On Bad Readers

I would have taken a very thorough pass on the whole "Cat Person" uproar had I not seen a recommendation for this Village Voice piece as the meta-criticism that partially redeems the controversy by extrapolating it into a more generally applicable analysis. Pham's thesis is that outraged reactions to "Cat Person" are symptomatic of a larger trend that reduces the value of fiction to its ability to distill politically freighted values into potted morals, like something out of la Fontaine. We are "failing as readers," in other words, because we look to fiction to do some of the cognitive work of drawing a point from the situations they depict.

That argument depends on making the case for a particular kind of reading, and Pham hits the traditional note when she writes:

Instead of viewing fiction as an opportunity to enrich our view of the world, or as a way to explore emotional and philosophical themes — in the way that a painting, for example, explores color — we’re asking it for lessons on how to live. When we cannot even understand that a short story is fiction, and that a writer has carefully chosen how to construct her world, with its own architecture and a universe separate from our own, we flatten it completely, and we also flatten our own ability to think critically.

I do a lot of that sort of reading, and I agree that it can be immensely rewarding, but I think two other factors are at play here. One is the New Yorker's role as a cultural arbiter. For better or worse, practically no other publication has done as much to shape what the American reading public envisions as sophisticated short fiction. Much of that sophistication resides in what goes unwritten.

Of course, fiction doesn't always have to work that way. One of the books that I've most enjoyed reading this year was Jo Walton's The Just City. One of the central concerns of the novel is consent, and the characters develop that theme quite directly. It could be argued, I suppose, that The Just City doesn't operate on quite the same level as a really solid New Yorker story, but the technique of dealing explicitly with a story's root moral concerns has at least two things going for it. For one, it allows Walton to develop ideas intellectually before handing them off to the narrative for a different sort of development. And, for another, it provides scope for some Platonic dialogue in a book that is, after all, populated with Platonists. Both effects are, properly speaking, literary -- just not in the roundabout mode typical of upmarket literary short fiction.

The other factor is access. Twenty years ago, you could make pretty safe assumptions about the audience for any given New Yorker story -- that, for example, its readers would tend to have the same general sort of education, an education that had already acclimated (if not habituated) them to just the style of fiction the New Yorker promotes. All such bets are off with digital media, and particularly so when a story goes viral. It isn't that critics of "Cat Person" are necessarily bad readers, but they're certainly less likely to be New Yorker readers than would have encountered the story if it had been published a generation ago.