Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Too Embarrassed to Read

A recent post on Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes touched on the inner anxiety of reading below our "reading status." Athitakis dwells on what it means to read "middlebrow" fiction and the weight the word carries for readers who are painfully self-aware:

"To be middlebrow is to suffer from status anxiety. To be middlebrow is to read/watch/listen to things that you think qualify as high art but really aren’t, because you don’t have the intellectual chops for high art. To be middlebrow is to fail—and worse, fail for trying too hard."

This awareness of middlebrow culture--the mere fact that it exists and that we recognize it--points to an internalized anxiety of where we think we should belong along the spectrum of culture. By extension, the theory of status anxiety can be applied to any genre or classification of literature and its implications are the same: readers are ruthlessly self conscious and use their reading selections as a method of self-analysis. What we choose to read is seen as a reflection of our tastes, our intelligence, our ability to differentiate good writing from bad, quality reading material from excess matter.

This self-analysis has as much to do with how we perceive what others think about us as it does with the active process we are constantly undertaking of molding our tastes and selections to fit the image we have of ourselves--or at least the ideal version of ourselves we aim to embody. If we, as Athitakis mentions, avoid a particular writer or genre because of the implicit shame associated with reading it, we are tailoring our reading lists to coincide with a set of internal reading values--the sense that there are some things we should read and other things we shouldn't.

Reading values are honed by a variety of factors--experience, education, exposure to reading material as a young child--all creating a subconscious method of ranking what we read, differentiating between what is "good" and what is "brain candy"--enjoyable, but "bad" for us and somehow diminishing. However, a value system is not synonymous with taste. They're in a symbiotic relationship, one influencing the other, a constant tug and pull that dictates what we pick up off the shelves. You can be a critical, selective reader (in many circles this is known as being a book snob) but still have a penchant for commercial thrillers that may not have the literary meat that you usually prefer.

But, it's the shame that interests me. We care deeply about what others think of us. This is because we are keenly aware of how quickly, easily, and smugly we judge others. If we think less of someone who openly reads Danielle Steele on the train because they are happily absorbed and entertained by what we see as exploitative, sexually charged fantasies, we have made an assessment of their taste, their place in society. We reduce (or lift) people to the book they hold in their hands. One informs the other. And so, we view the books we choose to read as modes of insight into our intelligence, creativity, and taste. Our books are who we are.

But more interestingly, the choice to read salacious romance novels for example, is perceived as a fault of the reader--they read romance novels because they don't know better. They think they're "readers" but they're victims of bad taste, suffering from a lack of proper literary know-how. They're pawns in the game of popular, cotton candy publishing. They aren't real readers. But if you're reading Ondaatje, you've got depth. Your judgements of others are internalized practices that guide standards you hold for yourself. You don't read romances because they don't hold anything of value for you. You value something else.

And of course, the natural progression of this argument--if I were more objective--would be to re-analyze what we view as trash and whether it has merit or anything of value to offer. It probably does. However, I think it's perfectly fine to subscribe to a set of standards. Everything doesn't have to be okay. No one is required to justify Danielle Steele, unless they see value in doing so. Confronting status anxiety is not about discovering a new love for every possible kind of writing. It's not about validating bad writing. Standards are a good thing--they keep the bar consistently raised. Critical readers must be aware; they must have standards.

Confronting the shame we feel when reading a book is about confronting the desire to uphold an image. An image we've created for ourselves, but also the image we know others have created for us. We become prisoners of this "ideal reader", the reader we value in our minds and believe we should aspire to be. But it's also not as easy and saccharine as claiming we should break free of these moulds and pride ourselves on whatever our innate desires guide us towards. Reading is not about self-esteem.

Admitting an insatiable desire for pulp fiction, salacious romances, or Dan Brown isn't the downfall of literature. You can enjoy "rubbishy twaddle", even find value in it, without sacrificing your standards for good, quality literature. You can even create a sound theoretical argument that aims to recognize the literary value of such work. You can decide that some if it in fact, is good literature. But, you don't have to. You can read it even while acknowledging that it might be bad writing, that it really should never have been published, that it's terrible, terrible stuff--and accept that you like it. It falls somewhere on your personal reading spectrum and you like it because you like it--and that's okay.

But more than anything, understanding status anxiety is about valuing our shame and seeking to understand the driving force behind it. Our shame, or more often, our utter distaste of a certain kind of book can make us consider our standards and the personal principles we apply to reading. We can shape ourselves as readers by first understanding what we implicitly want to avoid. It doesn't have to mean change; in fact, perhaps it shouldn't. It can simply be an acute awareness of where we stand and why--a better understanding of who we are as readers and where we want to go.

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