- Reading as Therapy: What Contemporary Fiction Does for Middle-Class Americans
Timothy Aubry's Reading as Therapy seeks to address a live issue concerning the role of literature in the sociocultural landscape of today's America: how reading works of fiction can affect—and have an effect on—contemporary readers. Specifically, the book's focus is on the "therapeutic"—an ideology that Aubry, tapping into a rich vein of studies on mass culture, sees as the hallmark of contemporary middle-class society. The question becomes, then, not if and how reading fiction can be a form of therapy, but how fiction can join the everyday conversation about the therapeutic in a specific sociocultural milieu.
Establishing a dialogue with Marxist critics of the postwar period like Dwight Macdonald and Leslie Fiedler, Aubry forges a connection between middle-class, college-educated readers and the "middlebrow"—a register that mediates between popular culture and highbrow, academic circles, often supporting the intellectual aspirations of a large middle-class audience. Aubry's canon comprises six books published after 1995, all of them associated more or less directly with the middlebrow: two are rooted in genre fiction, women's literature (Anita Shreve's The Pilot's Wife) and the memoir (James Frey's A Million Little Pieces); two float in a no-man's-land of bestsellers not devoid of literary ambitions (Rebecca Wells's Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner); whereas the last two lean toward the highbrow (Toni Morrison's Paradise and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest). In the central chapters of his study, Aubry intertwines his critical readings of these six novels with analyses of actual readers' reactions. Aubry's interpretations center on the therapeutic as a theme staged by the writers through typically middle-class vicissitudes, which—he claims—cater to the readers' emotional needs by encouraging their empathic engagement with the characters. Even when this engagement is disrupted by the difficulty of the text (as is the case with Paradise and Infinite Jest), Aubry convincingly argues, the readers' frustration serves a second-order therapeutic function: it enables the audience to approach otherness (in Morrison's novel) and to make contact with Wallace's melancholic self.
Of the three key terms that form the conceptual backbone of Aubry's book—middle class, middlebrow, and therapeutic—the last is unquestionably the most difficult to define, and possibly the most problematic. In the forty page introduction, Aubry traces the history of the therapeutic to Aristotle's catharsis and Freud's psychoanalysis, [End Page 384] but it is the much more mundane (and recent) tradition of self-help books that appears to inflect his usage of the term. Characterized by a strong—and sometimes excessive—emphasis on the psychological, the therapeutic is presented as complicit with the confessional culture of talk shows (three of Aubry's tutor texts were discussed in Oprah Winfrey's book club). However, the capital sin of the therapeutic—and more in general of the middlebrow culture it is bound up with—is the lack of political and social engagement, as if the American middle class has absolved itself from collective responsibilities in order to attend exclusively to its own precarious well-being—hence the downpour of discourse about our anxieties, psychological wounds, and thwarted desires. Aubry's attitude toward this picture of Jamesonian derivation remains somewhat ambiguous: while never rejecting it completely, he comes to question some of its implications. In the conclusion, for example, he argues that the emotional reactions and empathic engagements of middle-class readers, far from being apolitical, can actually serve to respectfully bridge cultural differences and "promote forms of recognition, identification, and sympathy among strangers living without the support of stable local communities" (205). Along similar lines, Aubry pleads for a fuller acknowledgment of affect as a legitimate and highly complex form of interpretation that complements— rather than replaces—academic interpretive practices.
These are reasonable conclusions reached through perceptive readings, but they look slightly conservative in today's shifting...