One of the problems with being lazy is that such scraps of literary theory as I know are generally out of context and achieve a disproportionate power. There's no reason that I can't take some night classes, classes I would get for free at Big Midwestern University where I work. And in fact, I hope that writing about books will help me build up enough spine to do that.
So anyway, how do you read a book? (Pick it up and open it, vicar!)
1. I read for plot, with a literalness alarming in one so not-young-anymore. It's hard for me to read sad books, or really gory books, because I end up feeling that there are somehow real people involved in this. More defensibly, though, a sad book generally reminds me of real sadness in the world, real war, real people dying every minute before I could even call my senator.
2. I read for "message"...what does the author say directly? In Ursula Le Guin's novel The Dispossessed, there's a lot on the surface, at the discursive (?) level. The narrator and the characters talk about how the anarchist society works, what values people have, and the possible failings or risks inherent in those values. Of course, the author may say something direct in an indirect manner, like Doris Lessing getting in lots of little swipes at the left in asides, descriptions of how people furnish their rooms, and so on.
(We're simply not going to get into Derrida and the non-existence of the author. I'm going to talk about authors and intent for convenience for now)
3. I read in an identity-politics manner--why DO all of China Mieville's major proletarian characters have such a 'umble, 'umble doughtly class loyalty to them? Why does M John Harrison return again and again to the fifteen-year-old-goth-boy vision of delicate, wounded, tragic femininity? It's difficult to apply this technique in reverse without sounding patronizing, I realize: I almost never say to myself "That Samuel Delany, boy howdy, he always writes strong women characters, and that's why I like him!" I think that identity-politics-on-the-attack tends to be much simpler and less useful than supporting-identity-politics, at least when I do it. When I talk about Samuel Delany's women characters, I do so with far more nuance and a greater emphasis on how those characters fit into his work as a whole than I do when I talk about M John Harrison. (Although M John Harrison's delicate, sickly, fantasy-projection women, all deeply, deeply "feminine" and deeply, deeply unrealistic, REALLY annoy me.)
4. I read in a "does the plot match what is said by the narrator" manner that I learned from Samuel Delany's excellent and deflationary essay on The Dispossessed, which appears, I believe, in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw. In it, he points out that we are TOLD a lot about gender equality on Anarres, but we actually see a lot of actions that reflect gender INequality. We're also told a lot about the acceptance of homosexuality and non-monogamy, but the main/good characters are all straight and monogamous, and the one gay character is treated as a kind of plot decoration (and, I think, played for laughs--he's the only one who is ever described negatively in terms of weight, for example, and we get a cute scene where everyone else is relaxing and he's puffing around the [quad? park? anarchist recreation zone] to try to shrink his tummy.) This isn't the same as "noticing an unreliable narrator", although I can see how this whole method relies on a faith in the coherence of the work and the intention of the author. That is, I am pretty confident that Le Guin really wants to show a utopian, gender-equal society (why?) and that the disconnect between what she and the characters SAY about Anarres and how they ACT is not intended by her to make a point. I would also tend to apply a similar analysis to the Harry Potter books--a surface progressivism conceals a retrograde plot.
5. I try to read for...I guess you could call them themes, although I know there's a fancy theory word for them. For example, Howl's Moving Castle--one of the things that the plot does is to restore patriarchy and heterosexuality. Initially, Sophie's family is all single women, the financially irresponsible father dead. All are engaged or married by the end of the book. Howl, Michael and Calcifer live in an incomplete "male" world...a world riskily suggestive of homosexuality, a world of self-indulgence, pleasure-seeking, cowardice, fancy snacks, insecurity and bad temper.
At story's end, all are ensconced in a cozier, cleaner, nicer and more sentimental world, their heterosexuality intact. The witch and her female fire demon are dead. Calcifer, the fire demon who had lived on Howl's heart
, is now free of that dangerously homosexual tie. True, it's a NICE heterosexuality that's restored, unlike the unpleasant bourgeois/conventional world of Howl's sister, the world he fled from. You could say, in fact, that the bad heterosexuality/bourgeouis-ness of his birth family threatens to push Howl into unstable homosexuality, from whence he is rescued by the Love of a Good Woman, herself rescued by her love from Feminine Incompleteness.
This reading depresses me rather a lot, although I'm proud that I came up with it because I was able to use some ideas that I hadn't before.
6. I try to read for "figures" in an early Franco Moretti manner, but without much success. When Moretti talks about Dracula, he says that the vampire is a figure for feudal capital accumulation/monopoly. That's why Jonathan Harker is out to destroy him--to pave the way for modern capitalism which is free of feudal restrictions. Moretti--in a move that is so neat I can hardly stand it--then goes on to say that the American character is really a vampire but that the other characters don't know it because they don't understand that monopoly capitalism can be a new thing; they think of it only as a feudal phenomenon. Moretti uses hitherto unconsidered elements of the plot to argue that the American character acts like a vampire and that we never see anything that proves he is not a vampire. Authorial intent is moot, here.
I wish I could read things in this manner, as a sort of jumped-up political metaphor. But it's hard for me to think big enough. I also haven't read enough economic history or Marxism.
7. I also try to read for...not for intent exactly, but for what the main force of the book is driving at. M John Harrison isn't really writing about characters, which is why it's rather uncharitable to emphasize them. He's writing in a lyrical, evocative manner about certain philosophical considerations.
(This does not preclude a sort of historical reading (8) of Harrison, where I try to understand his female characters in the light of conventions about female characters. I might...I do...even feel that his New Worlds background makes it all the more disappointing that he has so much to say about landscape and language but cloaks it in a dull, conventional treatment of gender.)
Similarly, L Timmel DuChamp isn't writing about plot. Her plots are (mostly, to my mind) dull and trite. You have to read her stories slowly, trying to hold a lot of ideas in your head at once, in order to get the most out of them. Her short story about matrix aesthetics is helpful here, both at the discursive level and as something to practice this on. The actual plot is...well...one can only say it's trite, with a trite moral: the main character is wicked, wicked WICKED
because she doesn't understand that this different planet has different moral and sexual norms than she is accustomed to, and she goes away unhappy and self-deluding because of her non-pc wickedness. If you read it for the plot, you go away unhappy too! Just like her! But if you try to hold all the information about the planet and its society in your head, and you try to imagine how matrix aesthetics informs everything, and you try to map the complexity of the planet onto our society to arrive at some kind of ethical understanding...well, it's a rich and satisfying experience all around.
While I will probably do all of these things on this blog, I would like to emphasize 5-8, with a bias towards 7 and occasional veerings into 3. Really, I think 7 corrected by 8 is the most politically productive approach.
I also want to read as if I were reading the work of someone I actually know. When I was writing about Iron Council, it struck me that I usually write in a rough-and-tumble way that I would never match in conversation. It seems a bit unsatisfactory to say mean things for rhetorical flourish merely because I will never meet the person I'm saying them about. Reciprocally, I'd like to work on standing up for what I think in actual conversation...I know that if I met an author whose politics appall me I would murmur polite disgressions in a cowardly matter rather than calling them out.