Merve Emre. Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. 304 pp.
Review by Ben Jeffery
11 January 2019
“It was once a truth universally acknowledged, that among a professional class of literary critics, there are good and bad ways to read a work of literature,” writes Merve Emre towards the end of Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America. “Like many other categories of human behavior, it is far easier to praise the good than it is to appreciate the bad” (p. 253). The argument that this statement caps is a sprawling examination of elocution schools, American Studies programs, beat writers, Fulbright scholarships, the history of National Geographic, African-American expatriates in Europe, the short-lived committee of writers organized by William Faulkner at the behest of President Eisenhower, and much else. Starting from a relatively straightforward critique of the binary between good and bad readers that academic literary studies seems to demand, Emre rapidly scales up to what she describes as an “institutional history of literary socialization” in the American twentieth century (p. 222). Paraliterary is an intensely ambitious, information-saturated, and yet in some respects rather mystifying book.
Emre begins with the quiz Vladimir Nabokov assigned to his literature students in 1948. The sole question is: what should a reader have in order to be a good reader? Nabokov’s answer (the reader should have imagination, memory, a dictionary, and “some artistic sense” [quoted p. 1]) is less important than the opposition it postulates between those who know how to engage with a work of literature correctly and those that don’t. As Emre observes, this opposition seems to be fundamental to the very idea of institutionalized literary study. Good readers—however they are defined exactly—are the sine qua non of literature as a teachable subject. By definition, however, the merit of the good reader has “always relied on his oppositional relationship to the curiously undifferentiated mass of bad readers, who struck Nabokov—and have struck many teachers and literary scholars since—as a kind of irritating background noise; always already present and unworthy of any serious or systematic consideration” (pp. 2–3). One of Emre’s stated aims is to throw light on this shadowy mass. Apart from the first chapter, the emphasis is on America (and Americans abroad) in the decades following World War II. A dramatic shift took place during those years, Emre argues, away from the cloistered academic study of literature and towards “institutions that stressed literature’s communicative and public value in a rapidly internationalizing world” (p. 3). In other words, it marked an epoch in which a whole ecosystem of organizations with some purposeful investment in literary work arose and existed in parallel with university departments.
Emre’s fundamental claim is that it is a mistake to imagine that universities provide the only regimen of engagement with literary texts. As such, the juxtaposition of good readers and bad readers blinds us insofar as it makes us believe that the world divides neatly into two sorts of people: those who have become trained readers in virtue of a university education and those who lack this training. The truth is that individuals can become orientated towards literary texts in all sorts of structured ways. Bad reading is Emre’s shorthand for these alternate modes of instruction, and the focus on postwar America is a method for giving the category some historically specific content. That, at least, is the schematic version of the argument. Its precise formula is less easy to pin down—for reasons that I’ll come to—but at the core is the idea that literary reading and writing became prisms through which midcentury Americans learned to act, communicate, and present themselves on the world stage. The term paraliterary is deployed by Emre as a catch-all for the various “political, economic, and civic institutions that orbited literature departments throughout the postwar period” and for the type of readers-cum-internationalized-citizens they aspired to produce (p. 5).
The bulk of Paraliterary is taken up with Emre’s winding historical and sociological explorations of how literature came to influence and be influenced by paraliterary modes of communication. Here we find Henry James’s speaking tours contributing to the creation of study-abroad programs and (in a provocative chapter on the history of American Studies) an argument about the effect of a Fulbright scholarship on the sadomasochistic trends in Sylvia Plath’s writing—to give only a couple of examples. On this level one finds a huge amount of information and more than a few memorable anecdotes. Conceptually, however, it becomes difficult to keep track of how the variegated threads are meant to line up with Emre’s larger claims. Undoubtedly, the idea that readers can be subject to different forms of training is a robust one. But given that the notion of a bad reader is effectively a noncategory—again, it simply stands for any type of ends-driven engagement with literature outside of the academy—the shepherding of all of these disparate activities under a single umbrella ultimately obscures as much as it clarifies. It seems as if the core tension in Paraliterary is between a pluralistic desire to demonstrate “alternatives” to an idea of the literary as "institutionally singular" and the urge to make grand, unifying statements about the historical importance of bad reading and the paraliterary (pp. 13, 256). But even by the end of the book it isn’t obvious what exactly these key terms are meant to identify.
Underlying the expository material in Paraliterary is an argument about how literary studies ought to understand itself in the present. Emre takes a fiercely historicist line; she attacks recent proponents of surface reading and “post-criticism” as essentially the dupes of neoliberalism; victims of a “happy self-delusion about which technocratic masters they are serving” (p. 255). Insofar as this works as a reminder that critics and scholars need to resist idealizing abstractions about what literary reading consists of, it seems apt enough. On the other hand, the current of thought Emre is reacting against only exists because of the perceived limitations and diminishing returns of the historicist-contextualist paradigm (to recall Joseph North’s phrase) that has dominated the field for decades. Paraliterary presents itself as opening a bold new avenue for literary studies, but its ornate mixture of reception theory and political infrastructure—for all of its allure—seems more like the reiteration of a method no longer in its pomp.