- Reading with Feeling
There are things that critics and philosophers love to burble on about, and literary appreciation is one of them. Susan Feagin puts an end to our burbling. Even if one does not always agree with Feagin, it is a singular merit of her book that it points to the problems that need to be addressed in order to offer a passable theory of appreciation. Her book is subtle, considered, and perceptive, and offers an account that is demanding yet informative and helpful.
To appreciate a literary work, we are told, is “not merely to recognize that a work has certain properties,” still less that it has a specific value. Rather, it is to [End Page 201] interact with the work in a way that “gets the value out of it,” where “this involves being affectively or emotionally moved” by the fiction (p. 1).
The account of appreciation that follows aims first to explain how affective responses to fiction are possible—where this involves describing in a detailed explanatory way, the activity of appreciation and what it necessarily involves. Second, it aims to explain what it is that warrants or justifies an affective response to literature.
Although interpretation is related to, perhaps intertwined with, appreciation, Feagin is adamant that the two activities are entirely different. An interpretation is the end-result, the product, of a certain activity, and gives us the meaning of a work or its parts. Appreciation, by contrast, is the successful exercise of an ability—namely that of interacting appropriately with a text—and does not result in any end product (pp. 34–37). Hence the desire to appreciate a novel is the desire to do various things with it, and in the process to exercise an acquired ability, namely that of responding appropriately to it. The crucial thing about this desire, Feagin suggests, is that it does not involve the mental representation of its object: it is not, for instance, the desire to have experiences of a certain sort. It is what she calls a “no-rep desire” (pp. 51–58).
One has to wonder about this. When I buy and sit down to read my next Joanna Trollope novel, I do so partly because I have a pretty good idea of the delights that lie in store. In Feagin’s terms, I wish to exercise a certain ability, and interact appropriately with the text, but in this case I desire to do so because of a well-founded idea that I am going to engage with a certain subject matter: with the personal lives of people in traumatic relationships, and with a range of subtle perceptions and observations about human frailties. While perhaps not fully “rep,” this is far from being a no-rep desire; yet it seems wrong to deny that I desire to appreciate the work.
In the three chapters that follow, Feagin looks closely at the activities involved in appreciating a work. As we read, our psychological sensitivity to what we read next is changed, and we move into “different mental gears.” Here Feagin emphasizes the slides and shifts, and the repeated reconfigurations that enter into the appreciation of a text (chap. 3). Such cognitive and affective shifts are to some degree automatic, to some degree under the reader’s control, even though we do not formulate intentions to move into them. But either way, they are what Feagin calls sensitivities—that is, a psychological readiness to respond in certain ways to events in the fiction. Crucially, they introduce into appreciation a temporal dimension, since our sensitivities are enhanced or diminished by what precedes them, and this, as we shall shortly see, is of considerable significance when deciding whether our affective responses to a work are warranted.
These mental shifts and slides are required for an empathetic engagement with fictional characters. Feagin’s approach here is largely based on contemporary work in the philosophy of mind and philosophical psychology. As a result, [End Page 202] she suggests in chapter 4 that empathizing involves simulating another’s mental states; something that...