Reading Rights + Wrongs: Interpretation, Point-of-View and Other Complicated Things
I've learned a lot in the last year about reading and what we bring to the table in terms of our personal experiences, points-of-view, beliefs and biases. This is not only thanks to writing reviews on Clear Eyes, Full Shelves, but also because I also joined a book club with several other very smart women ranging from 25 to 65.
It's fascinating to talk books with people and hear what resonated with them, how they interpret characters' choices and the realism--or lack there of--situations depicted in fiction. What's fascinating to me is how varied these readings are.
Which brings me to something I've noticed quite a bit, that I've been reluctant to talk about for fear of that judgmental side-eye that pops up all too often in some corners of the internet, including within the book and reading community:
I do not believe that there are many "right" and "wrong" readings of books.
(Or other cultural products, for that matter.)
Now, I know a number of you are probably reading my words and thinking,
"Well, duh, Sarah. Of course it's all relative."
But the thing is, while we know that, we don't always believe it, and certainly don't always practice it.
A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed Uses for Boys. This book has been pretty divisive, with reviewers either loving or despising it. I did not like this book. (Which was particularly disappointing, since I thought the first few chapters were very well-done and I was intrigued by the premise.)
I held back on my review for two reasons, the first being that I had already witnessed some chatter online in which it was insinuated (and sometimes openly stated) that people who didn't like this book were "slut-shaming" the main character, Anna. Regardless that my issues with that book were rooted in the writing style, which I was not at all my taste (minimal dialogue), in what I viewed as a gaping hole in the characterization as well as the demonization of the not-fleshed-out working mother character, I couldn't help but feel that despite that my reservations didn't even involve the sex aspect of Uses for Boys, that I too was being accused of an anti-girl attitude because I could not recommend this specific book.
The second reason I took such care to be balanced in my review and avoid really laying out my problems with Uses for Boys was that there was a devil on my shoulder whispering that maybe my reading of Uses for Boys was wrong. While so much of the online book and reading community is made of awesome, the flip-side of it is the niggling sense of doubt that creeps in when my reaction to a book is dramatically different from that of other readers whose opinions I respect.
If all these intelligent and popular reviewers thought so highly of this book, then it must be me with the problem, right?
Yet, I'm just as guilty as anyone.
I've had a similar, yet converse, reaction when reading reviews of Gayle Forman's new book, Just One Day, which I adored so much I've been unable to write a review of it (which happens to me sometimes).
I've had to force myself to avoid reading reviews of Just One Day on Goodreads because so many reviews have hated that book. In particular, they've pointed to the main character, Allyson, as so sheltered and privileged that they've hated spending nearly 400 pages in her head.
Intellectually, I understand this response; emotionally, however, I find myself irritated and frustrated. While I didn't grow up in a financially privileged situation like the one in Just One Day, I knew many people who did, and who in college went through many of the same experiences negotiating the obligations associated with their socio-economic status while trying to figure out their own dreams. And, having grown up in a very sheltered, rural community, Allyson's experiences abroad in many ways were emotionally reminiscent of my own, and the criticism of her reactions to seemingly little moments feel almost personal to me.
But are these readers wrong in their interpretation of Just One Day because my personal experiences say otherwise?
Each reader brings her own experiences, preferences and points-of-view to reading, just as writers do to their writing. While I believe most of us try to be aware of that perspective, it's not something that simply disappears when we read.
Both Sandra and I independently had negative reactions to Uses for Boys because we both wanted something different out of that book than what we got. And that was influenced by both our experiences. My reading was rooted in my interest in the depiction of family dynamics and in sex-positive books for teen girls. Sandra's concerns stemmed the fact that in her 25-plus year teaching career, she encountered many teen girls with similar problems as Anna's but felt that the real-life girls were far more complex and nuanced than fictional Anna--she couldn't reconcile the novel's depiction of a troubled girl seeking to fill a hole in her life with sex with years of real life interactions with similar girls.
That doesn't mean that either of our responses to that book are in any way more valid than those of readers who were deeply affected by Uses for Boys; it's simply a perspective. The same is true for people like myself who found Just One Day moving and personally meaningful, versus folks who found it shallow and frustrating.
Unfortunately, digital culture is such that conversation about responses to the way we talk about books often is very strongly black or white.
Take E.L. James, who routinely blocks Twitter users who raise questions about the subtext of abuse in 50 Shades of Grey, labeling abuse survivors who object to the relationship in that series as "trolls." She's missing a great opportunity to engage in discussion about the way her books are interpreted and how readings of fiction can vary so wildly. But, in her world, like so many online communities, it's an either/or proposition.
Because of the nature of fiction, books can be a safe space in which to discuss issues and personal perspectives, but when we shut down conversation with the, "If you think X, then you are Y,"-type statements it creates a climate which discourages dissenting opinions and alternative readings.
I've not mentioned this before, but early on in the life of Clear Eyes, Full Shelves, I almost didn't post my review of a book, Fracture by Megan Miranda, because my reading of it was so wildly different from a number of influential reviewers that I was worried about the response to my interpretation. I sat on that review for a week, during which my anxiety grew when I came across another post about Fracture which stated that anyone who liked that book was "guilty" (and I remember that word so very clearly) of a specific, anti-feminist point-of-view, a view which could not be further from my own.
At the time, I was immensely (and ridiculously, in retrospect) worried that people would think that I, the girl with the graduate degree in women's studies and firm commitment to feminist literary analysis, was anti-girl, simply because of a discussion that became very personal about the readers of the book.
I don't have all the answers as to how we can simultaneously write about books and preserve spaces for discussion and interpretation.
This issue comes up over and over again, in many different contexts. Take the literary gatekeepers who engage in incessant genre-shaming in order to bolster a very specific sort of book for which they advocate--their constant derisive talk about readers of the aforementioned "Fifty" books (I'm looking at you, Tom Bissell et al) and adult readers of YA are structured to eliminate discussion.
My feeling is that there's merit in being thoughtful in how we talk about cultural products--in this case, books. Ultimately, when we talk about books in a public space, it's not particularly productive or supportive of reading culture to dismiss or shame people for liking or disliking a particular work. We can criticize points-of-view, but when we make it personal and levy accusations regarding intent, it's effectively silencing dissenting opinions.
There are so many wonderful things about reading, one of the most amazing being that once books are in the wild, they take on a life of their own. They're interpreted, dissected and even repurposed into something living and dynamic.
When we shut down conversation about books, that life is stunted, and that is the greatest reading wrong.