Reader as Hero

Something is missing amid our present superabundance of new fictions, new talents, and even new seriousness. We lack novels that address the idea of literature as equipment for living. The literature of the past was full of such ideas, of characters who turn to novels to change their lives (no matter how badly things often turned out). So what would a contemporary Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, or Anna Karenina be like? The characters wouldn’t make the same mistakes—trying to live their lives as though following the script of a novel—but their reading might still change them in unexpected ways. Imagine a new novel about the conflicts within our present-day readers. Call it “The Good Reader” or “The Interpreters,” or maybe “The Good and the Bored.” What would this novel be like, and where are the characters who will fill its pages?

Our generation seems far too aware that reading is safe and fun, that literature is spectacle. Readers of all kinds tend to feel transported or shocked, to experience a style the way people thrill to a virtuoso pianist, to have an adventure, to feel empowered (though not to be empowered), to get turned on. In the grip of these tendencies, we feed our voyeurism, hero-worship, lust, nostalgia, our desires to identify and project. We are vampires who yearn to warm our shivering lives with the deaths we read about, as Walter Benjamin remarked about an earlier generation of readers alienated from their communal experiences and lured into cities. We fortify our blood with ink about imaginary others. This relationship to books mirrors uncomfortably our relationship to the world: citizens of the freest of countries, yet we are wrought upon from without. We live in a cloud of vague dangers, neither clear nor present. Unelected judges appoint our president, and a man in a suit (once a Greenspan, now a Bernanke) determines whether stocks, prices, and unemployment rates rise or fall. Consent is all that is asked of us, or suspension of disbelief. And it seems that our ever increasing supply of fictions does nothing but abet the cultivation of this decadent passivity, an ideological apparatus all the more insidious for not belonging to the state.

This criticism of readers is as old as prophetic castigations of idol worshippers. The concern has usually been that reading will lead to wrong actions or no action—to immorality or passivity. So Wordsworth thought that the surge in popular novels and plays at the beginning of the industrial revolution had plunged English minds into “savage torpor.” He recommended we read more to cure ourselves—more Wordsworth. Novelists too wrote against the wrong kind of novels and the wrong kind of readers. This remains one of the strongest unsettled legacies of the long tradition of the modern novel, from the era of the French Revolution, through Flaubert and Tolstoy, up through today.

The rescue of readers from their own pernicious tendencies must be counted among the many utopian projects of the past two centuries, and, like nationalism and communism, it gained an accelerated force at the beginning of the 20th. From the evident aesthetic and political failures of socialist realism onward, novelists, critics, and teachers have struggled to create readers whose aesthetic sensibilities would trigger their social responsibility and, if lucky, their mental liberation. Sometimes readers were to be dragged out of their everyday slough by an array of estrangement effects. At others, they would find freedom and enlightenment through an understanding of the arbitrary nature of the conventions governing language and narrative action. The rise of “literary theory” was aligned with these utopian hopes and movements. Looking back now, we can see the 20th century as the golden age of the reader as hero.

Where did this figure go? Like so much else, the heroic reader has succumbed to triumphal capitalism. We look around and find that we are in a consumer’s world. Even those who supposedly “care” for literature have turned themselves into fans and enthusiasts. Does such and such a novel keep it real? Does it pique curiosity? Do I identify? Do I like the sound of this voice in my ear? The idea of the reader as canny consumer is so pervasive that one editor of a prominent literary magazine writes about herself as a member of “the service economy” and compares criticism to waitressing. It was undoubtedly a moment of weakness. But still: is a taste for literature nothing more than a refined palate? Is literary criticism really like being able to tell which wine tastes of wet stone and which of tart blackberry?

Banished by Amazon preferences and litblogs, the heroic reader lingers on as a memory mostly confined to academic criticism. Pick up the lit theory of the late 1960s and early ’70s: There’s Stanley Fish’s vision of Paradise Lost as great test and trap for its Protestant readers; Fredric Jameson’s liberation theology, in which readers bring the political unconscious of novels into the light of day; the stoical struggle of Paul de Man’s “rhetorical” reading, in which the self must learn to deny that it is a self; and, most self-consciously heroic of all, Harold Bloom’s quest to arrive back at “the great cyclic poem” by imagining poets as the best and most active unconscious misreaders. It makes sense that academic literary criticism would carry a torch for “higher reading,” since these people have devoted themselves to the belief that reading is the most important thing we do.

Of course these theories never made it into broader American culture. (There was once a plan to have Andrzej Warminski, Gayatri Spivak, and a team of graduate students teach rhetorical reading in New Haven public schools, but it’s not mentioned now without an embarrassed laugh.) For a while, however, there were two complementary “heroic reader” theories that did make it. These weren’t necessarily the most rigorous or the most captivatingly “heroic,” but they were the most directly American. They offered a sense of reading that tallied with ideas of what it means to be a good citizen in a liberal democracy. One proposed to enlarge our sympathies; the second would teach us how to overcome our own Romantic impulses and reach emotional and intellectual maturity.


The first theory was once an axiom of liberal-arts education back when we had liberal-arts education: reading novels could be “good for you”; it could even improve American morals. You didn’t learn anything from novels exactly, not useful knowledge, not information necessarily, certainly not the Truth, but the right kinds of novels were supposed to act as a check on our freedom and selfishness by educating readers into sympathy with others. There was always something horrifying and terrifyingly banal about this assumption. Horrifying because it tried to socialize the wild imagination of readers—especially those young readers most likely to experience literature as a liberation from the limitations of place, time, social codes, their own gender, race, and class, their families, or morality itself. Terrifyingly banal because once you’d learned to read the educated way, a lot of the illicit thrill went out of reading novels. The novel just wanted you to behave. There’s an analogy with the present cult of diet and exercise: the boy who runs through the grass until his lungs burn and the world looks both brighter and darker becomes a calorie counter and times himself in the mile.

The most thorough defenses of what David Bromwich nicknamed “literature as moral vitamins” appeared on the scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a time that can now be seen as the death throes of American liberalism and the liberal arts. (Then, it was thought of as a mere crisis period; the enemies were presumed to be the antiliberal left and French theory, rather than fundamentalists, demagogues, and rampant consumerism.) Richard Rorty and Martha Nussbaum both attempted to make the case for reading novels as a socially desirable and even necessary activity for a society that would be both good and just. For Rorty, the relation of reader to novel and also of author to character demonstrated the kind of solidarity that could hold secular and democratic countries together even if we accepted that truth was unknowable, shot through with irony and contingency. Nussbaum thought novels could offer revisions to liberal utilitarian calculations. They would rehumanize a technocratic elite and teach them to account for exceptions to the sort of generalized rule-making that prevailed among professional ethicists and lawyers. Not just any novel would do, of course. A canon was available and it appeared to be a closed one: adapted, with variations, from F. R. Leavis’s older “Great Tradition,” it often sounded like Austen, some Dickens, George Eliot, and Henry James. Instead of Leavis’s favorite, D. H. Lawrence, Rorty substituted Nabokov and Orwell; Nussbaum offered Beckett and also stepped back to Shakespeare and the ancient Athenians. One became an ethical reader, in short, by reading ethical writers—writers devoted to the task of creating characters who were, as much as possible, autonomous.

Despite this late attempt to rescue the liberal view that, in John Dewey’s phrase, “art is more moral than moralities,” the model already had encountered serious opposition. Crucially, it bred a feeling of superiority among novel-reading liberal-arts types that had first been exposed during the ’60s revolt of the antiliberal left. It turned out that characters who existed in novels as objects of sympathy (put-upon women, poor people, colonial subjects, prisoners) had ideas of their own about life. They didn’t want sympathy, they wanted power. And so, at the high school level, the whole post-1968 model of reading for group empowerment and identity formation supplanted the cult of sympathy and devolved into niche marketing (chick lit, anyone?). On the political level, the short-lived triumph of minority politics was followed by the long counter-revolution in whose shadow we’ve spent our lives. One of its major triumphs has been the careful corruption of minority “Yes We Can!” rhetoric of empowerment into an excuse for majority bullying. Liberals are now told that corporate bosses, policemen, and politicians have feelings that must be respected; that we must care for the strikebreaker, the prison guard, and the executive’s wish for privacy. To do anything else would be elitist.


But would it be uncivilized? Becoming a responsible citizen and even an adult is precisely about knowing when to judge and condemn and when to sympathize and care. Yet how does one know what is real, what romantic? What a true judgment and what an act of faith or misplaced trust? To try to answer these questions, the second type of American heroic reader was called forth in the aftermath of World War II amid a host of European influences. In his 1948 essay “Art and Fortune,” Lionel Trilling argued that we needed novels to make us feel fully alive; he proposed that we read novels precisely in order to re-experience a developmental process and win our way to full adulthood. The aim was to achieve knowledge without loss of power, but with a recognition of limitations.

The right new novels in the hands of the right new readers could bring about a change, a synthesis in the ongoing “dialectic of reality and illusion.” In Trilling’s account, the novel that best staged this multi-layered dialectic between worldly and literary experience was Stendhal’s early-19th-century “novel of ideas,” The Red and the Black. In the character and fate of Julien Sorel, Trilling saw the heroic readers of the future as well as hope for novels.

For Trilling, when Julien borrows a gardener’s ladder to climb into the bedroom of his boss’s daughter, with a pistol in his pocket and a knife, pirate-style, between his teeth, he rises to the level of a novelistic objective correlative. Within a single action, Stendhal captures the farcical elements of Liberal France in the 1830s, a culture in which a young man’s dream of romantic heroism had been degraded to one of upward mobility. Julien isn’t just an idea himself; however, later in the novel, as Trilling reads it, he becomes exactly the adult enlightened reader who learns to recognize his past actions as misguided—motivated by the pursuit of “specious goods.” Julien, though, doesn’t quite make it. (He gets bored of the aristocratic girlfriend he’s seduced, but he never manages to figure out what he wants.) And that failure too is a parable.

This kind of reading, let’s call it allegorical transumption, depends on the reader’s will to pass through identification into interpretation; call it a will to grow up. This reader—while we’re at it, let’s call him he—with his novel (and friends to argue about it) would be allowed fantasies of seductions, rope-ladders, murders, strapping men, and women “in all ways shapely”—the trappings of old romances endlessly updatable for new situations. But he would also have to understand that these demons must be sublimated into thoughts and arguments about the state of the world and the condition of his life. By plunging into the lives of fictional others with all reckless abandon, he’d yet emerge clutching a pearl of greater price, a fuller understanding of himself, his motives and wishes. He’d do this not necessarily to act on them, but to bring them to light and expose them to a world shared with others.

Both the will to interpret and the will to grow up flagged in the ’60s, epitomized by Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation” and its argument for endless surface textual pleasure. Sontag’s call for an “erotics of art” anticipated and echoed sexual liberation’s promise of eternal youth as well as the growing suspicion of psychoanalysis. Yet, against Sontag, we can once more recognize hermeneutics as a kind of erotics, albeit more Civilization and Its Discontents than “zipless fuck.”


Despite our culture’s best efforts—from left and right—the liberal hero-readers of both the “moral vitamins” and “allegorical transumption” accounts can never be fully liquidated—even when History itself seems to have no more use for them. They’ve been driven underground in a curious inverted repression, but they may return as characters again. No character returns unchanged from the underworld or from exile. We shouldn’t expect our new heroic readers to be as innocent in their quests for spiritual upward mobility as their many precursors. The liberal hero reader is different from Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, or Don Quixote—those overly active readers betrayed into becoming characters in someone else’s novel—but there’s still a story to tell.

A contemporary novel that could dramatize the life of one heroic reading consciousness or even one reader’s struggle between heroic reading and the impulses so effectively tapped by consumerism might just be the sort of novel to save us from our own savage torpor. It would still be a novel, of course—just as Anna Karenina remains a novel critical of novels and already points the way to Tolstoy’s ultimate renunciation of art. The struggle would have to be set in one of the great metropolitan centers of our global commercial culture, New York or London. Curiously, it seems difficult to write anything but minor novels and satires about these places now. It used to be that the metropole was defined as the place everyone went to write and the place everyone wrote about. The former still holds, for the most part, but the metropolis now lies shrouded in myths of its boringness, its unrepresentability. The inhabitants of these places who want the news from novels get “realist” writing purchased from developing countries or America’s expanding borderlands and hinterlands. We metropolitan readers have lives no less real for taking place within this history of reading. Let us turn the gaze upon ourselves, if only the better to focus it again.

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