As The Project kicks off this week and I start to work my way through the books on the list and share some critical thoughts in a public forum, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a responsible reader and critic. In a media landscape of sensationalist soundbites, popularist pandering and political doublespeak, it’s all to easy to think in parochial ways and to grandstand. The notion that we should honour speakers, writers, or political figures with an attentive or even loving ear seems increasingly foreign. In some cases spectacularly foreign – the current US presidential debates and their attendant reportage a case in point.
1. A responsible critic is a generous reader.
Meg writes of a talk she attended by young-adult writer John Green last month. Speaking at the National Book Festival in D.C., Green said there are two primary gifts his readers give him. The first, tongue in cheek,is financial support. The second he called the gift of generous reading, which he described as the virtue of approaching his books with an open mind and generous spirit. A responsible reader resists the temptation to decide ahead of time the worth of the book and particularly one’s view of it.
2. A responsible critic is first servant of the text and only then judge.
Steiner makes the following distinctions between the reader and the critic: The critic aims to create distance between herself and the text in order to become both ”judge and master” of the text, standing against the text in an adversarial, competitive, and parasitic relationship (he is not using this in a pejorative, but rather a descriptive sense… he is of course a critic himself!). The reader, however, submits to the text in dynamic passivity, eschewing as much distance as possible between himself and the text, entering into it as he is himself entered by the text. The reader is read by the text just as the text is read by him.
Any critic can assume judgement over a text, but a virtuous critic first chooses to experience and engage the text as reader.
3. A responsible critic attempts to become the model reader assumed by the text
What I have in mind here is simply that a virtuous reader plays first and foremost by the rules the text he is reading assumes. That is to say, while most texts (and particularly the literary novel that we have in view) support manifold interpretations, anything simply does not go. Or as Umberto Eco has it, “between the unattainable intention of the author and the arguable intention of the reader there is the transparent intention of the text which disproves an untenable interpretation.” The Model Reader, according to Eco, is the one who can actualise the meaning of all that the textual strategy intends to say (on this account Eco’s Model Reader corresponds more or less to Wolgang Iser’s Implied Reader). This starts to enter into the fascinating but rather murky and complex waters of semiotics and Reader-Response theory, which I won’t belabour right now. For a brilliant and humourous essay that examines these issues in light of the reception of his own fictional novel, check out Eco’s “The Author and his Interpreters” here.
4. A responsible critic understands the author before criticising
Years ago when I first read Gordon Fee’s New Testament Exegesis, one paragraph near launched itself from the page to possess my consciousness: “A student is not bound to reproduce slavishly the interpretations of others, but you are bound to assess critically what you read. Before you can say, “I disagree,” you must be able to say, “I understand.”" He followed this by one of the most simple but least modelled imperatives I have encountered in the real world of disagreement: “It is axiomatic that before you level criticism you should be able to state an author’s positions in terms that he or she would find acceptable.”
Fee has in his purview here secondary literature of a propositional nature, but the general ethos carries well over to the role of literary critic.
5. A responsible critic is a humble critic
The critic, like the author, is all too human, and really ought to stand before the text with a knowledge of his own limitations and short-comings. Yep, I need remember this one.
The notion of responsible reading, particularly as I’ve sketched above in terms of virtue, is conspicuously and unapologetically a moral conception. With Vanhoozer I think that a virtuous reader is one with “a disposition of the mind and heart that arises from the motivation of understanding, for cognitive contact with the meaning of the text.” Recent thinking in virtue ethics, particularly through the work of Zagzebski, indicate the inextricable connection between intellectual virtues and moral virtues. As such, reading develops our intellectual virtues and, circularly, our intellectual virtues develop us as readers.
“genuine interpretation of another’s writing is an act of love or it is an act of abuse. Either we treat the author as a person who has given voice to his or her inner heart and that we can trust, listen to, and respond to. Or, we treat that person as a duplicitous voice that we can’t trust and that we can strip in order to use for our own power.”
I find this provocative, challenging, and critical. Ultimately, the way we choose to read and critique a text says more about our own character than it necessarily does about the author or the text itself. To read lovingly, as to love in general, is a challenge. As Katherine Porter wrote so eloquently, “Love must be learned, and learned again and again; there is no end to it. Hate needs no instruction, but waits only to be provoked”. Or with St Francis, “grant that I may not so much seek … to be understood, as to understand, to be loved, as to love.”
John Updike is a brilliant contemporary American novelists as well as respected critic (I’m incredibly excited to get to his Rabbit Angrstrom Tetrology on the list, even though it means reading 4 books instead of the usual 1 a week). Over at Book of words is a reprint of Updike’s Rules of Reviewing Books, which is an excellent starting point for the would be reviewer: