Nate Crocker responds to Anna Gibson

I could not resist “testing” Anna Gibson’s hypothesis that sensation fiction might turn “sense-perception into an alternative mode of description.” And so, in search of something that might “preach to my nerves,” I sat down with Lady Audley’s Secret. As expected, while rereading Lucy Graham’s confession I felt my “whole nervous system” fabulously carried by Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s discursive “steam.” Lewes’s explanation of Dickens’s effect—“So definite and insistent was the image that even while knowing it was false we could not help… being affected… by his hallucinations”—seemed to make total sense. ‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘some Victorian novels must be able to communicate “squarely within the realm of the senses,” as Gibson imagines.’

However, once Braddon’s steam engine cooled and I sat down to write, I was less sure. The problem with this account of reading is that it fails to explain how exactly these novels could bypass their own descriptions and transfer sense-perceptions directly from writer to reader. While Gibson acknowledges this gap in Lewes’s reading, she (like Coombs) proposes a critical reinscription of the boundary between sense-perception and propositional knowledge as a solution to this problem. Even still, I am skeptical of any phenomenology of reading that would so thoroughly redraft this boundary that the “logic of signs” would be altogether eclipsed.

The possibility of a totally sensual novel reading notwithstanding, that we still know relatively little about the cognitive experience of reading testifies to the importance of books like Reading with the Senses and (I would be remiss not to mention) Elaine Auyoung’s When Fiction Feels Real. As she notes, questions like ‘how do books make us feel?’ can read as “naive, nonintellectual, even regressive” (1). But as Coombs, Auyoung, and (via Coombs) Victorian realist and aesthetic writers protest, attending to the ways in which we are made sensually vulnerable to description is serious stuff.

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