Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America by Merve Emre
We love bad writers: the rebels, the social pariahs, the norm-flouting cads, the political dissidents, even those famed modernists who intentionally created bad works in order to make a point about textual production and consumption. But rarely do we celebrate bad readers. Unimaginative, [End Page 199] uncritical, and self-absorbed, they are the bane of many an instructor’s existence. At their worst, they sound like Homer Simpson, who corrects his daughter Lisa’s incipient structuralism by insisting that “the point of Moby-Dick is ‘be yourself.’”1 The heresy of paraphrase that Cleanth Brooks preached against seems like a peccadillo compared to the greater sin of substituting platitude and cliché for analytic engagement with a text.
There have always been bad readers, but as Merve Emre’s fascinating and highly astute new book Paraliterary demonstrates, the particular classes and types of bad readers that were made as part of postwar American diplomatic efforts necessitate a full-scale reconstruction and reconsideration. She neither apologizes for nor laments them, but rather, takes their existence as a point of departure for a wide-ranging synthesis of deep archival research and cutting-edge polemic. “We, as critics,” she writes, “must proudly claim the bad readers as our own if we wish to make claims about reading at all,” because “their creation helped devise enduring strategies for how people could use literature to learn to speak, feel, perceive, and interact with others throughout the postwar period” (16, 4). Bad readers, it turns out, were the locus of the “consolid[ation of] new practices of reading literary texts that posited a strong, disciplined, and habitual relationship between aesthetic representation and readers’ lived experiences of public communication”—practices whose unpredictable effects are still with us (3).
The types of bad reading at the core of Emre’s study are not as bad as Homer Simpson’s: actually, they have been valorized variously in the past seventy years, from Susan Sontag to surface reading. The fact that we have scrutinized so little the agendas and worldviews that produced them—even as they speak to some of the most heated debates in contemporary literary studies—makes this book all the more urgent. We do know in vivid detail how the United States was instructing citizens in the hopes that their skills of “reading literature might, quite literally, change the world”: good reading “would emotionally move and ethically instruct the nation’s political adversaries,” it would “educate and improve its allies,” and “it would transform readers into living, breathing representatives of the culture that produced them” (4). We also know specifically about the institutionalization and cultural politics of New Criticism and its “good reading” strictures. We know much less about two vital questions that hinge on sociological formulations: “Who, precisely, was reading and decoding these representations of state power? And what did the knowledge produced by critique set out to accomplish?” (12). That is, when masses of citizens were being trained as readers in universities and in ephemera alike, how and where were their “imitative, emotional, information seeking, faddish, escapist, propagandist,” or other “bad” reading habits actually encouraged, embraced, and repurposed, rather than filtered out (4)? And what were the international effects of these alternative forms of “literary socialization” (6)? Here, Emre powerfully charts “the kinds of citizens—the internationalized subjects—that practices of bad reading aspired to produce” and shows “how these literate subjects used reading to navigate a political climate that championed liberal individualism, on the one hand, while establishing unprecedented forms of institutional oversight, on the other” (5).
Emre’s goal is not to lift the veil and give discrete biographies of bad readers, but to understand them as a social production through which both glossy magazines and Faulkner’s The Town (1957) look dramatically different. This book takes the big-name acronyms and authors that appear in much scholarship on Cold War literature and reconfigures them in an orbit in which the CCF, OSS, VOA, and RFE operate alongside, against, and through the reading practices developed in National Geographic, in study abroad programs, in conduct books, in American Express ad campaigns, and in the tactics of black revolutionary politics of the 1960s. Here, and in many other sites, Emre thus shifts her primary focus from “the national production of literary fiction” and the employment of authors in cultural diplomacy to the “international acts of speech, gesture, perception, consumption, and face-to-face interaction” that characterized the reception of key literary works of the period (3). This turn toward sociology and modes of consumption prompts Paraliterary’s attention to the often-marginalized “expressive language produced by students, [End Page 200] career diplomats, tourists, spies, ambassadors, businessmen, soldiers, and revolutionaries [. . . who were] tasked with trade, travel, communication, and intercourse—of all kinds—as well as building cooperation, mutuality, and community” (13). They learned to read and to write, and to cultivate readerships, just as their better-known novelistic peers did, in distinct ways that form the backbone of what Emre denotes as “paraliterary” discourses. With her titular term—whose connotations of parasitism and paramilitarism she invites for their unofficial, supplementary overtones—Emre enters and revises the historiography of quasi-literary productions that have mattered a great deal to New Historicists, deconstructionists, and scholars of cultural studies. Paraliterature and the practices that produced and interpreted it thrived in their ability to feed off the host (“literature”) while also carving out spaces in which the unofficial, the cast aside, and the bemoaned responses to literature itself became charged tactics.
Across this book’s remarkably diverse and yet conceptually entwined chapters, the paraliterary detritus of bureaucracy and instruction rubs shoulders with high-art novels. But the conclusions are hardly foregone: for instance, “today, nothing seems more conventional than the canon [F. O.] Matthiessen stitched together on his Fulbright tour of Eastern Europe. Yet the criteria that Matthiessen used to restock USIS libraries with Whitman, Melville, James, and Eliot; to organize syllabi and seminars; and to supervise research were by no means apparent to his contemporaries—criteria derived from the institutionally specific convergence of learning to feel through reading a lovable canon, declarations of passionate criticism, and the physicality of communication” (78). Far from a dispassionate, scientific approach to textuality, Mathiessen—after drifting away from his own New Critical precepts—actually became a sort of pop psychologist in international diplomatic circuits. Similarly surprising and refreshing are Emre’s explorations of Sylvia Plath’s fashion reviews during her Fulbright fellowship and Henry James’s ambivalent relationship with the reading practices of women’s colleges and “Ladies’ culture clubs” (27). Emre’s enlightening readings of novels such as Naked Lunch, Giovanni’s Room, The American Express, and Fear of Flying, too, reveal that their remediation of the optics and communicative potentialities of international branding was bound up with debates over how literature itself established—or failed to establish—an uncrossable hermeneutic line between reality and fiction.
Paraliterary’s chapters on countercultural texts—including its final one, on black radicalism—are highly original and inventive. They give new context to what both midcentury figures and their next-generation academic counterparts constructed as paranoid, affective, mimetic, public, and personal ways of reading. And they do so without casting everyone from Erica Jong to James Baldwin in simplistic opposition to a straw-man monolith of dominant theories of textual autonomy. “Literature” emerges in Emre’s book neither as an institution nor as a mode of disciplining subjects, but as a category whose “high cultural value” only makes sense through its vacillating stabilization and destabilization in the messy, crass world of advertising or archiving (98). Failure is a common thread for both central and peripheral projects: Faulkner’s work with Eisenhower’s Person-to-Person Initiative fails, just as Baldwin, Richard Wright, John A. Williams, and other key black writers “banded together, only to fall apart in opposition to Faulkner and Eisenhower’s institution-building project” (207). In this way, they joined countless unacknowledged peers from the worlds of corporate sloganeering and espionage alike. The legacies of the bad readers of the postwar era are incorporated in our quotidian work, even if we foreswear them as a group. Paraliterary’s story is striking not because it documents grandiose and ill-fated plans, but because of its nuanced sense of the multiple registers of what we call “ordinary” life and its reading practices across history. Thankfully, like most scholars of Cold War literature, Emre rejects the conspiratorial puppet-master approaches that have landed scholars like Eric Bennett, Joel Whitney, and Hugh Wilford in too many familiar debates about the state’s agency and internal coordination. Instead, her book does what many of us believe good literature does: it makes the familiar unfamiliar in revelatory and insightful ways. With uncommon verve, each chapter enters related but markedly different terrain that reframes the postwar moment in [End Page 201] a broader debate about how we communicate (by words, texts, images, face-to-face encounters) and about literature’s putative or possible instrumentality. Emre concludes with a provocative rejoinder and challenge to both “weak theory” and what Jeffrey Williams deemed “the new modesty in literary criticism.” Along the way, Paraliterary attempts to strike a delicate balance between readings of traditional literary texts and historical accounts of sociologies of reading. It almost always succeeds on this count; its paratactic structures are welcome and illuminating, and Emre is conscious of the difficulty in positing “micro- and macrosociological” claims at once, as she does (179). At specific moments, her narrative thread gets buried under her own ample and rich evidence: one wishes for more narrative, less description at a few points, so that the scale of claims and evidence are better aligned. But a small price to pay for the admirably far-reaching work this book executes marvelously. Emre’s prose is elegant and convincing, and this book will be required reading for scholars of the postwar world’s overlapping, incomplete, and understudied interpretive communities.
1. The Simpsons, “The Fat and the Furriest,” episode 318 (episode 5, season 15), written by Joel H. Cohen, Fox network, November 30, 2003.