Reflection by Katarzyna Bartoszynska
Elaine Auyoung’s book reveals some intriguing blind spots of literary scholarship—namely, that we lack terminology for the kinds of things that her work invites us to pay attention to.
Most notably, it seems to me, we have no clear concept of the object that her work studies. The kinds of textual dynamics that she describes hover, curiously, somewhere between form and content, requiring a level of analysis that is somewhat more general than looking at individual words or sentences, but still attuned to language. This is most apparent in the discussion of Tolstoy, and how he makes the world vivid by activating a reader’s embodied knowledge. Examining various translations of Anna Karenina, Auyoung contrasts them not to highlight the different effects of individual words, but rather, to show how they evince the kinds of inferences readers are making as they construct mental models of action. Noting that readers rarely remember the exact words of a text for more than a few minutes, Auyoung also seems to suggest that the specific terms that Tolstoy is using matter less than the kind of detail provided in his descriptions – whether a button is “loose,” “barely attached,” or “nearly off,” it is the twisting motion of the little boy working away at it that we remember, not the words themselves. What should we call this level of meaning? Certainly, it is not at a level of form, but to call it content also seems insufficient, for it is not simply that a button is removed, but also the peculiar motion attending the process; a particular level of detail that produces a specific effect on the reader.
As Auyoung’s book progresses, this register of meaning begins to seem like a kind of liminal zone, containing a variety of different processes. The chapter on Dickens discusses the way he groups objects, which is to say, words, in distinct ways, to allow readers to assimilate large collections of things. Again, one notices that there is no good way to characterize this register of meaning-making. Auyoung calls it “the prosaic organization of text content across sentences and paragraphs” (62), which is a nice play on words, but somewhat vague as a designation of an object of analysis. The difficulties that arise in these efforts to name the thing being examined are an exciting call to action, inviting us to develop a more nuanced account of how texts operate.
What struck me as I progressed through the book is that we also lack a vocabulary for all kinds of other affects, attitudes, and attachments related to our reading experience. Noting that Austen’s readers frequently describe her characters as “life-like” even when they lack psychological depth, for instance, Auyoung says that this reveals “how little can be sufficient to create an effect of verisimilitude” (40). I found myself wondering if, instead, it reveals how limited our vocabulary is for explaining the specific qualities of fictional things – persons in particular – other than by reference to the real. Similarly, entering into the final chapter’s discussion of the sense of mourning that readers feel at the end of a book, Auyoung says we need to ask what readers lose, and ponders why they “reach for the vocabulary of bereavement” (98). But why should we take these readers at their literal word, when they seem to be groping for the right analogy? What if that vocabulary operates as a metaphor that serves to mask the real qualities of the feeling she seeks to characterize?
As she moves to her conclusion, Auyoung settles into a claim that fictionality enables different kinds of attachments – what she does not say, but what her book clearly demonstrates, is that we need a richer vocabulary to describe them, and to define the kinds of textual mechanics that she shows us produce them.