I’ve been reading the Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, by H. Porter Abbott, because I’m thinking about adopting it in the fall. I thought I’d summarize one bit, on overreading and underreading. This applies to any reader actually, not only those who write book reviews, let alone those who write online book reviews.
As avid readers, we know how vulnerable we are to the effect of novels.* Indeed, the pleasure of those effects is a major reason we seek them out. But as readers we, too, exercise a power over texts. One of the ways we do that is by underreading. As Frank Kermode once wrote,
It is not uncommon for large parts of the novel to go virtually unread; the less manifest portions of its text (its secrets) tend to remain secret, tend to resist all but abnormally attentive scrutiny, reading so minute, intense, and slow that it seems to run counter to one’s “natural” sense of hat a novel is (Art of Telling, 138, as quoted in Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, p. 86).
My own reviews, at least of genre fiction, tend to focus a lot of character and plot. Abbott’s long discussion of just two words in Madame Bovary (“elegeic epithelamium”) made me realize how much more focus I could place on specific words in the text. I recall hearing a paper by Eric Selinger on Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm, a book I love, and thought I had read carefully, that opened up the text in a mindblowing new way. I had “missed” so much! I realize these are example of academic readings, which have a character and a vocabulary of their own, and I’m not suggesting I aspire to that with each book review here (in part because the audience and purpose are different), but thinking about underreading has made me wonder which parts of a novel I am more like to underread.
On Kermode’s view, we have to close the narrative to achieve interpretation, and we do so by exclusions. This is not just something a reader who is in a hurry, or uneducated does: even very sophisticated readings (the ones characterized by “abnormally attentive scrutiny”) have to posit an “embracing formulation” (in Abbott’s words) in order to move through the book.
One of the motives is to bring a text into line with our worldview, to make it more comfortable to engage with. Our own vested cultural or personal interests unconsciously influence this process. Abbott’s fictional example is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings, a story in which an ancient winged man who arrives in the protagonists’ back yard is recast as something quite ordinary:
Then they dared speak to him, and he answered in an incomprehensible dialect with a strong sailor’s voice. That was how they skipped over the inconvenience of the wings and quite intelligently concluded that he was a lonely castaway from some foreign ship wrecked by the storm.
Abbott quotes Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which contends that narrative is inevitably underread, because we need a simple sequence of events in order to navigate “the overwhelmingly manifold nature of things” (Abbott, p. 88). And psychologists might point to “the primacy effect”, the tendency to let earlier interpretations dominate later ones. Abbott’s example is Wuthering Heights, a book many readers remember as the story of Cathy and Healthcliff, despite the fact that Catherine dies halfway through and the romance of Hereton Earnshaw and Catherine’s daughter is equally important.
I wonder how this point applies to our reviews. If the first few chapters of a book are problematic, do we let that unfairly influence our take on the book as a whole? And how about DNF “reviews”?
Then there’s overreading. This is finding things in narratives for which there is no direct evidence in the text. Again, we come to books with different backgrounds, experiences, and expectations, and these influence what we find in the text. Abbott’s example is of an ungainly, friendless girl with a beautiful but spoiled and ungrateful little sister reading Cinderella: she might see Cindy as a scheming hypocrite.
Abbott gives an example of “loading up a stranger with an unflattering moral character, cued only by the color of his skin” (p. 89), which is interesting. Is that overreading if the author him or herself was using that character as a shorthand for “bad”?
When I think of genre fiction, especially romance, I recognize certain signaling turns of phrase that help me identify in the first pages who the hero and heroine are, even when it’s not made explicit by the text. Is that overreading? Or experienced genre reading? I taught Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me in the fall, and after we read the first half of the book, one student opined that he wasn’t sure if Cal and Min would end up together, because they seemed to fight so often!
And every text has gaps. No character or setting is described in full, for example. I may get a sense of height, weight, hair color, eyes, or whatever else the author thinks is important, with the rest left to my own mind to fill in. In Asa Larsson’s Sweden-set mystery suspense Sun Storm, three pastors are interviewed by the police after a murder in the church. Rather than describing the men in detail, Larsson has the detective, Anna-Maria, take careful note of how they each shake hands (for example, “Gunnar Isaksson had nearly crushed her hand in his. And it wasn’t the unconscious strength you sometimes find in men. He’s just afraid of seeming weak, thought Anna-Maria.”). It’s very effective, but not exactly complete. My point is that what counts as “overreading” is going to be hard to determine.
On the other hand, what led me to write this post was finishing Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, and looking online for fellow reader opinion about some ambiguous parts of the text. The narrator remembers a weekend spent in Kent with his girlfriend Veronica’s family in college. He remembers them treating him as inferior. He remembers an oafish brother, a father who drank too much, a mother who inexplicably warned him not to let Veronica get away with anything. Tony speculates that Veronica was the victim of abuse — a leap I didn’t understand how he could make on the basis of such a small acquaintance with them, but this gets softened when he remembers his own mother saying everyone who survived childhood was abused in some way (this is kind of an echo of the point of this post.). At any rate, I did not think the abuse in Veronica’s family was that important.
But the readers on Amazon has spun tales of incest and violence in Veronica’s home that I found ridiculous. They took a line from the text: “gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house” and determined from that alone that the narrator had had sex with Veronica’s mother that weekend. I was outraged! Talk about willful overreading. I understand that nature abhors a vacuum, but let’s not ruin the book by turning it into a Lifetime movie!
Abbott says that one of the correctives to underreading and overreading is intentional interpretation in light of others’ readings. I think that’s what we do when we join book groups, Tweet about books, engage in discussions on Goodreads and on our blogs. Just yesterday on Twitter, I had my own view of a book by Adrienne Wilder revised by a fellow reader, Merrian, who suggested that what I found bizarre and offputting in some of the characters (“dragons”) was actually a welcome antidote to the safe, fake “otherness” (sparkly vampires, for example) we are presented with in most PNR. Although I don’t want to go far into the recent author meltdowns over critical reviews, to my mind, one of the more awful things about authors swooping in to shame and shut down critical readers is not just the effect it has on the reader (it doesn’t feel good to be called a “bitch” and mocked by a group of authors on Twitter as in this last kerfuffle), but on this wonderful process of filling in the gaps for each other and turning our solitary reading experience into a communal one.* [*Edited to add: I don't think it actually has this effect in most cases, but I think the attempt shows a real disregard, even disrespect, for the process of communal interpretation, a process I think is tremendously important.]
Gaps are inevitable in any narrative, which is a good thing since, as Wolfgang Iser has written, “It is only through inevitable omissions that a story gains its dynamism” (as quoted in Abbott, p. 91). Our readings give narrative its power. Still, it can be interesting to think about underreading or overreading as we attempt to engage with the novels we love, and love to hate.
*This point can be made about texts in general, of course, but this is a book blog and I’m sticking with books.