Something is missing amid our present superabundance of new fictions, new talents, and even new seriousness. We lack novels that address the idea of literature as equipment for living. The literature of the past was full of such ideas, of characters who turn to novels to change their lives (no matter how badly things often turned out). So what would a contemporary Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, or Anna Karenina be like? The characters wouldn’t make the same mistakes—trying to live their lives as though following the script of a novel—but their reading might still change them in unexpected ways. Imagine a new novel about the conflicts within our present-day readers. Call it “The Good Reader” or “The Interpreters,” or maybe “The Good and the Bored.” What would this novel be like, and where are the characters who will fill its pages?
Our generation seems far too aware that reading is safe and fun, that literature is spectacle. Readers of all kinds tend to feel transported or shocked, to experience a style the way people thrill to a virtuoso pianist, to have an adventure, to feel empowered (though not to be empowered), to get turned on. In the grip of these tendencies, we feed our voyeurism, hero-worship, lust, nostalgia, our desires to identify and project. We are vampires who yearn to warm our shivering lives with the deaths we read about, as Walter Benjamin remarked about an earlier generation of readers alienated from their communal experiences and lured into cities. We fortify our blood with ink about imaginary others. This relationship to books mirrors uncomfortably our relationship to the world: citizens of the freest of countries, yet we are wrought upon from without. We live in a cloud of vague dangers, neither clear nor present. Unelected judges appoint our president, and a man in a suit (once a Greenspan, now a Bernanke) determines whether stocks, prices, and unemployment rates rise or fall. Consent is all that is asked of us, or suspension of disbelief. And it seems that our ever increasing supply of fictions does nothing but abet the cultivation of this decadent passivity, an ideological apparatus all the more insidious for not belonging to the state.
This criticism of readers is as old as prophetic castigations of idol worshippers. The concern has usually been that reading will lead to wrong actions or no action—to immorality or passivity. So Wordsworth thought that the surge in popular novels and plays at the beginning of the industrial revolution had plunged English minds into “savage torpor.” He recommended we read more to cure ourselves—more Wordsworth. Novelists too wrote against the wrong kind of novels and the wrong kind of readers. This remains one of the strongest unsettled legacies of the long tradition of the modern novel, from the era of the French Revolution, through Flaubert and Tolstoy, up through today.
The rescue of readers from their own pernicious tendencies must be counted among the many utopian projects of the past two centuries, and, like nationalism and communism, it gained an accelerated force at the beginning of the 20th. From the evident aesthetic and political failures of socialist realism onward, novelists, critics, and teachers have struggled to create readers whose aesthetic sensibilities would trigger their social responsibility and, if lucky, their mental liberation. Sometimes readers were to be dragged out of their everyday slough by an array of estrangement effects. At others, they would find freedom and enlightenment through an understanding of the arbitrary nature of the conventions governing language and narrative action. The rise of “literary theory” was aligned with these utopian hopes and movements. Looking back now, we can see the 20th century as the golden age of the reader as hero.
Where did this figure go? Like so much else, the heroic reader has succumbed to triumphal capitalism. We look around and find that we are in a consumer’s world. Even those who supposedly “care” for literature have turned themselves into fans and enthusiasts. Does such and such a novel keep it real? Does it pique curiosity? Do I identify? Do I like the sound of this voice in my ear? The idea of the reader as canny consumer is so pervasive that one editor of a prominent literary magazine writes about herself as a member of “the service economy” and compares criticism to waitressing. It was undoubtedly a moment of weakness. But still: is a taste for literature nothing more than a refined palate? Is literary criticism really like being able to tell which wine tastes of wet stone and which of tart blackberry?