- 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...