Whither the super-reader?

I’m still slowly working my way through Peter Barry’s Beginning Theory, and have reached postcolonial criticism. In true textbook fashion, each chapter includes a “STOP and THINK” section, and this one actually made me do both:

Postcolonial criticism draws attention to issues of cultural difference in literary texts and is one of several critical approaches we have considered which focus on specific issues, including issues of gender (feminist criticism), of class (Marxist criticism), and of sexual orientation (lesbian/gay criticism).

This raises the possibility of a kind of ‘super-reader’ able to respond equally and adequately to a text in all these ways. In practice, for most readers one of these issues tends to eclipse all the rest.
Should we, in general, try to become super-readers, with multiple layers of sympathy and awareness, or will trying to do so merely produce blandness and superficiality?

Obviously, it is impossible for anybody to answer this question for anybody else. My own feeling is that while an even spread of awareness across all these issues is theoretically possible, in practice aiming for this, merely in the interests of political correctness, is almost bound to produce superficiality. A genuine interest in one of these issues can really only arise from aspects of your own circumstance. These perspectives cannot be put on and off like a suit — they have to emerge and declare themselves with some urgency. (198-9)

Now, Barry’s bias shows through before he declares it — the very term “super-reader” carries connotations of the unattainable, even childish. And when he does declare his bias, he still loads his dice, with that clause about “merely in the interests of political correctness”: yes, obviously aiming to do something merely in the interests of political correctness is doomed to failure.

But leaving that aside, I’m still struck by a number of things. To start with: “for most readers one of these issues tends to eclipse all the rest”. I’m sceptical of that most (many, I could get behind; but I’m not sure about most), but more than that, this doesn’t seem to leave much room for the idea that a text might shape the way people who read it respond. Surely it is also the case that for most texts, one of these issues tends to eclipse all the rest, in either a positive or a negative way. There is a threshold, I think, beyond which reading a text from any particular perspective becomes an act of creation in itself, rather than a useful response to the text; where any given person draws that threshold will vary, but it seems an inevitable limitation of single-perspective criticism.

So I think that limitation has to be put on the other side of the scales to a super-reader’s presumed blandness and superficiality — except, I’m not sure what Barry actually means by those terms, here. The most sensible reading I can come up with is that it comes from what he discusses in his personal opinion paragraph, namely motivation: it’s impossible for anyone to truly care about all these different perspectives at the same time, says Barry, so attempts to accomodate them will of necessity be artificial. There is an extent to which I agree with this (or at least am anxious about it; see below), but I think I disagree with it much more. If nothing else, it’s a position that presumes these different perspectives are indeed separable, and it seems to me that’s only possible in an — pardon me — academic sense. In the real world, and by extension in sufficiently complex texts, they’re going to be interlinked. Parsing them separately has value, but taking that so far as to declare them islands seems damaging.

And then we come down to the nub of it, which is to say Barry’s argument for his position. “A genuine interest in one of these issues can really only arise from aspects of your own circumstance.” What is genuine, here? This gets personal: for each of the four perspectives Barry lists in his first paragraph, I fall at the “privilege” end of the spectrum (as, indeed, I do for just about any axis of privilege you care to define). That establishes the terms of my engagement with any of them and, clearly, those terms are never going to be the same as they are for individuals at the other ends. In a real sense, that’s going to limit the depth of my understanding. By the same token, however, the implication is that whenever I do try to adopt one of these perspectives, I will, precisely, be putting it on like a suit; and that my interest can never be “genuine”. Which rather leads you to wonder, why bother?

And the inevitable answer to that is, because I like to think I care. That no one of these critical perspectives seems to declare itself to me with particular urgency — or, put another way, that it costs me nothing to see them as all urgent — is certainly a luxury. I’d like to think it’s a luxury I can take advantage of, though. “Multiple layers of sympathy and awareness” doesn’t seem like a bad thing for me to aspire to, nor does it seem inherently unattainable (though a perfectly even spread of concern surely is). I’d go so far as to say, acknowledging this is as biased a way of putting it as “super-reader”, that to me, right now, it seems the responsible thing to do.

5 thoughts on “Whither the super-reader?

  1. It’s certainly worth pointing out that, for instance, a working class lesbian from the West Indies might want to take issue with Barry here! He’s assuming that only one of these apply to any given ideal reader, I think, which is manifestly not going to be the case universally.

    On the other hand, I do find, with this sort of thing, that I tend to frame my perception of, for instance, post-colonial analysis with my understanding of feminism, so I see some of his point. Because feminism is the one of those factors he mentions which affects me *personally*, in my own identity, I’m more aware of it; I use it as part of my mechanism for understanding my own privilege in other contexts. But I don’t think that means that I’m being artificial in, for instance, wanting to see less-problematic representations of people who aren’t white and straight.

  2. What I find interesting is the idea that the human experience does not cross boundaries of class, race, sex or sexuality. The idea that a white British person could not possibly understand what it is like to suffer at the hands of colonialism or that a straight person is completely cognitively estranged from what it is like to be bullied by co-workers because of your sexuality.

    This is the type of thinking that creates literary ghettos. If I can’t hope to understand what it is like to be all of these things that I am not then what is the point of trying to engage with them? conversely what is the point of writing with any form of accessibility in mind if the only people who can understand you are the people who have the same life experience as you.

    This leads to cultural tribalism where books are written by members of a certain group with that group in mind and members of that group go out of their way to read those books more than others and before long you have no communication at all between tribes except in cases where one type of experience rubs up against another such as the fact that The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao showed up on the radar of SF fans because it dealt with being an SF fan as well as growing up as a member of a certain ethnic group.

    Not only do I think that the different facets of the human experience are available to all humans, I also think that this is the acid test for being a great writer. Anyone can write about their lives and interest people who have shared that life, the trick is to write in such a way as to inspire empathy and understanding in people who do not share your life experience.

  3. “A genuine interest in one of these issues can really only arise from aspects of your own circumstance.”

    This is unfortunately a very common way of thinking and gives rise to such criticisms of books as “I couldn’t relate to/identify with the main character”–as if it is impossible to appreciate a work of fiction without seeing *oneself* in the story.

    It’s a kind of narcissism that hinders the understanding of anything “other.”

  4. Well, my personal circumstances include (like yours, Niall) awareness of my privilege on most of these axes, and some of my best friends are postcolonial and/or women and/or working stiffs and/or queer, so I consider my multiple layers of sympathy and awareness sufficiently justified.

    I wonder if what we’re getting here is the excuse Barry gives himself for being bored by some or all of the above?

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