Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Why reading is like sex.

I tend not to read much contemporary fiction. I am the type of person who compulsively reads anything with text in my vicinity, so when contemporary fiction falls into my lap, I read it. But I never think to seek it out, so unless I'm looking for something to read at an airport or my parents' house, I usually gravitate toward the dead white guys.

This is partly because I majored in English at Middlebury, and while I don't want to generalize about the experience of everyone who ever majored in English at Middlebury, I personally found there to be a strong emphasis on the canon and very little emphasis on anything else. Of course, this had a lot to do with the classes that I chose. I did read Coetzee's Disgrace for the senior comprehensive exam, and I took Contemporary Ireland Through Fiction and Film for my freshman seminar so, obviously, I read some contemporary Irish fiction. But for the most part, we stuck to the classics. And as I read all these important and influential books I became increasingly aware of all the important and influential books that I had yet to read, and the list of books that I intended to read just kept growing exponentially, and of course it's impossible to ever catch up.

But there's another, weirder reason. As much as I'd like to be more familiar with what other people are writing and reading and discussing right now, there is a part of me that remains hesitant. Because books by living authors are a little bit scary. Dead authors are safer.

I have this extremely obnoxious habit of subconsciously measuring the text that I'm reading against some hypothetical projection of my own potential literary genius. So I'm reading from a critical, analytical distance, and in the back of my mind there's this nagging voice, just compulsively evaluating as I go along. Yes...hmm, that's interesting...ah, I see what you did there...oh, so this is going to be a theme...ooh, that's a nice turn of phrase... But if the book is really great, at some point that arrogant little voice will stop short. Oh, wow. I don't think I could have done that. This is good. Once that moment comes, I lose the self-conscious distance and I allow myself to get swept away in the text. My ego floats away and I give myself over the author. It's a blissful sensation. To me, it's the literary equivalent of an orgasm.

And it's so much easier for me to lose myself in a book if the author is dead and his or her genius is well established. Because with the author's reputation as a safety net, I don't have to trust my own instincts. I have the validation of countless literary scholars. And since a dead author only exists on the page and in my imagination, he or she can't intrude on my reading experience. So it's a bit like masturbating. I'm relaxed and alone and comfortable and the orgasm comes quickly and easily.

But when the author is alive and I don't have years of critical context to fall back on, the experience is more challenging. I'm forced to confront the author's continued existence. He or she is out there in the world, being a person, just like I am a person. The author is looking over my shoulder as I read, which makes me feel awkward and self-conscious and pulls me out of the book. I have to like and respect and trust the author before I can relax enough to let myself go. So it's more like sex. Not so safe, not always so comfortable, especially when the author is new and unfamiliar. Things are more likely to go awry. Of course, when the chemistry is right, the experience is vastly more rewarding. But you have to take a risk.

So basically, what I'm saying is that canonical fiction is to masturbating as contemporary fiction is to sex. (Incidentally, did you know that the new SAT doesn't include analogies? How tragic is that? Analogies were by far the most fun and challenging part of the SAT!) Also, I guess I should try to be more promiscuous, as far as reading is concerned.


Nathan Bransford said...

I wonder what that makes a literary agent.

Ed said...

I had a similar perspective as a history major. Although, usually I was wondering if whomever was recording the events of the day was accurately writing them down. I felt more comfortable with contemporary historians, rather than those from generations past because I really felt that if I ever had the urge, I could track them down, make them look me in the eye and somehow make them prove they were telling the truth.

I don't think I'd ever go to such great lengths, but knowing it was possible made me feel empowered when critically assessing works throughout class.

sabf said...

I have trouble reading anything written by straight white men under the age of 35. Anybody else, I am the most warm and loving and receptive audience in the world. Straight white men under the age of 35, though, no matter how good they are, I just want them all to fail so bad that I can't really give then anything like a chance. I realize this is entirely personal jealousy and not a real, fair judgment of their work and sometimes their work is good enough that I can get past my prejudice and enjoy something written by a straight white man under the age of 35, but this is a pretty rare phenomenon.

Anyway, this was a very good post.

Travener said...

When you get to my age, you'll take sex in any form you can get it, so I suspect you'll be reading a lot more contemporary fiction in your fifties. The other thing you realize when you get older is that it's OK not to be the next James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon or Virginia Wolff. So you stop be jealous of other people's genius. It's made me a much better writer.

Anonymous said...

Wow, you have very astute readers and I am kind of afraid of commenting, but hey, I'm on my 2nd scotch and I am ready. To the literary agent, you are the pimp. But we like you anyway.

Ed, there is no way to ascertain who is telling the truth, ask any police about witnesses. No two are alike, so asking them to look you in the eye and somehow prove they are telling truth depends on which corner they were standing on.
Read many different authors and try to figure out what really happened before and guess which is true and whick is a political statement.
Reading is like sex, so is singing. It is what it is.