Sunday, July 02, 2006

How do we read?

Litlove has a recent post on "ethical criticism," a term taken from Wayne Booth, which refers to reading and judging books based on their ethical stances. Litlove writes about the difficulty of figuring out what to do with books that express something ethically troubling -- for example Huck Finn, and the way one can label it racist -- or not -- and Camus's The Outsider and its story of the casual killing of an Arab man. So, the question becomes, how do we read these books? DO we read them? How should we write about them? How do we handle them when we can't come to a consensus about them?

I don't have any great answers to these questions, other than to say that I don't think anyone should discourage anybody from reading anything because of ethically dubious content. But that doesn't mean those ethical problems aren't up for discussion and critique. When it comes to course syllabi, it's a bit more complicated because a syllabus by its nature excludes, and so it becomes easier to keep replace something troublesome with a text more pleasing to contemporary readers. But I think the classroom is a great place to read books that challenge our sense of ethics -- to consider the ways Huck Finn might or might not be racist. These books should be part of a debate, not excluded from it.

This discussion reminds me of a conversation I had with a graduate school professor with whom I took a couple classes in contemporary American poetry. I had a talk with her in her office one time about poetry, and I don't remember the full context, but I mentioned liking Robert Lowell, and I remember that she gave me a funny look. The look was unintentional, I'm sure, and probably she wasn't even aware of it, but it seemed to me to express disapproval of my poetic tastes. It said something like, "oh, you poor thing, why do you like that poet? He treated women so badly! He owes a huge debt to Anne Sexton he never acknowledged, and he stole material from his wife to use in his own poems. If you thought about it more, you'd decide you don't like Lowell after all." She didn't say anything, but the look was enough to make me realize she was judging me -- probably thinking I was a naive reader, a victim of the patriarchy that made me read texts and authors that belittle women all my life.

Now that might actually be true -- I might have been a naive reader, and I certainly had had to read texts that portray women badly all my life -- but why should anyone judge me for getting something valuable out of those texts anyway? Why can't I like Lowell? I think it is important to consider the ways Lowell might have written about women badly -- I don't want to be a naive reader after all, if I can help it -- but that, in my opinion, doesn't mean I can't read him or appreciate what he does in his poems.

I'll bet this professor wasn't really aware of what she was communicating to me, and on some level I was highly sensitive about the issue, or I wouldn't have read so much into such a short exchange. But I wish she hadn't been so quick to judge me. There are all kinds of reasons to read people with whom we might disagree, or who might offend us in some way. I might decide that the bad outweighs the good in a particular author and conclude that I don't want to read that person anymore, but I wouldn't want to impose that personal decision on anybody else. Wayne Booth's ethical criticism sounds valuable; I think it's important to consider the moral world created by a work of art, but I think an ethical criticism that sets out to keep people from reading something or that makes judgments about people's pleasure in reading something just isn't worth it.