Text, subtext, and ‘accessibility’

by Carl Dyke

I just realized, silly me, that I’m a subtext Nazi. As a trained critical reader in the human studies, history / sociology / anthropology, I pretty much assume that most of what I’m interested in will be in the subtext. Because as Wittgenstein remarks, “the aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity.”

And as a ‘sophisticated’ reader of cultural product, I expect to have my intelligence challenged by puzzles of interpretation. I am immediately put off by overly-expository presentation, which strikes me as crude and amateurish. If I’m being told the plot and the characters are soliloquizing their backstories within the first five minutes / pages, I’m out. In fact, I really don’t want to be told that stuff at all – I want it to emerge from the dynamics of a more subtle, dare I say lifelike development.

Here is no doubt where my visceral disgust with the discourses and judgments of ‘accessibility’ comes from. It’s all just so vulgar, and I mean that with all the sniffy poindexter class warfare pique I can pack into that nasty little word. Who needs things to be obvious? Stupid people, obviously. Or lazy people, but definitely not people I want on my team.

In my reading circles the students struggle at first with ‘difficult’ texts in which the characters do not reveal themselves immediately, the plot is joined in medias res, and perspectives or timelines are nonlinear. Pretty much anything ‘literary’ knocks them into a resentful funk. But these are students – they are ignorant, not stupid, and we’re here to fix ignorance. Their expectations are all textual, so they don’t know how to feel about the mysteries of subtext. I make their frustration explicit – the author is playing them, making fun of them. Here’s another way to think about it – the author is respecting your intelligence, not saying every little thing, trusting you to work it out. Turns out they’re mostly not lazy either, they just don’t feel authorized to read between the lines. May even feel that it’s rude. Which in lots of everyday contexts, it is.

Let’s think of this as a workout for our brains, I say. Is it a good workout if it doesn’t make you sweat? Do you see results immediately when you work out? Is it worth it in the longer run to have a mind that can handle a heavier load? What would be the advantages of being someone who doesn’t need to be told every little thing – the bird that can find its own worms rather than needing someone else to chew them up and spit them down you?

So, is this class war?

12 Comments to “Text, subtext, and ‘accessibility’”

  1. At the moment in our society, the word “intellectual” has negative connotations. It’s interesting that you say “class war”, because intellectualism wouldn’t seem on the surface to be about class (one of the dictionary definitions of “intellectual” is, “Given to activities or pursuits that require exercise of the intellect”, which seems pretty close to what you’re talking about above and has nothing apparent to do with socioeconomic categories). But it doesn’t take much rooting around in the statistics to see how things like education relate to class.

    No real point there. It’s just interesting how intellectualism can lie along the same fault lines as things like race. The more I read and think about it, the more I feel like society (and especially politics) is at least partly structured around letting us know who we should hate and fear. Education can and should be about letting us know what to love and admire.

    It so happens that my wife and I are participating in my younger daughter’s “homeschooling” this year. I’m teaching her some computer programming, and my wife is having her read a short story every week. So far she’s read pieces by Alice Munro, the despicable David Foster Wallace, and Kafka, and we’ve had some very interesting discussions. My daughter had a lot of expectations – most of which come from kid and YA fiction – and all of them are being bent, thwarted, manipulated and downright ignored by the pieces she’s reading. I can see it stretching, even hurting her brain, in the same way exercise stretches and hurts our bodies. But her base-level reaction to the whole thing has essentially been: “Holy fuck!”. She didn’t even know stories could *do* the things we’re talking about. She doesn’t even *glimpse* half the things the author is doing under the table. Frustrating, yes. But she really seems exhilarated. She’s interested in and curious about stories in a way she hasn’t been before.

    In other words, she’s probably an intellectual who hadn’t yet been given anything serious to chew on. That this is happening for her at 13, while it didn’t happen for me for another 5 years (neither of my parents went to college, and neither read much beyond my mother’s romance novels and self-help books and my father’s dusty Zane Grey and Ian Fleming) makes me deeply happy. I asked her how she felt about our discussions, and one of the things she said was that she felt lucky to have someone who could show her what was out there.

  2. One other thing (as is apparently my wont): We live in a society in which narratives are constantly being shaped, and constantly being fed to us. Did you know, for example, that tonight’s vice-presidential debate is “high-stakes”? If not, you might want to read about the “Five things to look out for”.

    In a world like this, it is so, so nice to have an author say, “*You* figure it out”.

  3. Could it be that one of the most important skills acquired in learning to read between the lines is learning to tell the difference between unpacking unexpected depth and insight and detecting sheer obfuscation?

  4. Asher, amen. JohnM, I think I see where you’re going with that so I’ll dig in my heels for a second. Could it be that sheer obfuscation also has unexpected depths to unpack? So when my students think they have to go to the thesaurus to add polysyllabic handwaving to their simplistic analyses, isn’t there a whole education in the power-knowledges of authorized intellection in between those lines if we care to look? Does that stop being true when colleagues do the same? Is it the same offense when the jargon tarts up a jejune point as when it defamiliarizes a complex of assumptions? Is it the same offense when committed by an agent of privilege or by an anxiously climbing newb?

  5. The class terms are so fraught I prefer to regard this as a problem of tacit knowledge: students without the right kind of cultural immersion just don’t follow the cues that others can hear clearly. E.g., I don’t know how to explain or why it is, but Joyce is just better than Shades of Grey. The identification and analysis of subtext has to be seen as part of what “critical thinking” is all about, but it’s not as if the professionals who do this work for a living are always right or even in agreement about what they find. I’ve been reading lately about reading instruction at the high school and college levels, and the thing they nailed is the way that much of K-12 reading instruction is a relentlessly instrumental, reductive, search-and-capture operation, whereas college-level literature classes (and perhaps your classes) regard their job as “reading to complicate.” So I would say that much of the frustration you’re sensing comes from their awareness that a former, once-successful strategy of reading no longer works in the context you’ve created.

  6. I realized that my non-commenting on this post is due to an interplay of multiple push-pull vectors that seem to just balance each other out. I often assume that others are experiencing this sort of complex internal warfare, but I have no real evidence to counteract the alternative hypothesis of total indifference.

  7. That happens to me too, John D. I think I tend to blurt out my thoughts anyway, before there’s a resolution to the battle.

    Interestingly, you have illustrated that *silence* also has depths to unpack.

    I like this discussion of obfuscation. What it points to, for me, is the question of intent in writing. You can imagine a college freshman tarting something up with a thesaurus, and you can imagine an experienced writer choosing unusual words in order to defamiliarize assumptions. If your theory of fiction has to do with a transfer of the writer’s intent, that kind of plurality is going to cause problems. Otherwise, it’s just two ways of getting to the same thing.

    I do think, however, that intent tends to leave marks that an experienced reader can follow. Our freshman will probably tend to tart in a way that doesn’t add up to anything (except, perhaps, that the writer is inexperienced), where the experienced writer will execute his defamiliarization consistently, multiple times, allowing the reader to figure out what’s being done.

    So there’s also a question of skill and experience in *reading*, and the expanded pleasure of the “connoisseur”. I’ve noticed with my recent interest in bike riding that I was way more grumbly about the “pain” near the beginning. As I’ve ridden more, I don’t experience any less pain (because I continue to push myself to go farther or faster), but I now tend to orchestrate, control, and even enjoy it.

  8. “K-12 reading instruction is a relentlessly instrumental, reductive, search-and-capture operation, whereas college-level literature classes (and perhaps your classes) regard their job as “reading to complicate.” So I would say that much of the frustration you’re sensing comes from their awareness that a former, once-successful strategy of reading no longer works in the context you’ve created.”

    Yeah, I think this is right on the money. When they read at all, of course, since so much of not being left behind is just getting fed the skinny that will get them through the tests. Just recently I had a student come to me and say it was shocked by its C+ because it was used to getting A’s for its work. I tried to say as gently as possible that the standards change when you get to college – or should, but certainly when you get to my class. But I find that a lot of teaching these students is actually teaching the standards, that is, the codes of distinction that make bad/good/better/best judgments meaningful. And a lot of that is walking them through good/better/best analyses and pausing to reflect on what’s added, and what’s taken away at each step. Learning to connoissificate, to see the skills and the layers. I tell them sometimes my job is to suck all of the simple joy out of things, and to replace it with a richer, more nuanced and painfully ambivalent joy. They need to know what’s at stake in education.

  9. Btw, speaking of paralysis, I never feel like I respond adequately to comments like these. There’s so much going on in them, such a wealth of knowledge and context and allusion, so many possible ways to respond and follow up. So, like with my posts, I pick an angle and go with it rather than get lost in the manifold, because some inadequate conversation is better than the impossible perfect conversation. And leave what you said to say all of what you said. But in any case, many thanks to you all as always for taking a crack at it with me.

  10. Sounds like we are winding down, but let me put in a pitch for what I call generous reading. It’s an absolute necessity for those of us who earn our livelihoods as translators—we have to assume that if what the client is saying appears not to make sense, it is likely to be our fault and ask what we are missing. But its value, I would argue, extends beyond this particular specialized concern.

    The heart of the matter is to approach what we read in the way that telephone crisis counsellors are trained to respond to callers, clearing our heads of preconceptions and listening intently to what our eyes tell us. We can’t ask the author directly; but we can at least ask ourselves open-ended and clarifying questions, which may lead to intuitive decoding, when we find ourselves saying to ourselves, “If X and Y, then this could mean Z.” Even then, however, we don’t shout “Eureka!” and insist that we are right. We look for further evidence to test our inference. We will often be wrong and have to start over again.

    In sum, we afford the author every opportunity to communicate persuasively with us. Sometimes, of course, the author is just plain crazy or jerking us about. That, however, is rare. It costs nothing to read generously, and we can learn a lot if we do.

  11. Turns out they’re mostly not lazy either, they just don’t feel authorized to read between the lines.

    As often when you post about teaching, Carl, I think I’ve met this thing you’ve just reified for me without ever realising what was going on in my classroom. I’ll likely recognise it and deal with it better next time; thanks for the pointer!

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