Friday, October 22, 2010

I can’t read it if I don’t notice it

Over at A Memory Theater, Adlai Jurek admits to himself that there are books he will never read. Not because he has made the conscious decision not to—he is not talking about books by Stieg Larsson or Jodi Picoult—but because his experience, training, and preconceptions (the “roles he occupies,” as he puts it, and “his general circumstance”) incline him to prefer certain books. Others never even rise to the level of notice.

For all I know, there may be literary masterpieces on the shelves of Christian inspirational fiction, but it would never occur to me to seek them out. The Jewish mentalité gives me this much of a resemblance to the strict church-state separatist: inspirational happy talk makes me want to call in the ACLU. What is not to one’s taste can be easily confused with what is offensive to decency.

There are “possible universes inherent in your choices,” Jurek says, which “result from the interpretative schemes” to which you subscribe. Your intellectual habits restrict the horizon of the possible, that is, but plenty of worlds remain open to you. I enjoy the language of modal realism, but not so much Jurek’s allusion to Stanley Fish’s notion of “interpretive communities.”

On the one hand, interpretive schemes or interpretive communities are entirely consonant with possible worlds. The philosopher David Lewis, in discussing how fiction tells truth, speaks of “the collective belief worlds of the community of [a fiction’s] origin. . . .” An interpretive community, from this angle, might be a body of people who share “belief worlds.” The Jews who share a belief that inspirationalism is fundamentally lame, for example. Worlds that are created by uplifting, go-get-’em perorations are not possible worlds among those who share such a belief.

On the other hand, Lewis and Fish conceive of belief at vastly different levels. Lewis means collective beliefs that are so deeply assumed they become tautological when reduced to speech: blue is blue and not green. The horizons of such a collective world are not amenable to change. The world is experienced as actuality.

What Fish has in mind (and Jurek too, I think) are second-order propositions about a world whose actuality is assumed and needs no defense: states that vote Republican should be called “blue states,” because blue has always been the color of conservatism. Many times these are the sorts of beliefs that serve as cultural markers; that is, they are advanced to announce one’s place within a community of the like-minded.

Despite the cognitive riches of such “interpretive schemes”—such ways of sorting opinions about the world—they are relatively trivial when compared to the collective belief world that constitutes a people’s conception of actuality. And unlike the latter, they can be dropped, exchanged, altered, ignored, forgotten, twisted, contradicted, and punted at will. A strong argument might even persuade me to pick up this title or that of Christian inspirational fiction. I’d go even farther and suggest that among the prime duties of literary criticism is to challenge the “interpretive schemes” that award some books auto-response praise and treat others as beneath notice. Especially if the interpretive community whose thinking has gone stale is one’s own.


rjnagle said...

wow, I am working on a literary essay about almost the same topic.

I think subject matter and literary style designation really prejudices the reader. Also, I think people seek out certain kinds of fiction that satisfy some unmet need. I certainly have enjoyed my fair share of Jewish literature, but do I go out of my way to seek it out? Probably not. yet, it seems that I read an awful lot of Eastern European fiction. I used to live in that region, but my love for fiction from that region predated even that.

Unfortunately I think that the specialized reading which academics do might discourage them from being aware of new and more mainstream fiction or less genres.

Using your Christian inspiration fiction example, I have to wonder whether you or I could enter that novel's world very easily (or if we did, it would be to mock it or at least note the characteristics of the genre). At the same time, there are probably people who seek out these kinds of books because of their religious beliefs.

by the way, I think parody allows the author to have it both ways. Cervantes can play within the knight genre and still let us laugh at it while at the same time relishing this immature genre.

I am currently writing a book of essays about the Ohio short story writer Jack Matthews . All of his nonfiction books are about book collecting (and frankly, are a hoot). Matthews goes out of his way to locate and read books from previous centuries which for one reason or another seem unreadable. He manages to find something interesting/redeeming/remarkable in almost every work he rediscovers. I would imagine he would relish the idea of coming across a 19th century Christian tale and relish its quirky aspects