Reflection by Milan Terlunen

Although it’s not her primary focus, in When Fiction Feels Real Elaine Auyoung makes a valuable contribution to a recent shift in literary studies to centre “ordinary reading” (p.61), as opposed to academia’s various highly-trained, sometimes counterintuitive, reading practices such as “close,” “critical” and “suspicious” reading.[1] The list that follows synthesizes the key characteristics of this “ordinary” reader as Auyoung conceives of them. Following this list, I’ll take up a couple of these points, noting contrasts with several twentieth-century theorists and raising questions about the wider significance Auyoung’s claims.

  1. An ordinary reader is not a tabula rasa.
    • They make extensive use of previously acquired mental skills and knowledge while reading.
  2. An ordinary reader is largely similar to other human beings.
    • Especially in terms of everyday mental skills; specific knowledge will vary depending on life experiences.
  3. An ordinary reader is more active than they realize.
    • They dramatically transform a text into a mental representation, but aren’t aware of it because the skills are extremely “fluent,” thus effortless.
  4. An ordinary reader reads with the grain.
    • They follow a text’s cues for what to focus on/remember, rather than reading “against the grain.”
  5. An ordinary reader doesn’t care much about words.
    • They’re less concerned with fine details of language (“surface code”) than with the paraphrasable content (“text base”) and the general gist (“situation model”).
  6. An ordinary reader rarely interprets.
    • But gains enormous pleasure and interest from just “representing” mentally what a text presents.
  7. An ordinary reader is not drastically altered by reading.
    • The extensive mental architecture they bring to bear (see #1) remains largely unchanged.

I’ll now address points #3 and #5, which I find, respectively, the most questionable and the most inspiring.

Although I have doubts about point #3, I’ll start with the positive: I was fascinated to learn about the extensive mental processes involved in reading, operating even without our awareness. It’s a healthy reminder that as literary scholars we can’t just rely on introspection to accurately tell us what’s happening when we read. In particular, it casts new light on Viktor Shklovsky’s claim (discussed elsewhere in the book) that literature should “defamiliarise” our habitual perceptions of the world, restoring sensory immediacy and “making the stone stony.” Extrapolating from Auyoung, we could see Shklovsky as relying excessively on his own introspection in stressing readers’ supposed passivity. In contrast, Auyoung argues it’s not literature but readers who make the stone stony. How might we understand defamiliarization differently if we attributed it less to texts and more to readers?

The aforementioned absence of awareness is also the source of my objections. Given that readers are, to use Andrew Elfenbein’s phrase, “doing what comes automatically,”[2] is the active/passive distinction a helpful one? At most, readers’ agency seems partial, and so Auyoung’s statement that “readers are active even when they feel passive” (p.121) seems to me over-simplified.

This issue isn’t just theoretical but also historical. Andrew Miller’s Burdens of Perfection has discussed the worries felt about automata by Victorian figures such as Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, George Henry Lewes and Thomas Huxley: how can I know that people around me aren’t in fact highly sophisticated automata reacting automatically? How can I know that I’m not one? These questions emerged in response to discoveries of unconscious psychological processes like those that Auyoung presents in her book. Her model of reading could therefore be valuably connected with Miller’s, which offers a more complex and affirmative place for readers’ (sense of) passivity.

Point #5 will be a provocation for many literary scholars, but is worth grappling with. We tend to treat appeals to the words on the page (often analyzed in minute detail) as self-evidently justified, so the claim that the precise wording doesn’t matter much to ordinary readers ought to give us pause. Auyoung shows how quickly readers extract the paraphrasable content of a sentence, inferring elements not present in the actual wording. A description of squeezing a sponge evokes water, even when not specified – hardly controversial, and yet the implications are profound. Having long accepted Cleanth Brooks’s judgment that paraphrase is “heresy” when studying literature, should we now introduce a new “heresy of the verbatim”?

Those of us studying novels, and especially the “loose, baggy monsters” of the nineteenth century, have particular reason to take up this challenge. The default practice of “close reading” was developed for short lyric poetry, and the fact that reading an entire novel this way is mentally unsustainable has been an embarrassing secret we’ve glossed over by just close reading selected passages.[3] By loosening our attachment to words and instead embracing paraphrase, we might produce accounts of novels more aligned with the “ordinary” ways of reading which – despite our best efforts and training – we’re constantly slipping into.

[1] I’ve written about this in more detail here.

[2] The Gist of Reading, p. 17

[3] Cf. Michaela Bronstein, “How Not to Re-Read Novels: The Critical Value of First Reading,”
Journal of Modern Literature Vol. 39 No. 3 (2016), p. 79.

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