Èloge du mauvais lecteur
Les éditions de Minuit, Paris, 2021
160 pp. Paper, 16 €
Ever since there exists something like debates on reading, there has been a sharp divide between “good” and “bad” reading. During many centuries it has also seemed much easier to distinguish between these two opposite forms of reading than between good and bad writing. Good reading, not to be confused with the reading of good books, involved respect for the meaning, that is the “real” meaning of the text, and this type of reading also implied an effort from the side of the reader to grasp that meaning –ant thus to discard or stay way for other meanings. Bad reading was simply all the rest, and those guilty of bad reading were also considered guilty of many other defaults (lack of intelligence, lack of education, lack of fair play, etc.).
Things changed with the growing gap between writing and reading, as shown by the impossibility to find readers for newer and avant-garde forms of literature, as well as the academic institutionalization and subsequent professionalization of reading, no longer as part of the more general training in rhetoric which did not separate reading and writing or public speaking, but as a special expertise and competence. These transformations of the literary field have encouraged many well-meaning scholars to elaborate increasingly sophisticated methods and techniques to produce good, correct, exact, reliable, consistent if not unfailing interpretations. They also helped shape the idea and ideal of the “model reader,” to use the terminology suggested by Umberto Eco, both the summit of this evolution and the starting point of a certain way downwards. Granted, good reading still is a very positive quality, technically as well as ethnically, but since quite some years literary research has turned its spotlight to something completely else, namely real or actual reading, the latter proving very different from the former. Real readers do not proceed the way the ideal or model reader expects them to do. Likewise, they more than often explicitly reject the ideal as well as the practice of good reading. Today, real readers are no longer ashamed of being bad readers and their own “id” is now much stronger than the “superego” their education is no longer capable of imposing upon them (Jim Collins’s 2010 essay, Bring on the books for everybody. How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture, Duke University Press, offers a strong cultural analysis of the revolt of the ordinary reader against academic criticism).
The new book by Maxime Decout, professor at the University of Marseilles, whose previous books had studied issues of reliability and unreliability seen from the point of view of the author, zooms in on what it means to be a bad reader and powerfully defends the reasons to turn away from the ideal of good reading. He does so by using three main arguments, the logic of which is not unlike the type of paradoxical reasoning one also finds in certain books by Pierre Bayard (currently widely translated into English).
First of all, Decout dismantles the objection that bad reading is just another name for clumsy or careless reading. He argues instead that bad readers are generally passionate and highly committed, taking their reading very seriously. Bad reading is never average or distracted reading, it is the result of a special devotion that tries to do more than what the superficially correct reading is supposed to perform. It is in other words a form of reading that considers good reading not good enough and that is always eager, in spite of all difficulties, traps, uncertainties and textual or social resistance to produce the meaning behind the meaning.
Second, Decout also shows that bad reading has a history, and that the shifting definitions of it should make us more tolerant toward forms of reading that are considered bad at certain moments in time. The first approaches of bad reading emphasized the dangers of affective excess: readers became bad readers when identifying too much with the characters and the story world (typical examples are don Quixote and Madame Bovary). Yet later forms of bad writing will point into the opposite direction: readers then become bad readers when falling prey to superfluous or exaggerated intellect (the paradigmatic example of this ridiculousness is still given by Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, but their encyclopedic foolishness has inspired many cases of paranoid reading, strikingly hinted at by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in a famous chapter, entitled “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” from her book Touching Feeling, published by Duke University Press. Decout has no difficulties in showing that many arguments used to compromise bad readers will be used later on to save them and vice versa. Excessive reliance on mere intellect is a problem, but over-intellectual readers will be cured by empathy. Extreme empathy is another issue, but a more intellectual stance toward the text can save those readers who are in danger of brainless identification, etc.
Key in this regard, and this is Decout’s third argument, is the fact that literature itself has performed its own “bad reading turn.” Since the beginning of the twentieth century, more and more fictional works display characters and mechanisms of bad reading, less in order to condemn them (as did Cervantes or Flaubert) than in order to build great works of art out of them, whose creativity directly depends on the capacity of reading against the grains in all possible meanings of the word. Fakeness, manipulation, deception, bad faith, stubborn blindness etc. prove essential tools in the production of new and exciting literature (Nabokov is of course a major reference here, but Decout also pays a well-deserved tribute to Henry James).
As should be clear, the horizon of Decout’s praise of bad reading is not reading but writing. Bad reading should not limit itself to cast off the logical but sometimes boring and only rarely exciting lessons of model reading. Decout encourages his bad readers, which he thinks all of us actually are or definitely want to be, to take it a step further and to do what they read about in books that illustrate the life and works of bad readers: bad reading is called to materialize in writing, and even in writing that transforms, rewrites, and perhaps even destroys its source text. In all these cases, those of the writing of bad reading, one can of course no longer tell the difference between good and bad writing, but Decout clearly insinuates that such writing actually is excellent writing. His own writing is joyful and compelling. I therefore apologize for this review which modestly tried to give as good a reading of his book as possible.