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Old 05-17-2009, 06:29 PM   #1
Dr. Drib
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What We Talk About When We Talk About Reading

The title of this thread is a play on a book and short story by Raymond Carver, a writer whose work I love. Carver, in much of his fiction, investigated the vagaries of love and the happenstances of fate and, in his relatively brief writing career, produced some of the most enduring short fiction of the previous century.

When I’m not playing with dead things* or teasing zombies by walking faster than they can amble, I like to read two different kinds of fiction: Literature and Everything Else.

In the Everything Else category, I would include Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Mysteries, Pot Boilers, etc. – what I call genre fiction. I enjoy different kinds of Everything Else, be it really trashy fiction such as (for example) Edward Wood’s immortally horrible fiction; or else I enjoy reading genre fiction. I particularly love the fiction of Richard S. Prather, a mystery writer who sold millions of books featuring his wise-cracking, woman-loving private eye named Shell Scott. I read these as a kid, titillated by the sexuality and by his ability to infuse a tight and often outrageous plot into the mix. Now, as an adult I enjoy reading them for the exact same reason, but with an understanding of their limitations. They are no less enjoyable today.

In Shell Scott’s world, women are objectified within a framework of mystery detection:

“She was wearing a silver mask that covered her face from forehead to lips but left her lips bare so you could see them. And a good thing, too; it would have been a major crime to cover up lips like those. They were the full, curving kind that you knew said, ‘Mash me,’ in hot whispers, and I was getting increasingly curious about the eyes and the nose and the cheekbones." (Bodies in Bedlam)

And not much later, Scott ruminates:

“She had thirty-six inches that wasn’t muscle under the opaque blouse and I couldn’t understand why the blouse didn’t fall the rest of the way down…" (Bodies in Bedlam)

But before you get the impression that Shell Scott is only interested in his libido, it’s important to point out that Richard S. Prather’s mysteries move at an alarming pace and have, within the limited context of his work, a moral code of behavior. Shell Scott, I would argue, is a ‘good guy,’ wanting to ‘right wrongs’ in a world that has the toughness of a dried cadaver. The novels offer a mix of plot and a wackiness of incidence, both ingredients making them enjoyable reads even today. They represent an era in crime fiction when women were often seen as ornaments to the plot - certainly one-dimensional, I’ll agree - but nevertheless, ornaments capable of extending to this tough-guy image.

Many of us read with a varying degrees of introspection, while some of us read without a thought in the world. We read just for the pleasure of reading, or we read to be enlightened in some way, be it non-fiction or fiction.

Thinking about reading and thinking about how we define ourselves as Readers got me to thinking about Wolfgang Iser, a literary theorist who writes about the Implied Reader. Simply put, what does the Reader do with the Text, and how does this Implied Reader construct a personal aesthetics of Reading in which the Reader is a component of the structure of the text. Each Reader brings to a text his or her special conceptualization of what the text is: In the process, the text becomes the meeting-place for transcendence. Thus, meaning is given.

For Iser, then, Reader Response theory does not see the text as something that has within it a “hidden” agenda, one that must be mined in order to be understand (a literary approach toward critical analyses used in most schools in the past, as well as within today’s failed educational framework), but rather sees the Reader as taking up a dialogue with the Text in order to transcend this act of Reading.

So, these are some thoughts I had today, as I read Prather's book and then started "The Royal Family," by William T. Vollmann, a literary writer who happens to write about pimps, prostitutes, and other disenfranchised individuals amongst us seeking love and absolution. (Vollmann is in my "Literature" category, for anyone who's interested.)

Of course, your experiences may differ.


*I only FIGURATIVELY “kill” felines, which is a problem only for those individuals who conflate Fiction with Truth.


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Old 05-17-2009, 07:37 PM   #2
sirbruce
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First of all, minus several million points for suggesting that genre fiction can't be good enough to qualify as "Literature".

As to the nature of the art of writing, I very much reject the "hidden meaning" theories of literary analysis, particularly when conclusions are drawn about the author from what he wrote. I prefer to defer to the author in their own words "why" they wrote something and what they "meant", if they're willing to discuss it.

I think writing, like all art, is about evoking something in the observer, and so to that extent how you react to a work and what you get from it is ultimately what's most important. Nevertheless, art for the sake of evocation itself -- art designed not to convey anything in particular but purely to get you to react -- generally leaves me unsatisfied. This is particular true when the art is a *storytelling* art, such as a novel or movie. While my reaction to the work is paramount, my primary interest in those *particular* forms of art is to listen to what the *author* is trying to say. I may agree or disagree with their story upon reflection, but I still want a *story* to be there. It's the difference between a picture of food and the food itself; either will make you salivate, but only the latter provides a satisfying meal.
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