Dhaka, Bangladesh
Good Reader, Bad Reader

Good Reader, Bad Reader

(From previous issue) How did these strange, but no less systematic or meticulously considered, methods of reading came to shape the constellation of aesthetic and communicative practices within which postwar American literature ?ourished? This is an account of how American literature made its mark on the world in strange and unappreciated ways: not through the triumphal denationalization or subnationalization of literary production, but through distinctly international institutions of literary socialization, at home and in the world at large. o o o How does one become a paraliterary reader? We are overwhelmingly familiar with the equipment that goes into the making of good readers: close reading, critical reading, depth reading; the canon, the curriculum, the literature seminar. But what texts and institutional spaces account for the creation of bad readers? To understand how people read in institutions adjacent to literature departments, we must first account for the distinctive types of texts that people read in tandem with literary works. From elocution primers to conduct books, advertisements, consumer guides, scienti?c treatises, intelligence reports, and bureaucratic archives, the written artifacts of modern institutions offer surprisingly perceptive commentaries on how one can and should read literature as a properly internationalized subject. Let me begin, somewhat conservatively, as Nabokov suggests his good reader ought, with a dictionary. Tracking the various and evolving meanings of the term paraliterary-as a genre, a reading practice, and an institutional domain-offers a general framework for understanding the bad reader: from the early 20th century through the 1970s, delegitimated attitudes toward reading literature thrived in institutions oriented to international communication. Take, for instance, an imposing 1974 research report published by the Prague-based Radio Free Europe (RFE), a government-run U.S. broadcasting institution. The report, which assessed a series of techniques for teaching citizens of both the United States and the Soviet bloc how to read American novels, curiously prefaced its instruction with a meditation on what the authors deemed "paraliterary works." "In a serious culture great events are followed by an abundance of paraliterary works," the report's authors claimed. "These take the form of memoirs or personal diaries of outstanding personalities, biographies of leaders, studies of diplomats, collections of documents, and-last but not least-feature reports." As the authors imagined it, a reader could sift through the "abundance of paraliterary works" generated by a "serious culture" to better equip herself to read that culture's "literary works." While this suggestion would have prompted Nabokov, Tindall, Burke, Kaufmann, and like-minded readers to rise up and protest, others would have simply accepted the RFE's recommendation as an inevitability of modern textual culture. "Novels today have neither the wish nor the ability to make a contribution to 'literature': the nature of modern society demands a slough of paraliterature to wallow in," observed the British poet Sebastian Barker in a spirit of anti-American bookish malaise. It is all too easy to dismiss reading that does not look like Nabokov's good reading as unworthy of critical attention. To do so is to fail to grapple with the historically contingent production of speci?c kinds of bad and good readers. Note Barker's use of scare quotes around "literature," as if to indicate that the term was nothing more than a ?gment of the cultural imagination, an imminently unstable construct. From the point of view of literary history, it seems signi?cant that the term paraliterary did not arise until the "literary" appeared to have coalesced as a cultural category, only to fall immediately into crisis due to the "nature of modern society": the rationalization of everyday life, the failure of liberal pluralism, and the intensifying stakes of geopolitical struggle. These were the conditions under which the RFE urged the reading of memoirs, diaries, biographies, diplomatic studies, bureaucratic archives, and feature reports as primers for engaging with literary texts. The RFE was by no means unique in its invitation to readerly preparation through paraliterary works. Consider a similar exhortation found in a slim 1975 dispatch titled "Reading Research in the Socialist Countries," published by the American Center for Library Science and Methodology as a manual for colleges, libraries, and federal communications bureaucracies. More explicitly than RFE's guide, "Reading Research" analyzed the social and cultural stakes of preparing oneself to read belles lettres by initially undertaking a careful evaluation of the "paraliterary genres." While the "common feature" of "all documents, diaries, memoirs, reminiscences, and also epistolography" was a "lack of the 'literary aspect,'" the authors contended that these texts' lack of literariness was only "important from the point of view of the theory of literature." Indeed, once the learned habits of literary theory were checked at the door, readers not only could read paraliterary texts without feeling the pinpricks of low cultural shame but also could also use paraliterary texts to train themselves to transcend the "literariness" of literature, paradoxical though the notion may seem to us today. By bracketing a "theory of literature" that privileged the disinterested appreciation of aesthetic forms or the production of interpretive discourse, the reader who had ?rst cut her teeth on bureaucratic documents, diaries, reports, reminiscences, and studies could transform belles lettres into a model for how to lead what the authors touted as an "authentically real human life." Or to echo the description of a popular class on literature and communication offered by the University of Michigan in 1975, reading "across a range of literary and paraliterary forms" would show students how the "accomplishments of the 'great' novel" could be "adapted to the more specialized cultural needs" of the time. The descriptions of paraliterary works provided in these reports pre?gure what cultural critics have often said about the "banal" textual objects produced and archived by political, economic, and civic institutions since the 1930s: that as the typical "written material of self-documenting social settings," they were "unobtrusive" and "naturally occurring." Yet while these genres were proffered to their readers as portals to a more "authentically real human life," their apparently unmediated presentation belied a highly particularized project of literacy education underwritten by a multitude of invisible factors: the institutions that produced and distributed paraliterary and literary texts in tandem; the archives that registered an expanding geography of literacy; the Cold War entanglements that positioned VOA, RFE, and other similar institutions at the heart of international literary socialization. Indeed, once we begin to account for the far-?ung material and historical contingencies of reading in this expanding ?eld of texts, we can see how the various paraliterary "works," "genres," and "forms" produced by "a serious culture" (American culture) after "great events" (World War II) were, in fact, framed to suggest a more useful and timely way of reading literature than what a theory of properly literary reading had to offer. But how was this scene of reading organized and what did it hope to accomplish? By attending to these reports more closely, we see that descriptions of paraliterary works all shared an explicit commitment to non?ctional representation and reference. Paraliterary works were meant to be read as factual, historically accurate narratives. Intimately bound up with the non?ctional status of these paraliterary texts was their emphasis on chronicling the speech, behavior, and comportment of individuals whose social roles were de?ned by visible and self-re?exive acts of public communication: political icons, national leaders, diplomats, and other such "outstanding personalities." To prime one's reading of literary ?ction with paraliterary works was to direct one's attention to the embodied and socially mediated schemes of action narrated therein; actions like speech, gesture, perception, and interaction that could be-and, in fact, had been-performed by real people in historically consequential circumstances. Rather than an insistence on genre differentiation, here the invitation was to genre confusion. The promise that belles lettres could thus be read as encoding publicly communicative schemes of action instantiated one of the more visible and aggressive resurrections of what Deidre Lynch has characterized as a "bygone rhetorical culture in which words served pragmatic, social ends." To tweak an earlier observation about properly literary reading as what people in literary institutions do, we could conclude that paraliterary reading-de?ned here by the cultivation of publicly oriented schemes of action, a weakened commitment to ?ctionality, a newfound attentiveness to the political temporalities of texts, and the juggling of distinct documentary genres-became what people in paraliterary institutions did with texts. From elocution primers to conduct books, advertisements, consumer guides, scienti?c treatises, intelligence reports, and bureaucratic archives, the written artifacts of modern institutions offer surprisingly perceptive commentaries on how one can and should read literature as a properly internationalized subject. Equally important, however, was that paraliterary reading coalesced as a form of reading capable of producing a self-governing and communicatively adept international subject. The gradual convergence of international relations, reading methods, and subject formation can be seen in a 1979 United Nations Economic, Social, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) "Cultural" report, which insisted that training readers to attend to literature's "paraliterary features" was the key to "introducing self-management to the cultural sphere." The alignment of reading literature with disciplined practices of internationalized "self-management" emerged as a clarion call that was answered by bureaucrats and literary scholars alike. In one of the earliest studies of postwar American ?ction to treat it as a distinct disciplinary ?eld, literary scholar Warner Berthoff classed the literature of the period as transmitting "a whole paraliterary class of messages to the age." Going against the grain of professional literary criticism, Leslie Fiedler, at a controversial 1981 meeting of the English Institute on world literature and communication, encouraged "paraliterary reading" as an entry point to regulating and promoting "irresponsible fantasy, shameful concupiscence, and shameful tears and laughter" to unite readers around the globe. And today, while the richly polyvalent origins of "paraliterary" have yielded to narrower uses of the word-as a modi?er for unappreciated literary genres (as in Samuel Delaney's discussion of science ?ction) or unsung literary professional roles (such as Rosalind Krauss's description of the work performed by editors)-the very ?exibility of its reclamation points back in time to how an unusual range of genres, social settings, and reading subjects were ?rst brought together at a distance from the institutions of professional literary study. By attending to the past, we can begin to see not only that contemporary concerns with paraliterary reading were also postwar ones, but that they came into being through the era in response to a speci?c set of sociohistorical pressures. Chief among them was the pressure on ordinary citizens to communicate with one another in the constitution of an internationally minded public sphere. While the fascinating etymological evolution of the paraliterary offers one frame for bad reading, I am primarily interested in how distinct, but historically interconnected, institutions of international relations imagined the relationship between paraliterary reading and the production of international subjects. The shift from reading paraliterary works produced by institutions to reading literature more broadly was propelled by a confusion of genres. As variously non?ctional subgenres-lecture transcripts, elocution primers, conduct books, publicity stills, advertisements, consumer guides, ?nancial instruments, magazines, journals, intelligence reports, bureaucratic ?les-collided with the expressive forms of literature, complicated modes of reading emerged as simply untutored scenes of literacy: reading imitatively, reading emotionally, reading faddishly, reading for information, reading like a bureaucrat, and reading like a revolutionary. While the relatively autonomous forms of reading that cohered throughout the period-close reading, critical reading, depth reading-have been treated by scholars as historically contingent practices, paraliterary reading emerged as a grubby and residual mess of activity perpetuated by a mass of "heretical readers," as Pierre Bourdieu once dubbed the reading subjects who "take liberties with the norms and forms imposed by the guardians of the text." Yet from the 1930s to the 1970s, as Armando Petrucci has shown, the dizzying rise of institutions of international mass communications and the sheer volume of texts they produced and circulated made it impossible to ignore the heteronomous attitudes toward literature embraced by readers conscripted by the state and acting in the service of the nation. So why have these institutions and the readers they tapped for projects of international communication not received their due? It is not for their lack of historical importance. Paraliterary reading existed long before the mid-1970s work of RFE and UNESCO. The origins of the idea can be found in interwar discourses of U.S. international relations and traced through its ef?orescence in the decades following World War II. The history of U.S. internationalism during this period is well charted. For many it begins on a rather de?nitive note with Henry Luce's 1941 Life magazine editorial "the American Century"- the most widely cited rallying call for U.S. empire-and seesaws for the next thirty years between the liberal establishment politics of the (early) Truman administration, Kennedy, and Johnson and the realpolitik containment strategies of the (later) Truman administration, Eisenhower, and Nixon. If the good reader is framed as the literary reader, then perhaps we should think of Nabokov's bad readers not as 'unliterary,' 'subliterary,' or 'nonliterary readers,' but as paraliterary ones, forged in the political, economic, and civic institutions that orbited literature departments throughout the postwar period. Overwhelmingly, however, these decades witnessed a shift away from enmity and con?ict toward what Christina Klein has called a "global imaginary of integration," propped up by concerns about "cooperation," "mutuality," and "community." Whether in the form of written documents or physical acts, it was "ordinary trade, travel, communication, and intercourse between people" that the State Department identi?ed in a 1953 Of?ce of Public Communications bulletin as the key to creating a reading public that extended across the Atlantic and Paci?c Oceans. By and large, however, the literary historical interest in international relations remains narrowly focused, whatever decade, administration, institution, or policy one chooses to investigate, and strikingly removed from the realm of "ordinary" "intercourse" (or discourse) that was central to the period. This also raises the question of covert artistic in?uences: how did the state, acting through the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Rockefeller and the Ford Foundations, exercise power in the world and how did its exercise of power leave an enduring mark on the aesthetic qualities of literature? The standard critical narrative is one of surreptitious coercion and writerly resistance through the production of sophisticated formal allegories for state control. This is an idea aptly expressed by Michael Walzer, who argues that the state must ?rst be "personi?ed," "symbolized," and "imagined" to be critiqued-a critique that must likewise take place on the level of narrative character, symbol, and other imaginary features of the text. But critiqued by whom and for what audiences? Who, precisely, was reading and decoding these representations of state power? And what did the knowledge produced by critique set out to accomplish?

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