This is my third piece about the “integrity” of discourse, sparked by a passage of Rowan Williams. After I discussed online arguments and the specific notions of “bad faith” and “devil’s advocate” in previous articles, I’d like to think about the way in which Williams’ ideas might shed light into the process of reading as well as writing. In the original essay, he is clearly discussing the use of language, whether in speech or writing:
What makes us say of any discourse that it has or that it lacks ‘integrity’? Usually we can answer this in terms of whether such a discourse is really talking about what it says it is talking about… Discourse that conceals is discourse that (consciously or not) sets out to foreclose the possibility of a genuine response.
He broadens this out to consider the form of the response which honest discourse admits of, and the way that form is not pre-prescribed:
Honest discourse permits response and continuation; it invites collaboration by showing that it does not claim to be, in and of itself, final. It does not seek to prescribe the tone, the direction, or even the vocabulary of a response… And it does all this by showing in its own working a critical self-perception, displaying the axioms to which it believes itself accountable; that is to say, it makes it clear that it accepts, even within its own terms of reference, that there are ways in which it may be questioned and criticized. It sets out a possible framework for talk and perception, a field for debate, and so field for its own future transmutations.
The essay includes reflections on the way this relates to questions of speech and power, but I’d like to pause on these particular comments and extend them beyond writing into reading. I also want to borrow a move from C.S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism, and ask whether “bad” writing might potentially be considered as writing which encourages and nourishes “ bad” reading.
First, then, Williams is discussing an act of speaking, but his work continually imagines almost all speech – particularly theological or poetic speech – as part of an ongoing conversation. For him, human reasoning and creativity begins in medias res, in joyous or critical reaction to what has already been said and done. So it seems to make some sense to extend his insights to the other side of that conversation, the reader or listener who (if all goes well) will soon be the speaker. After all, reader-response criticism offers a comfortable basis for seeing meaning being made “in the middle”, in the encounter between text/speech and reader/listener.
All of which is a long lead-up to saying this passage reminded me of hate-reading. Deliberately bringing yourself into a relationship with a text which you have already decided has nothing to offer you, indeed which you have no intention of engaging with on open terms, but only via the construction of a double set of axioms, sounds oddly like the foreclosed speech Williams discusses. I wonder whether it usefully maps some of the ways in which we read texts we already know we don’t want to have any effect upon us, and that the “concealment” he writes about can also refer to the techniques we bring to an encounter with a text.
I’m not criticising anyone else’s reading habits, and I consume a lot of words and images with an equally “concealed” or “reserved” set of reading strategies: reading political or theological blogs and news articles which I know I won’t appreciate, whose authors I consider disingenuous, or whose principles I dismiss out of hand. It’s a necessary part of knowing what people are saying on a topic, as well as engaging with unpleasant topics like misogyny without emotional burnout. (And if it’s necessary for me, it must be exponentially more so for those who find themselves the topic of criticism and scorn because of their identities.) But eventually it feels unsatisfying, reading people who you already know are wrong. More than that, it feels dishonest and cheap. The very process of reading comes to feel thin and irritable, something of a mockery of itself. Williams’ insight into the “integrity” of speaking might be extended here to cover textual encounters with blogs, news or books in which we foreclose the possibility of dialogue from the reader’s side. Again, I’m not suggesting people shouldn’t do it – it must be absolutely vital in many cases – but wondering if it involves a less than complete act of reading.
The way in which I want to borrow Williams’ notion of “integrity” in discourse concerns reading novels. Well, fiction generally, but it was novels that sparked off this train of thought. Specifically historical novels and romance novels. I often get irritated by the way so much lousy fiction invites the reader into a patronising conspiracy above the head of its own characters. This is particularly the case in some sub-Austen romance fiction, like this grim example. If I may quote from that review:
The same applies to the notions of “propriety” and “decorum”, which Marianne strains against in Sense and Sensibility. For Austen’s audience, this is a genuine issue, a dilemma about the bounds of acceptable behaviour and the way in which passion temporarily distorts our world-view. This is not an issue that went out when ladies stopped “withdrawing” after dinner – it’s still being explored in a lot of good fiction. But Blood Persuasion invites us to join the author in a smirking alliance on the other side of the historical divide, enjoying the struggles of these characters against their out-moded ideas about society. “We” know what “we” feel about courtship and sex, so there’s no risk to “our” feelings or beliefs. Likewise when the vampires transgress, it’s fairly clear that “we” know they’ve done wrong. Despite the constant assurances that Jane is morally torn, there’s no real tension in these scenes.
This is a sort of “Whig Interpretation of Fiction”, in which the characters are stranded on the other side of a historical or ideological gap, and the author and reader are waiting for them to catch up. It’s even more obvious in historical fiction, given that authors are using a modern form of discourse to imagine the past, as I found when reviewing one of C.J. Sansom’s novels:
Sansom (like many other novelists) produces characters who are relentlessly “on the side of history”. Shardlake empathizes with characters of Jewish and Spanish heritage because of the jibes he has endured as a hunchback, whilst Guy washes his hands after dealing with a patient, remarking that unlike some of his colleagues he believes it can help prevent disease. Difficult things to object to, but this attitude tends to streamline the grubby and ramshackle past into a vessel for getting to the modern world. It also, rather curiously tends to conflate morality with “modern” attitudes and ideas. After all, why should Guy, in order to be a good character, have to be correct about medical hygiene?
Historiography aside, I find this technique even more irksome in some historical romance fiction, since there’s something rather more unpleasant in watching a novelist titillate their readers by showing characters transgressing their ethical and intimate boundaries on the way to a “modern” understanding of sexual relationships. It squicks me out when novelists write excitedly about characters struggling with sexual and social ethics when their own (and their readers’) are comfortably reinforced. (All those “proper” Regency virgins who feel passions stirring within them which they “just know are wrong” and find “so shocking”, etc, etc.)
Fictional characters aren’t people, of course, but it seems to involve a dishonest textual relationship, in which the same kind of “foreclosure” takes place as we found in hate-reading. Both author and reader enter a relationship with a fictional, textual world, and gloat over the emotional and moral risks and transformations being undergone by other (fictional) people, whilst not taking any of those risks they valorise so much. Again, it feels cheap and – crucially – claims to operate according to a set of axioms which do not in fact determine its working, to paraphrase Williams. Lousy fiction of this kind structures the relationship between reader and text in a way which encourages a dishonest encounter, and enable the foreclosure of genuine conversation. I’d love to hear if these reflections on reading find an echo – or don’t! – in anyone else’s life with books.