Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Adding to the conversation

Writers can suggest meaning and significance, but ultimately, readers make the final call.
Thomas. C. Foster, How to Read Novels Like a Professor

Book clubs pivot on the erroneous, egotistical notion that the reader has something to add to the conversation. What might that be? A book is a series of arguments between the author and the reader, none of which the reader can possibly win.
Joe Queenan, One for the Books

These two writers, whose books I have been reading of late, would seem to be making exactly the opposite points. Thomas C. Foster argues that readers finish what the authors only started. Writers may intend their works to mean one thing or another, but readers will discover their own meanings, in some cases independent of what was intended. Joe Queenan, on the other hand, contends the authors call all the shots. They determine what their books mean, and there's no point in readers even talking about it.

As much as I have been enjoying Queenan's book, One for the Books, I think he's all wet on this particular point. The whole practice of literary review and criticism, something Queenan engages in himself, depends on the notion that readers read books differently, finding different meanings and different values. If there was nothing to add to what writers write, nothing to argue with or about, literature professors, like Foster, and book reviewers, like Queenan, would be out of a job.

Of course, Queenan's real complaint is book clubs, those groups in every community that bring ordinary people together to talk about books. Queenan finds these abominable. "The people I know who attend book clubs are generally intelligent," he writes, "but they are rarely what I would call interesting."

Queenan sounds like a bit of a snob. If you can't say something interesting, or at least something that interests me, then shut up. In truth, most members of book club probably do not have anything original to say. If they did, they would belong in a different forum. Yet ordinary readers with ordinary points of view have every right to express those points of view. They may gain something by discussing the meaning they find in a book, and others may gain by hearing it expressed and contrasting it with their own interpretations. And Foster would seem to argue that the meaning discussed in neighborhood book clubs is at least as valid as that discussed by academia. Every reader, not just a certain few, makes the final call.

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