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18 / introduction While his characters had interiority, that interiority was also always refracted through a particular social lens. Presumably, such representations would thwart easy readerly identifications, because of the apparent specificity of the character descriptions—but as we shall see in the chapters that follow, this was never a real barrier to the determined “reading up” reader. The potential misreader haunts James’s 1905 discussion in “The Lesson on Balzac,” in which he observes that a facility for identification is essential to the author but potentially detrimental to a reader. Balzac, James argues, had a preternatural ability to “get into the constituted consciousness , into all the clothes, gloves and whatever else, into the very skin and bones, of the habited, featured, colored, articulated form of life that he desired to present.”44 How else, after all, could Balzac have written so much in the span of twenty years—he had no time to gain such experiences for himself, he was too busy writing! And just as Balzac was able to enter into his characters’ situations, so must the reader be able to understand characters “from their point of pressing consciousness or sensation—without [the reader’s] allowing for which there is no appreciation ” (“LB,” 132). But by 1905, James would know, from personal experience, that readers could not be relied on to do the right things with the novels they read. Unlike Howells, James thinks that Balzac leaves the door open for readerly mistakes, willing “to risk, for the sake of his subject and its interest, your spiritual salvation” (“LB,” 132). In theory, James finds it preferable to risk misreading than to overload any characterization with hints to the reader, as the detestable, “moralizing” William Makepeace Thackeray does. In practice, James would spend considerable energy trying to redirect reader reception in his New York Edition prefaces, and would bemoan the frequent misreadings of his texts in letters to his friends and family. For James, such was the risk of embracing the process of identification; he was all the more disappointed when his readers’ identifications went awry. The disagreement over Balzac centers on whether it is the author’s fault or the reader’s if a text is “misread.” Howells and Wharton are both wary of identification, because of the possibility that it occurs only as a result of an unnuanced effusion of sympathy rather than a carefully considered assessment of the circumstances in the text. At least, this is what they claim vis-à-vis Balzac. As we shall see, in chapters 2 and 4, respectively, as authors of fictional texts Howells and Wharton have more sympathy for identification, and more desire to evoke it, than their critical arguments suggest. Such accommodations, I argue, are at least introduction / 19 in some measure a concession to the material conditions of the literary marketplace of the early twentieth century. Just as the new mass market of readers needed to move away from previous preferences for sentiment and romance in pursuit of greater cultural capital, so did the realist authors need to satisfy—or at least acquire a healthy tolerance for—the impulse to sentimental and romantic reading practices in their readers. Those who did not, Dreiser among them, did not become the highbrow best sellers that Wharton, Howells, and, to a lesser degree, James were. Janice Radway describes the judges of the Book-of-the-Month Club in the 1920s and 1930s as advancing “a reading experience that promoted interest in an object or situation beyond the self and that dialectically evoked in the reader a sense of being recognized by another.” Like Mabie, the club’s judges “steer[ed] clear of books that positioned their readers to feel certain negatively charged affects, including disgust, contempt, and shame.”45 But the focus on affect, and on a sense of connectivity with others, that Radway sees as a key to this orientation, which she terms “middlebrow personalism,” must be seen in large part as a modification of the utilitarian, and largely affectless, identificatory practice of reading up that Mabie validates in his columns.46 Radway describes her readers as searching for an anodyne for the “excessive rationalism and distance of the instrumental, utilitarian approach to life”;47 however, it was precisely this approach that Mabie had embraced, and rendered consistent with the apparently nonutilitarian world of reading, in his Journal columns. Mabie worked to make the book relevant to those who found the practices of Sicherman’s readers too removed from a modern life...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781439906699
Related ISBN
9781439906682
MARC Record
OCLC
794700744
Pages
256
Launched on MUSE
2012-02-08
Language
English
Open Access
No
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