much more in that period than previous periods. But since this is coming up now and often in the context of "we'll just use computers to sample stuff!" I feel it's more a way of transferring our anxiety over the 21st century's even bigger explosion-of-text onto the past.
posted by Hypatia at 7:38 AM on March 23, 2017 [2 favorites]


I was coincidentally thinking about the death of moral relativism on campus. I wonder if that will lead to a revival of the idea of engaging with literature as a moral force.

I don't want to overstay my welcome in the thread, but this is something that I've been interested in for a while.

Art as a moral force is a position Tolstoy took in his view of art in his book What is Art?. In many ways this view has regained some currency after long neglect, that neglect in no small part due to those like Tolstoy who used morality as a way to judge as suspect or faulty works by Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Tolstoy himself. It was a more common position to take on the arts from a conservative perspective for much of its history, but its return is coming from the left, which places social justice issues more front and center, for some good reasons, but still leaves open many of the same criticisms of that mode of approach that dogged Tolstoy himself.
posted by gusottertrout at 7:53 AM on March 23, 2017 [1 favorite]


Not reading, Bayard believes, is in many cases preferable to reading and may allow for a superior form of literary criticism—one that is more creative and doesn’t run the risk of getting lost in all the messy details of a text.

No no no. That's not how literary criticism, or really, any kind of critical response works.

The greatest disappointment of my life was (and still continues to be) having grown up with educated, professional parents in a house full of books that nonetheless went unread other than by myself and my brother. My parents never read anything for pleasure. They had no intellectual curiosity. All the books they had accumulated in college were in our house, but nothing moved them to seek out new knowledge.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 7:54 AM on March 23, 2017 [4 favorites]


Nanukthedog: "I already Get Smart like this. On my self defense bookshelf: Tolstoy's War and Peace. Nobody gets through War and Peace!"

I do use the unit "Russian novel" to describe a combination of time and effort.

"That project looks like two, maybe two and a half, Russian novels..."
posted by Samizdata at 8:16 AM on March 23, 2017 [1 favorite]


It really seems like the author in this piece is conflating a tendency within academia with a broader cultural trend. It doesn't to me seem as if a) the broader cultural trend is actually a broader cultural trend and b) that we can really read too much into the academic tendency.

That the people who as their vocation read and analyze capital-l Literature should treat reading as labor strikes me as a not entirely unreasonable position to take. Academic labor is labor, and even if the academic gains satisfaction from that labor, that doesn't change it's laboriousness. There are people who read capital-l Literature for pure enjoyment, but I would bet money that those people are reading these works in a much different manner from those who are supposed to study and critique it.

Frankly, I don't have a good read on whether capital-l Literature has much reach outside of academia - I'm not in that kind of world- but if that is the case, then perhaps it might be a good consider whether the aforementioned difference in approach may be the culprit, instead of some ambiguous and ill-defined sense of societal collapse?
posted by phack at 8:22 AM on March 23, 2017 [3 favorites]


Let’s say you pick up a copy of Jude the Obscure, become obsessed with Victorian fiction and somehow manage to make your way through all 200-odd books generally considered part of that canon. Moretti would say: So what? As many as 60,000 other novels were published in 19th-century England—to mention nothing of other times and places. You might know your George Eliot from your George Meredith, but you won’t have learned anything meaningful about literature, because your sample size is absurdly small.

Declaring the only purpose of a project is one that is inevitably destined to fail is, I suppose, a way to undermine the project, but it's genuinely bizarre to me that a person would think that the only reason you might read Jude the Obscure and the "Victorian literature canon" is to Learn Something Meaningful About Literature.

A random collection of other reasons you might do it:

* Because you take pleasure (or get some other form of emotional gratification) from this school of writing
* Because you enjoy one or more approaches to literary analysis and consider that school a worthy subject
* Because you are particularly interested in the way that writers influence one another, and studying that requires that you read through a series of works related in time/place
* Because you are interested in the period as a historical period
* Because your temperament is such that you find it easier to read many works within one period than scattered across history
* Because you're stuck in line at the DMV

If these aims don't seem worthy to you, I might suggest that you may not be cut out for reading fiction.

I would go so far as to say that, for most purposes, Literature in the Abstract doesn't really exist.

Not reading, Bayard believes, is in many cases preferable to reading and may allow for a superior form of literary criticism—one that is more creative and doesn’t run the risk of getting lost in all the messy details of a text.

There's a fair amount of criticism like this already, written even by people who have read the texts. I don't want to reject it out of hand--I have admired some cases of great goofiness or willful perversity in this mode--but I will say that many of these professors seem to feel that their criticism can draw its value from the greatness of the text they are riffing off, and....that's really not enough to make it worthwhile. Your stream of consciousness about some particular word doesn't interest me just because that word features heavily in Trollope.
posted by praemunire at 8:23 AM on March 23, 2017 [5 favorites]


Metafilter: If they think I’m going to waste any part of my weekend reading all that shit, they can think again!
posted by a mirror and an encyclopedia at 8:33 AM on March 23, 2017 [1 favorite]


Moretti is doing interesting work, not just with corpus analysis but with geographies and cartographies within authors' output and within canons. While an engagement with "literature" based solely on such approaches would be insufficient, I've not heard a convincing argument that such tools are without value to the larger project we call the humanities. I'll bet a compact OED that folks here who have not read any of his work would find it nifty, at least.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 8:35 AM on March 23, 2017


By way of a palate cleanser after someone says that we need close reading less, listen to Doug Lemov, co-author of 'Reading Reconsidered', talk about close reading to Russ Roberts on the EconTalk podcast, within the context of teaching children to become lovers of the written word.
posted by eclectist at 8:38 AM on March 23, 2017 [2 favorites]


I've read some of Moretti's "distant reading" stuff and I like it a lot. I've also read a bunch of Moretti's "let me tell you about Young Torless" work. Moretti is someone who knows his field very well, if he's saying "how can we start to understand the vast, vast body of non-canon literature and how it relates to the canonical stuff", I want to listen.

If you're curious about literature as a body of work, you might very well wonder "what plot structures, emphases, locations, naming conventions, language use, etc were common in the mid-19th century British novel? What of canon 19th century British novels relates to the vast pool of non-canon work that was produced?" And yet you might not want to slog through all the sub-Marie Correlli novels out there - you might prefer to save your reading time, in fact, for George Eliot. You might think to yourself, "If only there was a way to extract some information from the hundreds and hundreds of un-exciting novels of the period without actually reading all of them!"

If someone were able to feed a bunch of 1940s science fiction novels into a machine and tell me some quantified stuff about language, locations, deep structures, etc so that I could then look at someone whose work I do enjoy (let's say Zenna Henderson's "People" stories) and say "hm, here are some continuities in her fifties work with the way that language around gender developed in the pulps of the forties", I would be over the moon.

"How do high-culture novels relate to the masses of average/unsuccessful/pulpy/forgotten novels that surrounded them when they were new" is a fascinating question, not some kind of insult to anyone's delicate literary sensibilities.
posted by Frowner at 9:09 AM on March 23, 2017 [4 favorites]


...and apparently I didn't even read the comments here because that was literally the first one.

tl:dr
posted by leotrotsky at 9:41 AM on March 23, 2017


If you're curious about literature as a body of work, you might very well wonder "what plot structures, emphases, locations, naming conventions, language use, etc were common in the mid-19th century British novel? What of canon 19th century British novels relates to the vast pool of non-canon work that was produced?" And yet you might not want to slog through all the sub-Marie Correlli novels out there - you might prefer to save your reading time, in fact, for George Eliot. You might think to yourself, "If only there was a way to extract some information from the hundreds and hundreds of un-exciting novels of the period without actually reading all of them!"

All very legitimate questions! Although I think that, as in most fields, data science overpromises what it can do in many of these areas, certainly there's no reason it shouldn't make a run at them.

But then when you explicitly oppose that work to close reading of smaller bodies of work (and maybe the article does this more or does it more crudely than Moretti himself does), then, yes, you're picking a fight, and shouldn't be wounded if people argue back. To phrase it as the article does: so we know more about naming conventions in 19th century novels: so what? If you reject the purposes of a close reading of a body of texts, you're going to have a hard time justifying your analysis of the minutiae of a broader body of those texts. What do I care about naming conventions, outside the kinds of reasons for reading I listed above?
posted by praemunire at 9:47 AM on March 23, 2017


I was a gulper as a kid, and read many many books swiftly, incompletely, and with disregard for the details. As a result, I often re-read books.

One of my jobs as a research assistant was to photocopy articles my advisor had bookmarked in journals; I don't think she had read them, but she wanted to be able to reference them.

One of my jobs as a doctoral student was to summarize, for my literature review, all the relevant literature. I found the relevant articles by skimming the references of recent articles and finding the most commonly cited ones. Because I'm compulsive, I actually read all the literature I was referencing, and found to my dismay that most of the people who cited it were explaining it via either (a) one much-cited paragraph or (b) one much-shared summary of the article. One of the members of my dissertation committee asked me for a copy of my bibliography. He was a much-read and highly literate gentleman, who wrote elegant articles and did interesting research, but he didn't want my references so he could read the books and articles himself. He wanted my organization.

My experience since then has been that, though I read far less than book fetishists claim they do, I read far more and far more deeply than most people, and I live in a different universe.

And my nonfiction books are dogeared and annotated all the way through if I actually finish them, but I throw out a lot of books partially read because heresy of heresies they aren't worth it to me to finish.

Middlemarch is a fine book, and so is Moby Dick, but they are both extraordinarily weird if you actually read them.
posted by Peach at 10:00 AM on March 23, 2017 [4 favorites]


The article does this, for reasons that I don't fully understand. It substantially misrepresents both Moretti and distant reading. Moretti is a skilled close and middle reader, and I think this article (among other things) conflates "close reading" (being very attentive to each word choice, line, etc) and what you might call "middle reading", paying good attention to a specific text for itself.

This is why I think it's really hazardous to start talking about scholars with long careers based on no real familiarity with their work. It's absurd to imply that Moretti is somehow attacking the act of sitting down and reading a particular thing because you like that thing or find it interesting - not only because that's a gross oversimplification of actual "distant reading" but because it is directly contradicted by the majority of his published work.

Moretti is actually enormously fun to read and very interesting - he's a literary theorist that anyone with broad interest in the development of the novel would enjoy. Atlas of the European Novel in particular is super accessible and interesting.
posted by Frowner at 10:04 AM on March 23, 2017 [5 favorites]


What is more, in re Moretti and reading critics before you read books: I would never have known of the existence of Young Torless had I not read Moretti, much less actually have picked it up. What little of Magic Mountain I've read, I came to through Moretti, ditto for Goethe. Yes, sure, I read about books I hadn't read, because the essays were fun. And they were fun enough that I then read the books, or at least had a bash at it.
posted by Frowner at 10:06 AM on March 23, 2017


If authorial intent is irrelevant, there's not even any basis for judging how well executed a particular literary device or technique is in a work of writing. All texts become little more than a Rorschach test that solipsistically can mean whatever the reader wants it to.

This stuff drives me absolutely bonkers. I mean, yes, sure, it can be very important to look beyond the author's intent for all kinds of reasons, but some people seem to take it to this dogmatic extreme where the author's intent is so irrelevant that it should not even be discussed. We had a student teacher in 12th grade who was like this. We read Doctor Zhivago without learning or discussing any of the historical or political context for it, but we sure did spend hours and hours being lectured about the image of red berries against white snow, and any interpretation of the text presented by any of the students, no matter how baseless, was "right." As a result I have no idea what that book was actually about, but I hate it anyway.

(My 11th grade teacher, by contrast, once introduced a poem by saying "look, before we even begin, I just have to tell you that this poem is not about vampires. I'm sick of hearing my students say it's about vampires, so don't even go there." I loved her.)
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:14 AM on March 23, 2017 [1 favorite]


I've had people argue passionately with me that they don't read fiction, that nobody should read fiction, and really, fiction shouldn't exist. Fiction is all lies. People who write fiction are liars, and people who read it are worse than liars.

I usually end up asking these people if they go to movies or watch TV shows, and usually the answer is yes. I point out that somebody had to write these shows and they too are fiction.

"But that's different. That's entertainment."

Ah, so the difference is, reading is work for these people. And usually at some point, for a class, they were forced to read something fictional, probably from the canon of great literature, that they hated, and this has set them against it for life.
posted by lagomorphius at 10:15 AM on March 23, 2017 [3 favorites]


That was ... all so weird to me. Like a series of thoughts from people living in a strange mirror-universe unlike my own in subtle yet incomprehensible ways.

Because I read for pleasure. It's fun.

I'm trying to think of equivalents to what these people are saying, and they all sound insane.

"There are so many videogames now that it is impossible to play all of them to completion, so no one should bother to play vidoegames at all. What's the point?"

"Bayard suggests that perhaps not having sex at all is preferable. He is a professsional sex worker tired of sex after having it thirty times a night for the past forty years, but does not think this is related. 'Many of my colleagues privately agree with me,' says Bayard. 'Most now refuse to have sex unless they are paid. If that is true even of the professionals, surely it must be true of everyone. No one really enjoys sex, am I right?'"

"One cannot help but feel these arguments have some merit to them. Why would anyone, given the choice, choose to go to all the trouble and effort of watching a movie when they could sit at home and stare at a wall instead?"

"A certain amount of food may be necessary for nourishment, but what experts call 'taste' or 'deliciousness' is, after all, largely irrelevant. So why not consume all your food as a tasteless slurry composed of only what is needed to maintain life?"

... and it just occurs to me that some people actually believe the last one, too. Hold me I'm scared.
posted by kyrademon at 10:20 AM on March 23, 2017 [9 favorites]


FWIW, War and Peace may look intimidating due to its sheer page count, but as Russian lit goes, for my money, it's a way more accessible and easy read than even much shorter works by Dostoevsky (who for me is sort of the gold standard of excellence in the kind of big, expansive, stylistically dense writing I sometimes enjoy). The only text I can recall finding actively repellent to my appreciation and understanding was Sartre's "Being and Nothingness." Years ago a former roommate bought that book to keep on the coffee table to impress people (dude explicitly admitted that was why he'd bought it), and out of perversity I decided I would actually try to read the damn thing. In that case, I couldn't get past the first few pages, the whole effort seemed like such a waste of time. It's the longest, most self indulgent book ever written explicitly to mean nothing. I'd much rather engage with Sartre indirectly, because his ideas aren't all bad, but damn, those weird shell games pomo writers like to play with meaning and critical jargon are too exhausting for me.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:27 AM on March 23, 2017 [1 favorite]


This is why I think it's really hazardous to start talking about scholars with long careers based on no real familiarity with their work. It's absurd to imply that Moretti is somehow attacking the act of sitting down and reading a particular thing because you like that thing or find it interesting - not only because that's a gross oversimplification of actual "distant reading" but because it is directly contradicted by the majority of his published work.

"This is why I think it's really hazardous to start talking about writers with large corpuses based on no real familiarity with their work..."

OK, I'm being a little twitty here, but surely you must see the irony in this context of complaining about how someone is reacting to a work they haven't read based on criticism of it.
posted by praemunire at 10:49 AM on March 23, 2017 [1 favorite]


A faculty member in my program has used approaches similar (I think) to Moretti's to study postmodern texts such as Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans. It's such a chaotic narrative - attacking it through algorithms is helpful; it's nearly impossible to read in a conventional way.

But that is a single text - not a "distant reading" as Moretti seems to be talking about to make sense of a genre or corpus.

Also, as others have said, this article somewhat conflates what happens in academic and literary circles with the wider culture. Established and/or famous academics (and yes, often white dudes) have long been dismissive of engaging with other people's written works since they are so very busy. I don't know that this is terribly new.

Meanwhile, ordinary humans seem to be reading about as much as they have earlier (at least according to US studies such as the Pew surveys) and some genres are exploding with new readers.
posted by pantarei70 at 11:02 AM on March 23, 2017


So what we need is some sort of big data / natural language processing database that can take the entirety of the written works of period X and then boil the ocean until the quintessence of period X can be distilled into a short article that can be read while standing in line at the DMV.

But in truth what is the value of the written word when nobody but the author and perhaps an editor might read something printed?
posted by vuron at 11:44 AM on March 23, 2017


I was lucky to take introductory Rhetoric at one of the leading American departments of interpretation and criticism at the time many years ago (in other words, this was deep inside postmodernists' territory), and the way we were taught about the author's intent or authorial intent was that it's not fair to the text as an utterance if you are importing presumptions into your discussion of their work. Philosophy has a tension with Rhetoric—we were explicitly told that as well—but in philosophy the parallel is the ad hominem. Both disciplines convey the idea that it's a problematic move when you ascribe what a person is saying to something about their context or background.

One caveat that my instructor added was that, of course there's a time and place to discuss the author's bio and social/cultural/political context. It's just that that's not how it's done in some disciplines, and that there are reasons, like the above, for why that would be the case. Whereas in a different sort of English/Lit or even better, a Politics/History class, that context/background of the author is entirely appropriate to discuss.

Also, pedagogically, the actual problem is obvious. A big reason why my Rhetoric instructors emphasized this was that they kept seeing students turning in essays that were just whatever they thought of the material, whether that was projection or bullshitting their way out of the assignment. Like, if the assignment was to discuss the intersubjectivity of the characters in Antigone in the contextual theme of love (one of the essay choices), then importing what you think "was" the author's intention is not an approach that would have worked for the purposes of the class.
posted by polymodus at 12:07 PM on March 23, 2017


OK, I'm being a little twitty here, but surely you must see the irony in this context of complaining about how someone is reacting to a work they haven't read based on criticism of it.

This seems kind of point-missing to me. It's not like Moretti is sitting down and saying "Based on my technique of distant reading, I have decided that [random now-forgotten 19th century novelist] is a subtle prose stylist whose work compares to the finest of Huysmans" or whatever. He's saying "here are some things that are factually true about [language use, setting, etc] of a bunch of novels.

I can tell you that Iain Sinclair didn't like Margaret Thatcher and that his work satirizes her in all kinds of ways without having read any Sinclair at all, for instance, and I can tell you all kinds of factual things about how feminist utopias of the 19th century figured race, even though I have only read a couple of them. If I were to say that Iain Sinclair hated all women politicians and is therefore misogynist based on my second-hand knowledge of his dislike for Thatcher, that would be a judgment call based on lack of familiarity with his work. Asserting a simple fact about content is different from making a broad statement about the quality/worth/deeper concerns of a broad body of work.
posted by Frowner at 12:28 PM on March 23, 2017 [1 favorite]


It seems like this is really about not reading fiction/literature, no? I read on a computer for hours every day - some of it pretty dumb but some of it pretty highbrow writing - and quite a few non-fiction books in physical form every year, but just a few, you know, novels. Which is not a situation I'm that happy with, because I used to read a lot more fiction and I know I'm missing out on stuff, but it's like - I have a fear of committing to it now? It's interesting to think about why this is and what it means, but saying that this is "not reading" doesn't seem to fit quite right.
posted by atoxyl at 1:00 PM on March 23, 2017 [1 favorite]


I have a fear of committing to it now?

Interesting you say that. Me, too, lately! What is up with that? I don't think I'm happier for it. I miss digging into a good book and feeling virtuous about it instead of guilty for not devoting all my time to trying to earn a living!
posted by saulgoodman at 1:49 PM on March 23, 2017


I find it weird how the Novel has been canonized as the ultimate art form, the most 'serious' and 'important' one.

Not so long ago, serious people read non-fiction, and fiction was looked down upon as intellectually inferior. It's kind of weird how so many people nowadays signal their intellectual worth by talking and writing &c., about stories made up by people they don't know as if that held some sort of superior knowledge into the human condition. And don't even get me started on the snobbish devotion to the 'Literary' genre, i.e.: pseudo-psychological realism, which is OK as a genre, if that's your thing, even if it does tend to hold on to its tropes all the harder for not realizing they exist.

The article perpetuates all this by sneering that one of the radio commenters 'only read non-fiction' and wondering if that included internet articles. Maybe, why not?

At some time, being serious meant liking Opera, or Epic Poetry, or whatever. The novel's time will pass, it might already have.
posted by signal at 2:00 PM on March 23, 2017 [2 favorites]


Asserting a simple fact about content is different from making a broad statement about the quality/worth/deeper concerns of a broad body of work.

The impression the article gave - which could be wrong - was that the people doing the highest-level literature studies were no longer all that concerned with the quality/worth/deeper concerns of a broad body of work, and that that was kind of weird.
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:37 PM on March 23, 2017


I just like novels, dude, no lofty snobbish agenda to it, fwiw.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:56 PM on March 23, 2017


Sartre's "Being and Nothingness."

If I'm remembering the right book, this one works a lot better in a context, since it's existential and existential philosophy is ...........

....

......weird.
posted by Deoridhe at 4:19 PM on March 23, 2017


Bayard's Agatha Christie fanfic is delightful literary trolling, so I assume How to talk about books you haven't read is more of the same. I wouldn't know because I haven't read it - the copy at the library was stolen and not replaced.
posted by betweenthebars at 5:06 PM on March 23, 2017


Not so long ago, serious people read non-fiction, and fiction was looked down upon as intellectually inferior.

Maybe this is a Two Cultures thing. I would have said the novel hasn't been broadly considered "intellectually inferior" for at least a century or so.

It's kind of weird how so many people nowadays signal their intellectual worth by talking and writing &c., about stories made up by people they don't know as if that held some sort of superior knowledge into the human condition.

But it does. Novels really are one of the best technologies we've got for reflecting the human condition. That's one reason why pretentious people still talk about reading them.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 5:38 PM on March 23, 2017 [1 favorite]


Interesting you say that. Me, too, lately! What is up with that? I don't think I'm happier for it. I miss digging into a good book and feeling virtuous about it instead of guilty for not devoting all my time to trying to earn a living!

I'm the sort of person who, once I start reading a book I pretty much have to finish it within a few sittings - if not right there on the floor of the book store. So in a sense the idea that it's a commitment is real to me. But the strange part is I don't experience this as something intimidating if it's, say, a memoir about neurosurgery. I'll pick that right up and read it right through. Somehow the idea of involving myself with characters just feels like it will be more taxing of my energy.
posted by atoxyl at 6:43 PM on March 23, 2017 [1 favorite]


Somehow the idea of involving myself with characters just feels like it will be more taxing of my energy.

That immediately reminds me of those studies about how reading fiction vs nonfiction improved the readers' ability to empathize with others, possibly because the complex but fragmentary characterization in (difficult) novels helps develop one's theory-of-mind reasoning, etc.
posted by polymodus at 8:11 PM on March 23, 2017 [1 favorite]


Maybe this is a Two Cultures thing. I would have said the novel hasn't been broadly considered "intellectually inferior" for at least a century or so.

Ha, I just figured "not so long ago" meant, like, 150 years ago. I guess scales vary!
posted by praemunire at 9:54 AM on March 24, 2017 [1 favorite]


You don't want to read, don't read. It's not a moral issue.

But don't try to pretend that you're one upping those who do read.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:37 AM on March 25, 2017


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