Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Reading: Comprehension vs. Interpretation, a recent article in NLH [has the discipline become completely self-absorbed?]

Everyone knows perfectly well that interpretation is a kind of intellectual act that requires special training and practice. But the profession of academic literary criticism has long insisted using one term – “to read” – to cover both that special skill and the ordinary act of reading for comprehension thereby eliding the distinction between the two. I’ve long been bothered by that practice – and have blogged about it fairly often – and fear the profession does so in part to mystify its own activities. Here’s a recent article that ‘interrogates’ that distinction:

Elaine Auyoung, “What We Mean by Reading,” New Literary History, Volume 51, Number 1, Winter 2020, pp. 93-114.

Abstract: How do critics get from reading a literary text to producing “a reading” of it? This article considers major close readings of Jane Austen's Emma to bring out conventions that tacitly shape our discipline, such as privileging certain reading goals and domains of background knowledge over others, pursuing interpretive inferences that have significant explanatory power regardless of their probability, and valuing the discovery of new patterns for organizing textual information as an end in itself. Most notably, when we refer to what literary critics do as reading, we obscure how much their interpretations are shaped by unspoken conventions involved in the writing of literary criticism. Chief among these conventions is a taste for achieving coherence, which not only plays a role in the causal claims we make, but also gives rise to an underrecognized form of aesthetic pleasure.

Does this signal the emergence of a healthy awareness of disciplinary practice? We’ll see.

From the beginning (p. 93):

But even as popular attitudes toward reading contribute cultural capital to our professional labor, we have sought to establish a radical yet largely tacit discontinuity between our reading practices and those of nonspecialists, including members of other academic disciplines, who may think that they’re reading but can’t really read at all.

For instance, when John Guillory singles out interpretation as the particular reading skill that incoming college students lack, he asserts that in order to acquire this skill students need to undergo nothing short of “a conceptual break” with the practice of reading as comprehension. With this break, he continues, “reading begins anew. The text that was thought to be comprehended remains still to be understood.”

She goes on to observe (p. 94):

What’s more, the difficulty of talking about how one gets from reading to producing a reading impedes our efforts to identify methodological continuities and discontinuities between seemingly opposed critical approaches, such as reparative reading and paranoid reading.

That is, this practice gets in the way of understanding what we’re up to in various versions of specialized practice.

Auyoung aims to identify some of the implicit conventions involved in interpretive activity (pp. 94-95):

These conventions, which have not yet been subject to serious disciplinary reflection, include:

1) privileging certain reading goals and domains of background knowledge over others, in part because of longstanding beliefs about what (and who) has disciplinary value and prestige;
2) pursuing interpretive inferences that have significant explanatory power regardless of their probability, which in turn accounts for why our discipline has few methods for assessing the likelihood of these inferences and applies those methods inconsistently; and
3) valuing the discovery of new patterns for organizing textual information as an end in itself, even when we are unpersuaded by accompanying claims about why these new ordering principles are significant.

Most notably, when we refer to what literary critics do as reading, we obscure how much their interpretations are shaped by unspoken conventions involved in writing literary criticism. Chief among these conventions is an interest in achieving coherence. Far from capturing the messiness and multiplicity of their actual experiences of reading, critics construct coherent arguments by presenting an extremely limited selection of the inferences they have made during the reading process. (Even critics in search of incoherence or inconsistency within a text tend to present their findings in a consistent and coherent way.)

More specifically (p. 95):

Whereas Stanley Fish describes skilled reading as “a matter of knowing how to produce” meaning, I revisit the procedures of literary critics in a more systematic way, tracing the relationship between what readers bring to a text, what they do with the text, and what it seems to tell them. To do so, I will single out four components of reading that are fundamental both to comprehending a text and to making an interpretive claim about it:

1) pursuing specific reading goals,
 2) attending to certain parts of a text,
 3) relying on specific domains of background knowledge, and 4) making a variety of inferences.

To show how readers and critics arrive at different readings of a single text by pursuing different reading goals, attending to different parts of the text, and making inferences based on different domains of background knowledge, I will compare multiple approaches to Jane Austen’s Emma.

I’ve decided to skip her discussion of those approaches for the moment. I’ve not read the book and am thinking of reading it before reading her comments.

In her discussion Auyoung notes the importance of inference (110):

Inference making is the activity that makes reading such a ubiquitous metaphor for interpreting texts, people, palms, tea leaves, and other sign systems. Whereas lay readers make inferences about what the text of Emma tells them is happening in the story, literary critics make inferences about the relationship between certain passages in the novel and other texts and contexts, often with the aid of specialized background knowledge. The inferences they make typically have to do either with what Emma can tell us about something outside of itself or with what new contextual information can tell us about Emma. As I have noted, however, our discipline lacks a meta-discourse for assessing the inferences we make. A major next step in our methodological reflections would be to develop a systematic method for drawing sharper distinctions between inferences that seem likely, lovely, or both. To be sure, literary critics would be the first to differentiate the production of interpretive meaning from the pursuit of empirical truth. Yet our interpretations frequently include causal claims about how literary texts influence or are influenced by historical, cultural, and social conditions in the actual world.

From her concluding paragraph (p. 112):

Our unacknowledged investment in the personal experience of discovering forms of coherence at the scale of individual texts might even account for disciplinary resistance to interpretive methods that sideline this process. It is this personal experience of discovery that Roland Barthes has in mind when he refers to rereading a text as “play,” this form of aesthetic pleasure that leads Fish to justify his interpretive activity on the grounds that he enjoys it. What if we began to acknowledge and account for the cognitive processes and pleasures bound up with our methodological commitments? What if we began to examine the extent to which our taste for the loveliness of an explanation has a hand in shaping the causal claims we make? We would need to step back from writing about the new forms of coherence we have discovered in literary texts and learn more about the source of our desire to look for them in the first place.

It sounds like the major benefit of this inquiry is disciplinary self-knowledge. That’s all well and good, but it would nice if the discipline learned something that would make criticism valuable to those who do not themselves practice it. What knowledge do literary critics bring to the world?

That question was central to the methodological debates of the 1960s and 1970s. What kind of knowledge of the world does literary criticism produce and what is the justification for that knowledge? Literature was thought to embody truths about the world and the critic’s job was to identify, examine, and clarify those truths. Has the discipline become completely self-absorbed so that Auyoung seems to think its justification is to be found in the pleasure it provides to critics?


  1. Yes, it is self-absorbed. (And helped to produce equally self-absorbed writing programs.) There is a Russian proverb that states that talented writers should always be helped because "the talentless are always rising."

    1. However, as a discipline, academic literary criticism is somewhat removed from creative writing. When I was at Johns Hopkins the Writing Seminars were separate from the English Department and there was relatively little interaction between them. As far as I know, that's still true. Iowa's Writer's Workshop is the same way. Things were different at SUNY Buffalo, but that was a different kind of place altogether. I don't how things are these days, but I'd think that, often enough, creative writing and literary criticism are at arm's length regardless of the specific administrative arrangements.

    2. As departments, of course,I know that; I've read of writers who were very aware of the work in literary criticism.