May 21, 2008

Literary Impressions: Reading Well

About a week ago, I joined friends in New Haven for a Friday night meal. Their daughter was in town, back from college, and over the course of dinner conversation, I asked if she had any professors who were distinctive, who stood out from the others. She immediately described two faculty who were notable for the passion of their presentations and the degree to which they immersed themselves in their subjects. An English major now, just as I had been when I attended the University of Chicago twenty years earlier, she asked after 30 minutes into her own fairly passionate disquisition why I inquired. I admitted that I wanted compare her experience with my own and find the link between what these special professors had accomplished for her and what mine had done for me.

Actually, I will admit that I had one particular professor in mind, a professor whose own presentations liberated me as a reader. That professor was William Veeder, who has apparently produced enough of an impact as a teacher (and secondarily, in my humble opinion, as a scholar) to receive a Wikipedia article. The article, which outlines his theories of literary study, is largely a tribute. I'm especially tickled by the quotes, or "Veederisms," as they're lovingly described.

While some of what appears in that article on Veeder's approach to literature remains familiar from my classes with him, what I recall most is what fails to show up. It centers around the idea he espoused that a literary work's meaning (or more broadly any text's meaning) is the result of the intersection of the words produced by an author and the response of the reader to that concatenation of words. This intersubjective view of literary study is not uncommon and is an eminently practical understanding of how writers, texts, and readers relate to one another in the reading experience. The Wikipedia article certainly captures that idea by underscoring Veeder's pragmatic approach--in the William Jamesian sense--to how we respond to literature. The liberating aspect of that approach, much underplayed by the article and pretty important when you're a mere whipper-snapper of a college student seriously considering a major in English, was his de-emphasis of the authority of the author.

Mind you, in his class, he did not take much stock in some Barthesian "death-of-the-author" view of the matter. Veeder believed in authors and their authority, but it was an authority much limited. To make this point he told a wonderful story that, even if apocryphal, rings true in the only way these things matter. At some point in his education, Veeder had taken a course with mid-twentieth century literary scholar Leo Spitzer. (This is where the apocryphal part comes in--Veeder attended the University of Notre Dame; Spitzer taught nearly all of his life in the United States at Johns Hopkins University. Where they crossed paths remains a mystery to me.) Apparently Spitzer had been teaching Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence, and the classroom conversation had become both incisive and lively. He then distributed criticism by an apparent contemporary of Lawrence's and asked for the students' feedback. They all agreed that the critic had badly misfired in his interpretation of the novel. Spitzer then revealed that the critic was...Lawrence himself. Not a single mind was changed: the class responded--rightly in Veeder's view--that Lawrence had simply failed to understand what he had achieved. As slippery as this slope seemed, Veeder held firmly to the view that literature remains first and foremost a literary experience, and that experience takes at least two to tango--a reader and a text.

It was the follow-up question to this tale and his answer that sealed the deal for me. One of my classmates asked if an author's interpretation has authority in our interpretation of a text. Veeder's response was artful: authors do not have the kind of authority that we (and sometimes authors) imagine. Once the text is born, it is, like a child, sent out into the world to fend for itself; the author may have brought the work to term but her relationship to it thereafter changes forever as she becomes just another reader.

OK, well maybe not just any other reader. Veeder's term of choice was a "privileged" reader, but a reader nonetheless. Privileged here means the author has a special relationship to the text--in the D.H. Lawrence case, as its progenitor. But need I add that if the author's work were about, say, his mother, such as Augusten Burroughs' Running with Scissors, the author's mother would also be something of a privileged reader, one with her own rather unique relationship to the text. But even this "privileged" relationship is problematized by the fact that we all have unique relationships to texts, not only because we are unique in relation to one another but because we are unique even to ourselves over time--at 43, I'm just not the same person reading Heart of Darkness as I was when I struggled with it at 18.

The net effect of Veeder's insight was to empower me as a reader by depriving the author of a kind of mystical authority that he or she simply did not have. True, the author is bound to be frustrated by perceived misreadings of his or her work--think Salman Rushdie, certain Muslim readers, and his Satanic Verses--but there is no getting around the reality of the situation. Readers will make what they will of what they read, which is why though it be a classic I find the Scarlet Letter a dreadful bore while some neighbor of mine no doubt considers it a thrillingly tragic romance. Let me hastily add that this does not make all readings equal in value or cogency. But that is an entirely different issue. The first step in reading well that Veeder taught was not about being right but about being bold. And in order to be bold, a painfully obsequious deference to the author is the first thing to go out the window. It's a mantra by which I still read.

1 comment:

LDA said...

Thank you very much for posting this moving blog entry about Professor Veeder, exploring why he was important to your development. It captured so much of what made the U. of Chicago special to me when I was a student there. Congratulations also on the sensational Summer 2009 issue of the journal you publish -- New Haven Review. A great read both in hard copy and online!