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.