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  • Freaks of Literature
  • Tom Sperlinger (bio)
Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America by Merve Emre. University of Chicago Press, 2017. £20.50. ISBN 9 7802 2647 3970

Chester Himes's Novel Yesterday Will Make You Cry was recovered and published in 1998, forty-five years after it had appeared in a bowdlerised version as Cast the First Stone. The two drafts are distinct enough to be read as separate fictions, but what is unchanged between them is also suggestive. In both novels, for example, Himes's own experiences in prison inform those of Jimmy, the white protagonist. In one scene from Yesterday, Jimmy and Rico (his friend and lover) are looking at a picture in the newspaper of trenches from the First World War. Rico recognises what is 'familiar' in the picture: 'It's us! It's every goddamned convict', he cries. The picture is captioned 'Ennui' and it prompts Jimmy to start writing:

The story was all inside of him. He wrote Ennui at the top of the page and looked about the dormitory and began writing without knowing what the next word would be. All of his emotions and feelings and protests which he had suffered for all those years boiled out of him. When he got up from the typewriter he had a story. He knew it was a freak of literature. He knew it was impossible. But he had written it. And he knew that he had a million more inside of him which only needed a spark to set them off. But could he write them?

(p. 322)

Jimmy's 'feelings and protests' boil to the surface in other ways too. He feels inspired by his relationship with Rico: 'Everything touched Jimmy [End Page 371] that spring. He was too emotional; he had never been so emotional. Everything was soft inside of him and at the slightest touch he'd bubble over, like foam' (p. 317).

Merve Emre's Paraliterary is, in its author's words, a book about 'bad readers and the institutions that spawned them in postwar America' (p. 3). Emre has a specific definition of a bad reader: 'I mean individuals socialized into the practices of readerly identification, emotion, action, and interaction that Nabokov decried [in 'Good Readers and Bad Readers' (1948)]; practices rooted in a political culture that insisted on "Something to Be Done" by literature' (p. 3). Rico in Yesterday is a bad 'reader', on this account, since he identifies so readily with the photograph of soldiers in the trenches, and his reading influences a form of 'bad' literary production by Jimmy, which is all 'feelings and protests'. Crucially, their reading practices are framed by a particular institution. In Yesterday, prison becomes a liberating space for Jimmy to express 'emotions and interactions' which would not be permissible in the outside world, including love for another man. Hence Yesterday, with its radical view of love, was itself too much of a 'freak of literature' to be published in its own time.1 In Cast, by contrast, the prison is narrated as a space of perversion, and Jimmy is liberated in part by rejecting the homosexual relationship he has formed there. It is a vivid example of how 'good' readers are constructed in the creation of literary texts, and what 'bad' experiences are left out of them as a consequence.

Paraliterary argues that too little attention has been paid to what readers outside literature departments do with books and how they learn to do it. Emre suggests, a little too sweepingly, that there is a tendency to 'dismiss' anything other than the good reading espoused by literary criticism 'as merely imitative, emotional, information seeking, faddish, escapist, propagandist, or otherwise unworthy of critical attention in its own right' (p. 4). To read against that tradition, this study argues, we must pay attention to quotidian and seemingly ephemeral texts. Emre sees special importance in this approach for a postwar era in which 'American literature played a crucial role in helping national and international readers alike acclimate to the rise of American power' (p. 4), and Paraliterary also considers how those texts aimed to...


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pp. 371-377
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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