Thursday, October 11, 2018

In Defense of Unsuspicious Immersion

The May 2018 issue of PMLA (the journal of the Modern Language Association) contains an article by Faye Halpern titled "Beyond Contempt: Ways to Read UNCLE TOM'S CABIN." The author describes how a beta reader of her dissertation remarked on the "contempt" with which Halpern obviously regarded the "sentimental" aspects of the novel. Halpern confesses that she somewhat took pride in her disdain for the work she was studying, because this reaction proved her qualifications as an academic critic, one who isn't taken in by the overt plot and seduced by the novelist's attempt at evoking emotion from the reader. A proper critic rejects "what we perceive as the surface meaning for a deeper meaning," a technique that has been labeled the "school of suspicion" and "paranoid reading." Halpern notes the response of another critic whose approach to UNCLE TOM'S CABIN she found "fascinating and appalling" because it dared to mention the real-world background for the novel's scene of the death of Little Eva—the actual rate of infant and child mortality in the nineteenth century, hence the frequent motif of innocent children's deaths in Victorian fiction. What Halpern found "appalling" at that earlier stage in her career was the other critic's "strong and sympathetic reaction to the text."

Now, I've written academic criticism myself, and I can rejoice in a keen, multi-layered analysis of a literary work. I endorse the principle that a work may hold dimensions and meanings of which the author is unconscious, maybe even contrary to the author's stated ideas and purposes. I believe, however, that a proper critic can (and should) begin with what Halpern calls "unsuspicious immersion" in the narrative. If you don't understand, preferably from personal engagement with the story, what the author claims to be doing, how can you answer the fundamental critical questions: What is the author trying to do in this text? Does the author succeed in this aim? And is it worth doing?

As Halpern says, a novel such as UNCLE TOM'S CABIN "does something to many of its readers, and what that something is depends on how a reader reads." One feature of this novel in particular is that it functions as a "literacy manual"; containing many scenes of characters reading and interpreting books, it apparently "takes pains to teach its readers to read properly." Yet, in Halpern's opinion, the novel is also in some sense an "illiteracy manual." Her reason for this label: "It teaches its readers to think of it as real, to think of its characters as real people."

That's the point where I gasped in disbelief and mild horror. How ELSE is one supposed to read a novel? Isn't that type of immersion ("unsuspicious" openness to the story) exactly what fiction invites? Granted, that's not how we teach English students to read and how professional critics are supposed to approach texts. Those kinds of reading, however, should build upon an initial receptivity to the story. How can we critique a work intelligently if we don't give it a fair chance in the first place?

According to C. S. Lewis in AN EXPERIMENT IN CRITICISM, "We can find a book bad only by reading it as if it might, after all, be very good. We must empty our minds and lay ourselves open." At another point in the same book, he discusses the reading tastes of the "unliterary." Such people don't care about style, theme, or depth of characterization. If anything, those elements distract them from what they want in stories—excitement, suspense, and vicarious pleasure. Their reading is "unliterary," though, not because they enjoy excitement, suspense, etc., but because they're oblivious to anything else in fiction. "These things ought they to have done and not left others undone. For all these enjoyments are shared by good readers reading good books."

Likewise, Tolkien refers to what we're calling "unsuspicious immersion" in his essay "On Fairy Stories," where he discusses the concept of willing suspension of disbelief. In his view, that's not enough. Rather, he says, "But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful 'sub-creator.' He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is 'true': it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside." He calls this "enchanted" state of mind Secondary Belief.

If Tolkien and Lewis don't qualify as academic authorities on the proper way to read a story, who on Earth does?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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