Reading Against Itself

Rebecca Wells Jopling speculates on a phenomenon in which "readers sometimes struggle against or try to mitigate the effects of reading the fictions in which they are engaged”:

    Some readers say that they slow their reading before coming to the culminating moment in a tragedy. I wonder if book clubs are another strategy that people use to put some distance between themselves and the fiction they read. We simply do not know what we’re coming upon in the wilderness of some stories. If we have the company of others, though, we may feel emboldened to carry on. (“Distancing Ourselves from Fiction,” OnFiction.)

Apparently, some readers need such "self-protective strategies" that "buy time, until the reader can sort out what is happening to her emotionally." I say "apparently" because this is a reading practice so foreign to my own that I want to think the "struggle" invoked here is being considerably exaggerated. I have never tried to "mitigate the effects" of any fiction I am reading other than to read more carefully. I have never engaged in a "self-protective strategy" in order to "buy time," especially not to "sort out" my emotions. If a particular work of fiction does provoke a strong emotion—which for me actually happens only rarely—I presume that this is the emotion the text was designed to create (otherwise I'm just reading badly) and that my role as reader is to meet the text halfway and pursue that emotion where it's going to lead. That I would try to actively resist the work's effects—emotional, psychological, or formal—seems antithetical to my understanding of what a "reading experience" has to offer.

The explanations Jopling gives for this resistance among some readers seem to me as unconvincing as the phenomenon itself is strange. "It could be," she writers "that these readers know, perhaps not consciously but subconsciously, that the book could change their beliefs, and not always in a predictable way." I can understand a kind of squeamishness about strong emotions—fear, grief, anger—that one doesn't necessarily want to indulge (although in that case you probably shouldn't be reading the kind of fiction you know is going to give rise to such emotions), but that reading a work of fiction might make one squeamish about one's beliefs seems a very large leap, even, as explicated, incoherent. Beliefs about what? Research is cited that supposedly shows that readers are vulnerable to a kind of cognitive incaution and "must engage in effortful processing to disbelieve the information they encounter in literary narratives." "Belief" is thus largely epistemological, or so it would seem, the process of arriving at conclusions based on "information."

But is this "information" about the characters or incidents in a fictional story, or is it "information" of the sort one needs to form firm beliefs about the world outside the text? Since it is implausible that readers would need to disbelieve their suspension of disbelief—we all know going in that our suspension of disbelief is artificial—it must be the second kind of "information" that needs to be combatted. Again, I am hard-pressed to understand this fear of "information," since I don't read novels for information, and wouldn't recognize it if it were presented. Reading fiction is an experience, an aesthetic experience in which at best "information" is woven into the fictional fabric, conditioned by its manifestation in fiction. Novels that attempt to convey information without integrating it in this way are bad novels, and I don't know why a theory of reading would focus on such a flawed conception of what novels do.

Jopling continues:

    Perhaps strong feelings of rejection toward a story and the resulting strategies for distancing oneself arise because readers somehow know that continuing to read may leave them walking around holding beliefs that they do not want to hold, having thoughts that they do not want to have, and re-experiencing images that they do not want to re-experience.

While it is more plausible to me that some readers might while reading, or after reading, a novel be "having thoughts that they do not want to have, and re-experiencing images that they do not want to re-experience" than that they are "walking around holding beliefs that they do not want to hold," it remains unexplained why any serious readers of fiction would be so shocked that what they read might challenge their assumptions or present vivid images. These are among the most historically-recognized functions of literature, and even in popular fiction many readers return to particular genres precisely because they know that certain kinds of "thoughts" and certain kinds of "images," some of them disturbing, are going to recur. Unless Jopling is confining her analysis to the most naive and most unadventurous of readers, it's very difficult to accept that the fear of alien thoughts, images, or beliefs motivates many readers' responses to aesthetically credible novels, or any works of narrative art, for that matter.

The very need to "distance ourselves" in the emotionally immediate way described by Joplin really only testifies to a flawed, unreflective way of reading fiction. It posits an intensity of involvement with "character" and "event"—the creation of which isn't ultimately very hard for most minimally skilled writers—such that all other considerations, point of view, style, narrative method, simply disappear into irrelevance. A reading attentive to these elements already incorporates an appropriate "distance." A reading of fiction that ignores them is to that extent an impoverished reading.