Reflection by Sheila Liming

Sarah Allison’s Reductive Reading investigates, among other things, the dialectical tensions between simplicity and complexity. Allison exploits these tensions in her study, advocating for the uses of a markedly austere suite of critical reading practices in order to build connections between the modern critic and the historical (namely, the Victorian) reader. What’s more, she observes some shared territory between these two camps: “Just as Victorian literature was meant to be moral without moralizing,” she explains, “our own critical culture values sharply formulated agonistic claims at the same time that it privileges tactful, qualified engagement with the work of others.” Allison sees a link between Victorian-style literary moralizing and critics’ investments in the form of the polemic. The latter, she argues, is built upon “an aesthetic of clarity that characterizes instrumental reason” (16), a feature that binds it to Victorian authors’ attempts to impart encoded lessons in morality to their readers.   

Owing to their dialectical relationship, though, discussions of simplicity cannot be divorced from their opposite, from complexity. The two concepts cannot be viewed as causal, with one giving rise to the other, but neither can they be viewed as independent. For that reason, I’m interested in what Allison—through acts of evasion, primarily—says about complexity in this work. Lionel Trilling, after all, famously warns against simplification in arguing that the “job of criticism [amounts to] … the awareness of complexity and difficulty” (The Liberal Imagination, xxi). In encouraging us to read reductively, on par with both Victorian readers and with the computers that Allison has employed through her work in the Stanford Literary Lab, she appears to position herself contra Trilling (who she nevertheless cites). But this positioning is undone some several pages later when she reveals the work of “reductionism” to be, at heart, in line with the assessment of complexity. “Reductionism, even meanness … is part of the apprehension of complexity” (34). Having previously posited that a “reductive” reading of a text serves as the “thesis” stage (26)—i.e. that which precedes the antithesis or synthesis stages of dialectical reasoning—Allison proceeds to claim that to be reductive is, in fact, to be complex. The thesis is the antithesis, in other words, albeit in gestational form.  

In one sense, Allison’s book reads like a call for scholars to pay more attention to the introductory stages, or “surface” features, of reading, á la Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best. And, while she does not directly say so, such attention must likewise extend to include some thought about how we teach those kinds of skills within English curricula, not simply how we employ them in our research. At the same time, though, these arguments would appear to ask us to stop before we have even begun much our work as readers. How does doing that permit us to end up somewhere else? Or is the point to pursue the same ends as “complexity,” but via a different kind of process? While short on answers in this regard, Allison’s book opens the door to some fascinating questions about contemporary critical practice. If, as Allison claims, “to treat fictional texts as persuasive arguments” is already a “deliberately reductive reading practice” (59), then we might well ask what kind of an intervention is Reductive Reading making, and who is to be its primary beneficiary?

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