A graduate-student blogger named Josh Corey kicked things off with an introspective post about the disparate pleasures he takes in fiction and poetry; or, to be more precise, in certain kinds of fiction and certain kinds of poetry. As my old friend Mark explains,
Josh contrasts the “absorptive” or “immersive” pleasure of your average well-written novel (the “vivid continuous dream” evoked by John Gardner) with the more thorny pleasures offered by “anti-absorptive” poetry – writing in which the language does not “disappear” from the page, to be replaced by an evoked or described world – writing, in short, that foregrounds its own materiality as language, that won’t let us forget that we’re after all reading.Like many essayists and theorists, alas, Josh doesn't just distinguish between these pleasures; he ranks them. Unlike many others, however, Josh quickly checks himself, refusing to let the hierarchy he sets up pass unchallenged:
Most readers (on airplanes or elsewhere) are after the infantilizing dream-state [offered by "immersive" fiction], and yet I can't blame others or myself for wanting to be nurtured by certain reading experiences rather than pricked into greater consciousness. A healthy diet, so to speak, probably requires both. But isn't the moral content that creeps into my language here interesting? Immersive fiction as trans-fats, innovative writing as leafy greens. I am loath to become a scold, urging children to read Language poetry [my link: ES] because it's good for you. Is the pleasure of anti-absorptive writing simply the masochistic pleasure of self-denial, of anorexia? Is it a "higher" pleasure because further from the pleasures of the flesh? And yet the anti-absorptive is closer to the body of language than immersive fiction is: we savor the materiality of phonemes and syntax and sentences, provoked into the kind of apperception that requires us to look up from the book now and then and figure. One type of reading is active and closer to writing; the other is passive and demands our submission—there's a masochism for you.Now, on my Say Something Wonderful blog I took issue with Josh over a lot of this. I find his description of "immersive" fiction rather sloppy; it can't account, for example, for my vivid sense, this past weekend, of snuggling up with two entirely different authorial "voices" as I read Eloisa James's Pleasure for Pleasure and Pam Rosenthal's The Slightest Provocation. His sexual and culinary metaphors are both somewhat casual, and likewise won't hold up on close inspection. How, though, shall we talk about the different pleasures of reading different sorts of literature? Are there other discourses available?
In search of them, I'm heading off to read an essay from Sally Goade's forthcoming collection on romance fiction, Empowerment vs. Oppression (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2007): "Forms of Pleasure in the Reading of Popular Romance: Psychic and Cultural Dimensions," by Eva Y. I. Chen. I'll let you know what she says, and how it helps. In the mean time, I notice that the theorists and philosophers who get cited in these debates are all men, all modern, and all European: Freud, Lacan, Roland Barthes, Pierre Bourdieu, Theodore Adorno. Who are the women I should read? Who are the non-European thinkers? Who are the ancients, the medieval rhetoricians, the neo-classicists, the Romantics? Who thinks about pleasure outside the literary sphere, in disciplines from psychology to, I don't know, marketing?
I'd love your suggestions, and promise to make use of them!