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I recently read a few blog posts on the Express Tribune Blog, a Pakistan based e-paper. The content of the posts ranged from mediocre to good to exceptional. Ironically though, it wasn’t the posts that caught my attention but instead, it was the stream of reader comments following most of the posts.
One writer had the authenticity of his Fulbright questioned because he was writing on topics considered ‘unacceptable to the general public’. Another was asked how she secured an A grade in her O-Levels English exam with the kind of mediocre opinions she had. Yet another became the victim of aspersions cast on her character because a majority of men were offended by what she wrote.
See a pattern forming here? No one is commenting on the style of writing but is instead basing judgements solely on the content of the piece. Debasing comments are being passed regarding the writers – in a not so polite manner, I might add – because they choose to blog about their personal opinions.
What makes one a good reader? Surely not the fact that we are forming all sorts of theories about the writer’s character based on the text they produce. What we fail to realize is that while the content of a literary piece may be very important in captivating the audience, it is not the sole thing to focus on. The beauty of the piece lies in the aesthetic appeal it provides and not in how controversial its content is. For a good writing style does not produce a content that has to have a message or provide us with knowledge about the world. For the readers, its sole purpose is to provide them with such language and imagery so as to help them visualize everything that they are reading.
One of the cardinal rules of reading is to stay close to the text. That is, to stop generalizing. What the author produces in terms of content has no bearing on his/her real life, and even if the story is drawn from a real life experience, the important thing for a reader is not to dwell upon how the story came about but instead, on what the story is in itself. The piece of writing is just there; it is free from anything about the world. It is self-referring, self-sufficient and self-contained. As mentioned by Susan Sontag in her essay On Style, “a work of art is a thing in the world, not just a text or commentary on the world”.
The mistake that we make when reading literature is that we fail to detach ourselves from the text. Good readers are those who can focus on a piece of writing with an indifferent and neutral approach to it as far as the content is concerned, and instead focus solely on the style of writing, which consists of the excellent use of language, use of metaphors, creation of imagery, etcetera. What fails to make us a proficient reader is our innate nature to apply everything we read or observe to ourselves, and thus judge a work based on whether we can relate to it or not. I say this is a failure on our parts as a reader, because the authors do not write with the intention of making their readers apply everything to themselves. The author only writes with the intention of creating the aesthetic experience for the reader. It is all about the aestheticism, not the usefulness in terms of practical application.
In one of my Literature classes, the instructor told us the story of an English teacher who asked his students to read Madame Bovary. Upon finishing the novel, one of the students told the instructor that she did not like the book. When asked why, she gave the clichéd reply, “I could not relate to it.” When Gustave Flaubert wrote this book, I doubt he was concerned about whether the women of the world could relate to the character’s adulterous affairs. In fact, if that was the case, the book would lose its credibility based on the fact that not many women can put themselves in an adulteress’ shoes. As readers, who are we to judge the characters and the story created by an author? No, we can only judge the experience the book may or may not create for us.
The novel The Age of Innocence, very broadly speaking, tells the tale of two people who can’t be together due to various constraints. Is our job as readers to dismiss the story as a clichéd plot, or to worship it as an exceptional piece of literature. While Edith Wharton may have focused on morality issues in this novel, the real story that the readers are expected to see does not lie in an ethical discussion regarding those morals, but in the attention to detail. The novel is constructed in a way where descriptions about furniture and clothes convey a sense of character. Our central focus, when reading, should be on how the words have been used and what are they trying to convey within the framework of the story. Alas, our focus instead becomes all about the morals and the ethics, as opposed to the aesthetics. That is what makes us a mediocre reader.
Being a good reader does not mean that we stop analyzing the text completely. Being a good reader only means that this analysis be done about the construction of the piece rather than the content; that it be done about how the piece is constructed instead of what is being constructed. We tend to debase the author’s character and generalize by applying the plot in every walk of life, and thus fail to understand the true essence of the piece – that is, its ability to communicate aesthetically. We must pay attention to the visual journey the text takes us on, not to how well we can relate to it.
Ultimately, we must all ask ourselves the same question: Are we good readers?