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  • Response:Reading Outward
  • Talia Schaffer (bio)

The 2018 NAVSA conference was called "Looking Outward," but I heard so many talks about forms of reading that I decided to take the opportunity to think about how we read and what we read for. By "reading outward," I mean to designate a restlessness with received wisdom, a desire to strike out into fresh ideas about literary forms and histories.

We are rethinking reading, I believe, because two critical trends are converging. For the past several years Victorianists have been debating how we read: by way of surface reading, symptomatic reading, suspicious reading, distant reading, close reading, reparative reading, paranoid reading, and digital reading. The reading wars often tacitly have constructed the text itself as a vulnerable, inert, mute entity, and the reader as an active agent. We could be hurting or helping it, consolidating similar items in bulk or zooming in on one, skimming over its surface or digging into its depths. But this vision collides with a different model of textuality that I find implicit in recent work on temporality, wherein texts are somewhat more interactive, influencing one another, carrying residual marks of previous contact, prefiguring and recasting inherited techniques. In reassessing literary history, we accept a more modest and hopefully less invasive kind of agency, the stance of the careful observer assessing changed forms over time. Theorists of queer temporality have been exploring the political affordances of finding oneself outside of conventional linear (re)productive time, and the ways in which this subject position might orient one toward suspension, looking backward, or a utopian futurity.1 This work stresses the subjective experience of temporal duration, in which time [End Page 248] can feel suspended, slowed, frozen, simultaneous. This suggests a new model of understanding literary history beyond a simple linear chronology in which predecessors influence inheritors. In other words, considering time itself might provide a more generous and nuanced way of thinking about reading.

The three preceding articles bring historical interest to bear on the reading wars. Sara L. Maurer, Maia McAleavey, and Lech Harris each offer a radical proposition based on the surprising longevity of an early-Victorian textual structure. Their work models the ways in which a sensitive alertness to textual elements can reshape conventional literary history by steering between the Scylla of intrusive critical agency and the Charybdis of simplistic models of influence. They trace the long afterlife of 1810s-1830s readerly expectations, a richly residual presence that a careful reader can sense permeating subsequent work.

Sara L. Maurer's study of the evangelical religious tracts of the 1820s and 1830s reveals that they discouraged sympathetic affiliation. Rather, in Maurer's words, they "encouraged the individual reader to experience his or her own unlimited personal responsibility for developing an inner conscience in response to these texts. This weakened the tracts' potential for creating fellow feeling among transnational communities" (224). Thus the Religious Tract Society produced stories featuring someone unlike the reader, not to encourage identification, feel community, or develop sympathy, but rather in order to "foreground … reading as re-experience" (226). Tract readers used the text to move back into their own memories. In the early Victorian period, people practiced a form of reading that was a kind of closed loop, a solipsistic self-reference that explicitly eschewed affiliative outreach. Maurer's study shows that "embedded within the most social space of the Victorian social problem novel is a style of deeply asocial reading" (229).

Maurer accurately points out that this work problematizes Benedict Anderson's imagined community, because evangelical readers were exhorted to stop reading newspapers lest they diffuse their moral attention in imagined far-off situations instead of focusing on their own souls. These findings also challenge the study of sympathy. Today, critics debate whether readerly sympathy extends into the real world: does weeping over Tiny Tim really make one more likely to help living children in need?2 Maurer, however, blocks the automatic equation of sympathy and ethical feeling. It is all the more surprising to find this asocial, solipsistic stance in the heyday of the sentimental novel, although it makes sense in terms of the history of Protestant emphasis on the formation of...

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