Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Reader of Talent

This past week, the Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas penned a curious tribute to the 2008 Cervantes Prize winner, Juan Marsé [link is in Spanish, the following is my poor attempt at translation]. Vila-Matas puts Marsé's triumph in the context of the ongoing financial crisis, proclaiming that Marsé's prize is evidence that the book has persisted while we were distracted by the rise and fall of financial fortunes:
When we awoke from the dream of mortgages and those economic powers that we had believed eternal, when we awoke in the dead center of the maelstrom that had devastated everything, the book was still there. It was amazing, no one—but no one!—had succeeded in altering it, no one had moved it from its perpetual position. We looked, incredulous—it seemed a lie! There it was, completely imperturbable. Years of barbarity had not managed to alter it, and now, at the beginning of that century that had commenced with the great tumult, the book was there to remind us or simply to inform us, for if we didn’t know it, literature speaks a distinct language—not that of the oppressor, and very different from the rest of those perverse languages which enslave us with their mundane tyrannies: the languages of economics, of politics, of religion, of the family, of television.
Vila-Matas uses the title of the prize to digress to Sterne, who "renewed the relation of the writer with the reader." Vila-Matas argues that at this moment, this relationship can once more be renewed, as the turbulence of the economic crises brings us to a new appreciation of the unique forms of "distraction par excellence" that the novel can provide.

But Vila-Matas has a very distinctive notion of distraction in mind—one that cannot be employed by the inactive reader:
In the flames of this dream of mortgages and the golden calf of the gothic novel, the stupid legend of the passive reader was forged. This monster’s fall is giving way to the reappearance of the reader of talent, and the terms of the moral contract between author and the public are being reframed. Those writers breathe once more who are desperate for an active reader, for a reader open enough to permit into her mind the figure of a conscience radically different from her own.
Vila-Matas finds hope that, "en un mundo sin alegrías" (in a world without joys), "new times [nevertheless] bring a revision and renovation of the necessary pact between writers and readers. The reader of talent returns."

Vila-Matas's brief homage to Marsé and to the reader of talent could not stand at a more oblique angle to the position which Walter Benn Michaels takes on the needs of fiction at the present, and about which I just posted. Michaels's certainty that the reader has absolutely no talent makes it necessary for a reimagining of what literature should be "about"—it must make clear to the sluggish reader that the currents of capitalism have almost drowned him, but it cannot do so by looking into history. I should pause to note here that Michaels's argument should not be reduced to a preference for Zola-esque realism (or, more properly, naturalism); Michaels has demonstrated no quarrel per se with non-realism. But his aversion to asking anything of the reader in the way of an adjustment from the personal to the political seems to me to be an exacerbation of the economic problem we find ourselves in, and not its solution.

Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine exposes many things about the networks of capital and the justifications used for the deeper integration of those networks into our everyday lives, but one thing I found particularly illuminating was her description of a highly paternalistic attitude on the part of the captains of industry and the neoconservatives toward the populations undergoing economic "shock therapy"—they assumed that these populations would never recover the ability to connect their individual plight to the larger political framework, that the fragmentations which these shocks occasioned would prevent the re-formation of collective action. Once shocked, twice shy.

Michaels's attitude is obviously very different, but his complete lack of trust in readers to be able to integrate themselves, their life stories, and the stories they "identify with" into the larger narratives of economic and political events is just as paternalistic. It is almost as if Michaels is afraid that once we drift off into Morrison's Magic Land of Slavery and Historical Problems, we're going to lose our ability to comprehend our immediate political and economic situation.

Vila-Matas, on the other hand, inverts this relationship. It is always the world which is most present to us, and the book which surprisingly persists, even through our inattention. Vila-Matas trusts that the reader will always return to the world—what else can she do? The reader of talent, however, is one for whom the meaning of reading as a distraction is not about disengagement from the world but an engagement with the world on another's terms and in another's words—the terms and words of the author. Vila-Matas is confident that the reader of talent cannot and will not be alienated by this engagement, but will find it refreshing, even liberating.

I think there are more direct political valences to be gleaned from reading precisely those novels which Michaels would chuck, but you can certainly sign me up for Vila-Matas's program: a reader of talent is what I'd like to be.


Anonymous said...

You are a reader of talent dear Boy, you are!


Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

Readers of talent (active readers) don't need their themes handed to them on silver platters. Masterful subtleties are preferable, imo.

To quote Kurp's latest post:

I’m rereading a favorite family history, Bowen’s Court (1942) by Elizabeth Bowen. As she chronicles the fortunes of one Anglo-Irish family, we slowly realize we are witnessing the fall of an entire civilization into modernity:

“And to what did our fine feelings, our regard for the arts, our intimacies, our inspiring conversations, our wish to be clear of the bonds of sex and class and nationality, our wish to try to be fair to everyone bring us? To 1939.”
The stories of individuals, of families CAN, and when executed well DO, tell the stories of generations - and like you've mentioned, the reader plays as large a part in the lasting significance and relevance of a story as does the author.

This is why Montaigne's essays are still as poignant as they were 500 years ago - why Yates' tale of frustration and complacency resonates with modern readers. Not only because their stories are timeless and universal, but because we as readers of talent can't help but to see ourselves reflected in what read.

Thank goodness we're not the readers Michaels believes us all to be.

great post.

litlove said...

Have you read any Deleuze and Guattari? This readerly distinction reminded me of the one they make between the paranoid Faschist and the schizophrenic revolutionary. The latter (which naturally they favour) bypasses the linearity of discourse to bring things together in a jumble of past and present, here and there, new and old. It struck me that the reader VM is interested in has the same postmodern capacity to leapfrog the old boundaries and embrace an imaginary totality in which they remain multiply themselves, other, heterogeneous and yet engaged. That seems like a rich and intriguing position to inhabit.

I came over here having witnessed your entertaining discussion with DG Myers, who I find perverse but interesting!

Andrew Seal said...


I have, but not enough (i.e. not Anti-Oedipus, Thousand Plateus or Difference and Repetition). I found their concept of minor literature really fertile, although I'm still trying to come to terms with it--I should do a more devoted reading to it sometime, I guess.

It looks like I'll have to do some digging into AO, though (that's where the paranoid Fascist/schizophrenic revolutionary stuff comes from, right?), as what you're saying sounds really interesting, and something I'd really like to read more about. Thanks!