books We Know About Bad Books, But Are There Bad Readers, Too?
Select four answers to the question what should a reader be to be a good reader:
- The reader should belong to a book club.
- The reader should identify himself or herself with the hero or heroine.
- The reader should concentrate on the social-economic angle.
- The reader should prefer a story with action and dialogue to one with none.
- The reader should have seen the book in a movie.
- The reader should be a budding author.
- The reader should have imagination.
- The reader should have memory.
- The reader should have a dictionary.
- The reader should have some artistic sense.
—Vladimir Nabokov, “Good Readers and Good Writers” (1948)
Quizzing the students in his European literature class at Cornell on their reading habits, the Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov observed in 1948, “The students leaned heavily on emotional identiﬁcation, action, and the social-economic or historical angle. Of course, as you have guessed, the good reader is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense.” On one level Nabokov was airing a teacher’s frustration at how U.S. readers had failed to cultivate key practices of aesthetic appreciation. While Nabokov was busy scrutinizing and cataloging literary devices, his U.S. students were frittering away their time trying to feel what ﬁctional characters felt. On another level, however, Nabokov was making a subtle argument about the reading practices that had arisen alongside other changes in the United States just after World War II: not only the growing prominence of book clubs and Hollywood adaptations but also the vast array of literacy programs that imagined an increasingly intimate relationship between a “social-economic or historical angle” of reading and nationally marked practices of “identiﬁcation,” “dialogue,” and “action” undertaken by readers.
Although his pop quiz registers his disdain for readers who deprioritized aesthetics, Nabokov himself was no stranger to such institutional projects of reading. In 1947 he had asked his good friend Edmund Wilson to recommend him to the State Department as a Russian broadcaster of American literature at the Voice of America (VOA)—a job he lost to his more charismatic cousin, Nicolas Nabokov, who would later become the secretary general of the Congress of Cultural Freedom (CCF). “Good old Nika got the job which had been promised to me,” he grumbled to Wilson. Installed at Cornell less than one year after the VOA denied him a job reading literature over the radio to Russian audiences, Nabokov had suggestively titled the introductory lecture to his European literature class “Good Readers and Good Writers.” Yet what seemed to lend the lecture both its revelatory and its judgmental force was precisely its intimation of all the “bad” readers who lurked outside the literature classroom, ﬁddling with the dials on their radios or attending mass readings sponsored by the CCF. These were the readers who in Nabokov’s view had made reading into both a problem for teachers of literature like himself and a tremendously powerful activity—one that had the potential to shape international histories of identiﬁcation, dialogue, and action outside the conﬁnes of the literature classroom.
Nabokov’s alignment of “good” readers with the aesthetic sensibilities of “good” writers would go on to become one of the most commonly promoted identities of U.S. ﬁction after World War II. Never before had so many people aspired to engage with literary texts as serious works of art, armed with an autonomous set of rules governing what they read, how they read, and to what ends. Whether as exceptional students who went on to become professional writers, editors, publishers, teachers, or scholars of literature, or merely dutiful ones who would scatter into the workforce after graduation, the imprint of the good reader was often treated as a wholesale remaking of whatever reading habits had come before and a defense against those that might come after. And although he had pegged his students as mostly bad readers, Nabokov’s pop quiz, widely cited and circulated in introductory literature classes to this day, suggests the extraordinary degree to which literary culture would go on to naturalize the ﬁgure of the good reader—once hailed as the “close reader” by the New Critics, later as the “critical reader” by literary theorists—as its privileged reading subject.
Yet whatever name he went by, the good reader’s cultural elevation always relied on his oppositional relationship to the curiously undifferentiated mass of bad readers, who struck Nabokov—and have struck many teachers and literary scholars since—as a kind of irritating background noise; always already present and unworthy of any serious or systematic consideration. Indeed, Nabokov’s lecture seemed custom designed to bolster a general disdain for bad readers in U.S. academia. Poet Edouard Roditi noted in 1947 that “curious high-brow prejudices make many of us neglect our good writers who have gained popularity with bad readers.” Columbia professor William York Tindall, in his 1959 guide to reading modernist literature, argued that a “great artist” was one who “found the exact way to say what he saw. If the way he found shuts bad readers out, they must try to become better.” For Kenneth Burke an “overwhelming array of bad readers” was responsible for perpetuating the “practicality shibboleth” of reading: a widespread belief in the “kinds of action” that literature could “stimulate” in “political and economic situations.” Such pragmatism all but ensured that the artistic merits of “good books” would “pale into insigniﬁcance.” Walter Kaufmann bemoaned “the future of the humanities” when, in 1977, it appeared that this future had been bequeathed to “bad readers,” while the monthly magazine College Teacher instructed “bad readers” to steer clear of serious literature and limit their efforts to “menu reading, cookbooks, ‘how to’ manuals, comic books, advertisements, magazines, newspapers, and simple novels.” Of course, such sweeping indictments raise more questions than they answer. Who were these bad readers? Where had they come from? What did they want out of reading? And what, exactly, made them so bad in the ﬁrst place?
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When I talk about bad readers I am talking, in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way, about individuals socialized into the practices of readerly identiﬁcation, emotion, action, and interaction that Nabokov decried; practices rooted in a political culture that insisted on “Something to Be Done” by literature, as the poet Conrad Aiken put it so bluntly in a 1956 letter to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The midcentury United States witnessed a dramatic shift away from reading literature in elite academic institutions and toward institutions that stressed literature’s communicative and public value in a rapidly internationalizing world. This shift also consolidated new practices of reading literary texts that posited a strong, disciplined, and habitual relationship between aesthetic representation and readers’ lived experiences of public communication—a relationship located not exclusively or even primarily in the national production of literary ﬁction but in international acts of speech, gesture, perception, consumption, and face-to-face interaction. Without a theoretical account of how reading and international communicative practices came to overlap with one another, it is all too easy to dismiss reading that does not look like Nabokov’s good reading as merely imitative, emotional, information seeking, faddish, escapist, propagandist, or otherwise unworthy of critical attention in its own right—as the genetically “middlebrow” or “mass cultural” antithesis to the university’s highly specialized literacy projects. To do so is to fail to grapple with the historically contingent production of speciﬁc kinds of bad and good readers, whose matter-of-fact opposition to one other—and, more implicitly, their deﬁnition through one another—was negotiated in more materially and imaginatively complex ways than the terms good and bad could ever convey.
Nowhere was this shift in reading practices more apparent than in institutions of international communication, where American literature played a crucial role in helping national and international readers alike acclimate to the rise of U.S. power in the lead-up to World War II and to the perpetually anxious state of Cold War liberalism in the years that followed. At the same time that U.S. universities appeared to be churning out good readers by the hundreds, one could also observe the rising social prominence of hundreds of thousands of bad readers conscripted by the nation as disciplined international communicators, whether in the social spaces of Nicolas Nabokov’s VOA, diplomatic and ambassadorial missions (such as the People-to-People Initiative), private and public cultural exchange programs (such as the Junior Year Abroad or Fulbright Scholar Program), multinational corporations (such as Pan-Am or the American Express Company’s international tours), international magazines (such as National Geographic), or global activist groups. The institutions of literacy cultivation are intriguing not only for the sheer novelty of their political and international conscription of U.S. reading publics. Instead, these institutions strike me as exemplary for how people trained to read under their auspices began to imagine that reading literature might, quite literally, change the world: how it would emotionally move and ethically instruct the nation’s political adversaries, how it would educate and improve its allies, and how it would transform readers into living, breathing representatives of the culture that produced them. By my account, “bad readers” were not born; they were made. And their creation helped devise enduring strategies for how people could use literature to learn to speak, feel, perceive, and interact with others throughout the postwar period.
Why do bad readers matter? It is because they lead us to the kinds of citizens—the internationalized subjects—that practices of bad reading aspired to produce; and show how these literate subjects used reading to navigate a political climate that championed liberal individualism, on the one hand, while establishing unprecedented forms of institutional oversight, on the other. These subjects’ diverse and often overlapping genres of reading— properly “literary” novels but also “how to” manuals, advertisements, magazines, newspapers, simple novels, and bureaucratic documents—formed a rich textual ecology whose national and geographic limits literary scholars and cultural historians are only just beginning to map.
One common recasting of Nabokov’s good reader was as the properly “literary reader”: the exemplary subject of the school whose pedagogical techniques and choice of textual objects mirrored literature’s cultural construction as an autonomous discipline. Yet just as good readers required bad readers to prop up their sense of social distinction, so too did the category of literature require something outside itself to stabilize it. If, as Jeffrey Williams has insisted, “the core of a thing called literature” is simply “what people in literature departments do,” then it would seem impossible to grasp the pressurized formation or the structural integrity of this core without understanding what people outside of literature departments did (and continue to do) with literature. And as the example of Nabokov’s desired if unrealized VOA gig suggests, neither literature departments nor universities are closed systems; the people who ﬂit into and out of these institutional spaces often do double—and sometimes triple and quadruple—duty as readers, writers, and human actors in many different social contexts. There is no reason, then, to assume that people’s methods of reading can or should remain constant throughout the situational twists and turns of their day-to-day lives. If the good reader is framed as the properly literary reader and his privileged space is the literature department, then perhaps we should think of Nabokov’s bad readers not as “unliterary,” “subliterary,” or “nonliterary readers,” but as paraliterary ones, forged in the political, economic, and civic institutions that orbited literature departments throughout the postwar period.
Like a paramilitary group, which borrows its training techniques from the military but adapts them to different ends, or a parasite, which lives beside and feeds off its host, paraliterary readers exist alongside and in dialogue with the institutions of literature. More speciﬁcally, they count in their ranks many of the same actors—readers as well as writers—who, when airlifted out of American literature departments after World War II and placed in international contexts of reading American ﬁction, started to embrace apparently inscrutable ethical and practical dispositions toward literature. Bad readers were trained by their new institutional contexts to treat literary texts as repositories of “typical situations, roles, possible trains of events, [and] schemes of action,” to recall Bernard Lahire’s extensive catalog of how people read once reading and producing literature is no longer treated as an autonomous enterprise.
How did these strange, but no less systematic or meticulously considered, methods of reading come to shape the constellation of aesthetic and communicative practices within which postwar American literature ﬂourished? This is an account of how American literature made its mark on the world in strange and unappreciated ways: not through the triumphal denationalization or subnationalization of literary production, but through distinctly international institutions of literary socialization, at home and in the world at large.
• • •
How does one become a paraliterary reader? We are overwhelmingly familiar with the equipment that goes into the making of good readers: close reading, critical reading, depth reading; the canon, the curriculum, the literature seminar. But what texts and institutional spaces account for the creation of bad readers? To understand how people read in institutions adjacent to literature departments, we must first account for the distinctive types of texts that people read in tandem with literary works. From elocution primers to conduct books, advertisements, consumer guides, scientiﬁc treatises, intelligence reports, and bureaucratic archives, the written artifacts of modern institutions offer surprisingly perceptive commentaries on how one can and should read literature as a properly internationalized subject.
Let me begin, somewhat conservatively, as Nabokov suggests his good reader ought, with a dictionary. Tracking the various and evolving meanings of the term paraliterary—as a genre, a reading practice, and an institutional domain—offers a general framework for understanding the bad reader: from the early 20th century through the 1970s, delegitimated attitudes toward reading literature thrived in institutions oriented to international communication. Take, for instance, an imposing 1974 research report published by the Prague-based Radio Free Europe (RFE), a government-run U.S. broadcasting institution. The report, which assessed a series of techniques for teaching citizens of both the United States and the Soviet bloc how to read American novels, curiously prefaced its instruction with a meditation on what the authors deemed “paraliterary works.” “In a serious culture great events are followed by an abundance of paraliterary works,” the report’s authors claimed. “These take the form of memoirs or personal diaries of outstanding personalities, biographies of leaders, studies of diplomats, collections of documents, and—last but not least—feature reports.” As the authors imagined it, a reader could sift through the “abundance of paraliterary works” generated by a “serious culture” to better equip herself to read that culture’s “literary works.” While this suggestion would have prompted Nabokov, Tindall, Burke, Kaufmann, and like-minded readers to rise up and protest, others would have simply accepted the RFE’s recommendation as an inevitability of modern textual culture. “Novels today have neither the wish nor the ability to make a contribution to ‘literature’: the nature of modern society demands a slough of paraliterature to wallow in,” observed the British poet Sebastian Barker in a spirit of anti-American bookish malaise.
Note Barker’s use of scare quotes around “literature,” as if to indicate that the term was nothing more than a ﬁgment of the cultural imagination, an imminently unstable construct. From the point of view of literary history, it seems signiﬁcant that the term paraliterary did not arise until the “literary” appeared to have coalesced as a cultural category, only to fall immediately into crisis due to the “nature of modern society”: the rationalization of everyday life, the failure of liberal pluralism, and the intensifying stakes of geopolitical struggle. These were the conditions under which the RFE urged the reading of memoirs, diaries, biographies, diplomatic studies, bureaucratic archives, and feature reports as primers for engaging with literary texts.
The RFE was by no means unique in its invitation to readerly preparation through paraliterary works. Consider a similar exhortation found in a slim 1975 dispatch titled “Reading Research in the Socialist Countries,” published by the American Center for Library Science and Methodology as a manual for colleges, libraries, and federal communications bureaucracies. More explicitly than RFE’s guide, “Reading Research” analyzed the social and cultural stakes of preparing oneself to read belles lettres by initially undertaking a careful evaluation of the “paraliterary genres.” While the “common feature” of “all documents, diaries, memoirs, reminiscences, and also epistolography” was a “lack of the ‘literary aspect,’” the authors contended that these texts’ lack of literariness was only “important from the point of view of the theory of literature.” Indeed, once the learned habits of literary theory were checked at the door, readers not only could read paraliterary texts without feeling the pinpricks of low cultural shame but also could also use paraliterary texts to train themselves to transcend the “literariness” of literature, paradoxical though the notion may seem to us today. By bracketing a “theory of literature” that privileged the disinterested appreciation of aesthetic forms or the production of interpretive discourse, the reader who had ﬁrst cut her teeth on bureaucratic documents, diaries, reports, reminiscences, and studies could transform belles lettres into a model for how to lead what the authors touted as an “authentically real human life.” Or to echo the description of a popular class on literature and communication offered by the University of Michigan in 1975, reading “across a range of literary and paraliterary forms” would show students how the “accomplishments of the ‘great’ novel” could be “adapted to the more specialized cultural needs” of the time.
The descriptions of paraliterary works provided in these reports preﬁgure what cultural critics have often said about the “banal” textual objects produced and archived by political, economic, and civic institutions since the 1930s: that as the typical “written material of self-documenting social settings,” they were “unobtrusive” and “naturally occurring.” Yet while these genres were proffered to their readers as portals to a more “authentically real human life,” their apparently unmediated presentation belied a highly particularized project of literacy education underwritten by a multitude of invisible factors: the institutions that produced and distributed paraliterary and literary texts in tandem; the archives that registered an expanding geography of literacy; the Cold War entanglements that positioned VOA, RFE, and other similar institutions at the heart of international literary socialization. Indeed, once we begin to account for the far-ﬂung material and historical contingencies of reading in this expanding ﬁeld of texts, we can see how the various paraliterary “works,” “genres,” and “forms” produced by “a serious culture” (American culture) after “great events” (World War II) were, in fact, framed to suggest a more useful and timely way of reading literature than what a theory of properly literary reading had to offer.
But how was this scene of reading organized and what did it hope to accomplish? By attending to these reports more closely, we see that descriptions of paraliterary works all shared an explicit commitment to nonﬁctional representation and reference. Paraliterary works were meant to be read as factual, historically accurate narratives. Intimately bound up with the nonﬁctional status of these paraliterary texts was their emphasis on chronicling the speech, behavior, and comportment of individuals whose social roles were deﬁned by visible and self-reﬂexive acts of public communication: political icons, national leaders, diplomats, and other such “outstanding personalities.” To prime one’s reading of literary ﬁction with paraliterary works was to direct one’s attention to the embodied and socially mediated schemes of action narrated therein; actions like speech, gesture, perception, and interaction that could be—and, in fact, had been—performed by real people in historically consequential circumstances. Rather than an insistence on genre differentiation, here the invitation was to genre confusion. The promise that belles lettrescould thus be read as encoding publicly communicative schemes of action instantiated one of the more visible and aggressive resurrections of what Deidre Lynch has characterized as a “bygone rhetorical culture in which words served pragmatic, social ends.” To tweak an earlier observation about properly literary reading as what people in literary institutions do, we could conclude that paraliterary reading—deﬁned here by the cultivation of publicly oriented schemes of action, a weakened commitment to ﬁctionality, a newfound attentiveness to the political temporalities of texts, and the juggling of distinct documentary genres—became what people in paraliterary institutions did with texts.
Equally important, however, was that paraliterary reading coalesced as a form of reading capable of producing a self-governing and communicatively adept international subject. The gradual convergence of international relations, reading methods, and subject formation can be seen in a 1979 United Nations Economic, Social, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) “Cultural” report, which insisted that training readers to attend to literature’s “paraliterary features” was the key to “introducing self-management to the cultural sphere.” The alignment of reading literature with disciplined practices of internationalized “self-management” emerged as a clarion call that was answered by bureaucrats and literary scholars alike. In one of the earliest studies of postwar American ﬁction to treat it as a distinct disciplinary ﬁeld, literary scholar Warner Berthoff classed the literature of the period as transmitting “a whole paraliterary class of messages to the age.” Going against the grain of professional literary criticism, Leslie Fiedler, at a controversial 1981 meeting of the English Institute on world literature and communication, encouraged “paraliterary reading” as an entry point to regulating and promoting “irresponsible fantasy, shameful concupiscence, and shameful tears and laughter” to unite readers around the globe. And today, while the richly polyvalent origins of “paraliterary” have yielded to narrower uses of the word—as a modiﬁer for unappreciated literary genres (as in Samuel Delaney’s discussion of science ﬁction) or unsung literary professional roles (such as Rosalind Krauss’s description of the work performed by editors)—the very ﬂexibility of its reclamation points back in time to how an unusual range of genres, social settings, and reading subjects were ﬁrst brought together at a distance from the institutions of professional literary study. By attending to the past, we can begin to see not only that contemporary concerns with paraliterary reading were also postwar ones, but that they came into being through the era in response to a speciﬁc set of sociohistorical pressures. Chief among them was the pressure on ordinary citizens to communicate with one another in the constitution of an internationally minded public sphere.
• • •
While the fascinating etymological evolution of the paraliterary offers one frame for bad reading, I am primarily interested in how distinct, but historically interconnected, institutions of international relations imagined the relationship between paraliterary reading and the production of international subjects. The shift from reading paraliterary works produced by institutions to reading literature more broadly was propelled by a confusion of genres. As variously nonﬁctional subgenres—lecture transcripts, elocution primers, conduct books, publicity stills, advertisements, consumer guides, ﬁnancial instruments, magazines, journals, intelligence reports, bureaucratic ﬁles—collided with the expressive forms of literature, complicated modes of reading emerged as simply untutored scenes of literacy: reading imitatively, reading emotionally, reading faddishly, reading for information, reading like a bureaucrat, and reading like a revolutionary. While the relatively autonomous forms of reading that cohered throughout the period—close reading, critical reading, depth reading—have been treated by scholars as historically contingent practices, paraliterary reading emerged as a grubby and residual mess of activity perpetuated by a mass of “heretical readers,” as Pierre Bourdieu once dubbed the reading subjects who “take liberties with the norms and forms imposed by the guardians of the text.” Yet from the 1930s to the 1970s, as Armando Petrucci has shown, the dizzying rise of institutions of international mass communications and the sheer volume of texts they produced and circulated made it impossible to ignore the heteronomous attitudes toward literature embraced by readers conscripted by the state and acting in the service of the nation.
So why have these institutions and the readers they tapped for projects of international communication not received their due? It is not for their lack of historical importance. Paraliterary reading existed long before the mid-1970s work of RFE and UNESCO. The origins of the idea can be found in interwar discourses of U.S. international relations and traced through its efﬂorescence in the decades following World War II. The history of U.S. internationalism during this period is well charted. For many it begins on a rather deﬁnitive note with Henry Luce’s 1941 Life magazine editorial “the American Century”— the most widely cited rallying call for U.S. empire—and seesaws for the next thirty years between the liberal establishment politics of the (early) Truman administration, Kennedy, and Johnson and the realpolitik containment strategies of the (later) Truman administration, Eisenhower, and Nixon.
Overwhelmingly, however, these decades witnessed a shift away from enmity and conﬂict toward what Christina Klein has called a “global imaginary of integration,” propped up by concerns about “cooperation,” “mutuality,” and “community.” Whether in the form of written documents or physical acts, it was “ordinary trade, travel, communication, and intercourse between people” that the State Department identiﬁed in a 1953 Ofﬁce of Public Communications bulletin as the key to creating a reading public that extended across the Atlantic and Paciﬁc Oceans.
By and large, however, the literary historical interest in international relations remains narrowly focused, whatever decade, administration, institution, or policy one chooses to investigate, and strikingly removed from the realm of “ordinary” “intercourse” (or discourse) that was central to the period. This also raises the question of covert artistic inﬂuences: how did the state, acting through the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Rockefeller and the Ford Foundations, exercise power in the world and how did its exercise of power leave an enduring mark on the aesthetic qualities of literature? The standard critical narrative is one of surreptitious coercion and writerly resistance through the production of sophisticated formal allegories for state control. This is an idea aptly expressed by Michael Walzer, who argues that the state must ﬁrst be “personiﬁed,” “symbolized,” and “imagined” to be critiqued—a critique that must likewise take place on the level of narrative character, symbol, and other imaginary features of the text. But critiqued by whom and for what audiences? Who, precisely, was reading and decoding these representations of state power? And what did the knowledge produced by critique set out to accomplish?
To ask these questions is not to ﬁnd concrete answers. Rather, it is to realize how a narrowly politicized version of reading and writing critique dominates interpretive practices today. It is also to realize how profoundly the retrospective projection of these reading practices into the past has limited narratives of the relationship between institutional power and international literary culture. What has been left out of most thinking about the internationalization of American literature is that neither its production nor its reception cleaved to the practices of reading literary form as symptomatic of broader political conditions, at least not in any generalizable or uniform way. While several accounts of U.S. internationalism and its expansion of midcentury reading publics have been written as of late, most revisit or expand the argument staked out by Frances Stonor Saunders, in The Cultural Cold War: The CIA of Arts and Letters (1999), that American arts and letters brandished a “High Cultural” ethos that valorized abstraction, allegory, autopoesis, experimentalism, and modernist difﬁculty over and above other modes of communication: entertainment, emotional stimulation, information gathering, publicity seeking, and more. One would imagine, then, that the burgeoning reading publics for American arts and letters had to be socialized into the same close, critical, and artistically sensitive practices of hermeneutic engagement that critics today use to read those histories, although there is little evidence to support this kind of widespread continuity between writers and international readers.
The alliance between high cultural autonomy and international reading practices, derived from a narrow sample of artists and writers, tends to take for granted the marginality of ordinary discourse: the expressive language produced by students, career diplomats, tourists, spies, ambassadors, businessmen, soldiers, and revolutionaries. Yet these were the primary ﬁgures tasked with trade, travel, communication, and intercourse—of all kinds—as well as building cooperation, mutuality, and community. At the same time, even respected literary writers had to engage in alternative modes of reading: as spies, propagandists, global trend-setters, bureaucrats, revolutionaries. These were reading practices that they could not readily square with their professional identities as writers or critics of ﬁction. Even good readers, and writers, had to be bad sometimes.
The task of making all these bad readers visible is to reconstruct the role that literature has played—and continues to play—in the international public sphere. Good readers and writers, critics, agents, and publishers, as well as leaders, politicians, and other outstanding public personalities, may all insist on the importance of literature, but they do so in ways that are not easily separable from one another. We must proudly claim the bad readers as our own if we wish to make claims about reading at all.
Editor’s Note: This essay is adapted from Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America (University of Chicago Press).
[Merve Emre is assistant professor of English Literature at McGill University. She is the author of Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America. Her book on the history of personality testing is forthcoming from Doubleday in 2018.]