A friend of mine posted this article, “In Defense of Naive Reading,” on her facebook. For the rest of this to make any sense, you need to read the article first. It isn’t long and isn’t particularly jargon heavy. So go read it.


Okay. What happened in this article is that Pippin was able to crystallize exactly why it is that I’m having such a hard time convincing myself that finishing my dissertation is actually worthwhile, or that there’s all that much worthwhile in the upper-level studies of literature as currently conducted in the halls of academia (note: I am absolutely not picking on any academics as individuals or trying to criticize their work in any way – this is about the field in general).

Pippin sums up my personal issue in his reading of “Washington Square” at the end of the article. To understand the novella (to understand anything of Henry James, really) is to understand the feelings and thoughts and unconscious motivations of the characters and how they interact. To branch this out into some sort of post-Marxist reading on the way that socio-economic status creates those feelings or interactions (to give one example out of a million) in many ways misses the point of what James created in the story. Yes, there is a valid reading in depersonalizing the story, looking at the characters as types rather than individuals, reading it as a condemnation of a certain economic system at a certain point in time, broadening that into a discussion of how that economic system continues to interpellate (not interpolate) us even now, &tc. It’s a perfectly valid reading, and one that I’m sure has been performed before. But in performing this type of reading, we lose the pinpoint understanding of individuals that the story provides if only we’re willing to let it.

In reading the story through the lens of a theory, any theory, the story becomes lost. I’ve seen plenty of arguments saying that it’s just bad scholarship that lets this happen: good scholarship is using theory to help elucidate the text, whereas bad scholarship lets theory override the text. To me, this is the same thing. And it’s because the moment theory is introduced, we’re not talking about STORIES anymore – we’re talking about TEXTS.

I’m pretty sure Henry James didn’t think of himself as writing texts; I’m pretty sure he thought of himself as writing stories. The difference is crucial: a text is base that allows for the creation of meaning through some sort of active method, and a text can be *anything*. A story has an embedded meaning that, when accessed, lets the reader learn something about people, about ideas, whatever. A story engages the reader, brings the reader along for the ride, leaves the reader at a new point and with a new understanding that they didn’t have in the beginning. A story can’t be just *anything*. Not every text can do the work of a story – I’m going to assume that you, reading this, know that this text is not a story in the same way that you intuitively know that something like “the Cat in the Hat” is.

And so the thing is this: using theory to create meaning out of texts is good and fine and will contribute to a body of scholarship and will give scholars plenty to debate and argue and snark at each other about. But it’s not any better or any worse than reading a story to read a story and let the story tell you what it wants to tell you. If Pippin wants (semi-ironically) to refer to the latter as “naive” reading, then fine – that’s certainly what the academy thinks of it (if it thought better of allowing such a thing, one presumes that it would happen more often at least once in every 1,000 published articles).

But as someone who spent 7 years of grad school (and at least 3 more during my undergrad) using theory to understand texts, I’m returned to simply reading stories. And in doing so, I feel like the stories I’m reading have regained something they’d lost, something that drove me into literary study in the first place: their meaning. Maybe their souls, if that’s not too cheesypoo. I feel like I’ve learned more about life and people and how to deal with it all in six months of reading foofy YA novels than I did in the solid decade of performing literary “research.” I’m happier. I enjoy reading again. And oddly, stories seem now more worthy of study than they did when I was actually studying them.

And this is why I’d rather write stories than scholarship. I learn more in writing a story than I do in writing a well-researched piece of scholarship. And I have more fun. So I’m writing stories now, and I don’t miss grad school at all.