Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America

Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America

by Merve Emre

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Literature departments are staffed by, and tend to be focused on turning out, “good” readers—attentive to nuance, aware of history, interested in literary texts as self-contained works. But the vast majority of readers are, to use Merve Emre’s tongue-in-cheek term, “bad” readers. They read fiction and poetry to be moved, distracted, instructed, improved, engaged as citizens. How should we think about those readers, and what should we make of the structures, well outside the academy, that generate them?
We should, Emre argues, think of such readers not as non-literary but as paraliterary—thriving outside the institutions we take as central to the literary world. She traces this phenomenon to the postwar period, when literature played a key role in the rise of American power. At the same time as American universities were producing good readers by the hundreds, many more thousands of bad readers were learning elsewhere to be disciplined public communicators, whether in diplomatic and ambassadorial missions, private and public cultural exchange programs, multinational corporations, or global activist groups. As we grapple with literature’s diminished role in the public sphere, Paraliterary suggests a new way to think about literature, its audience, and its potential, one that looks at the civic institutions that have long engaged readers ignored by the academy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226473970
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/16/2017
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 303,427
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Merve Emre is assistant professor of English at McGill University.

Read an Excerpt


Reading as Imitation

No man, excepting in burlesque, should impersonate a woman's part. Impersonation is not reading. And no woman should attempt to impersonate a man, if by impersonation, you mean actually striving to get at the real tone and manner of a male, because she only makes coarseness of it.


I'm incapable of writing at length about anyone except an American, so it's not only a question of being out of touch with the native speech but of being out of touch with the native subject matter.



"Expatriate writing, a potpourri of the avant-garde and the decadent, has almost faded away." So proclaimed critic and novelist Mary McCarthy in a 1972 essay titled "A Guide to Exiles, Expatriates, and Internal Émigrés," tolling the bell for an international literary tradition that had long captivated late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American reading publics. Considered alongside the imminent terror of the Soviet Union's ascendancy, the rising body count in Vietnam, and her recent stint as a United States Information Agency (USIA) lecturer in Eastern Europe, McCarthy believed that reading the expatriate novels of the past was akin to smelling a bowl of old "potpourri" — sweet but useless. Readers had developed a distaste for the tradition's once attractive and now decaying features: its carefully cultivated cosmopolitanism, its elite discourses of aesthetic autonomy, and worst of all, the self-indulgent figure of the expatriate, whom McCarthy described sarcastically as "an artist or person who thinks he is artistic." The ultimate offense of writing and reading expatriate novels, she posited, was to valorize literary production as the creation of "a work of art" detached from the historical realities of modernity; a work of art preoccupied with the construction of a deeply solipsistic and apolitical interiority at the very moment when literature and its readers needed to look outward, to strengthen their "atrophying power to communicate" with others.

Given her indictment of expatriate writing, it makes sense that McCarthy would name Henry James as the long-dead father of all expatriate fiction. A committed expatriate for more than twenty-five years and a pivotal figure in the shift from nineteenth-century realism to twentieth-century experiments in novelistic interiority, James had "set the themes once and for all." "Everything that followed," McCarthy observed, "was a mere variation, however grotesque," from the poetry of Gertrude Stein and T. S. Eliot to the novels of H.D., F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Djuna Barnes, and Henry Miller. Presumably, McCarthy counted herself as part of this genealogy. In 1961, she had relocated to Paris with her fourth husband, James R. West, a cultural attaché with the United States Foreign Service, and had published her first and only expatriate novel Birds of America (1971) exactly a decade later. "A Guide to Exiles, Expatriates, and Internal Émigrés," written just one year after Birds of America failed to find an enthusiastic audience among American readers, betrayed her fierce and perplexing irritation with the literary tradition whose life-span she had tried to prolong. Expatriate fiction, McCarthy concluded with her signature snark, evinced "a certain Jackie-and-Ari color-supplement flavor." Characters went abroad "to lead the beautiful life in one form or another" by "impersonating figures in a work of art — something few people dare to do at home."

But how precisely do works of art give rise to studied practices of impersonation? And why is "impersonating figures in a work of art" something "few people" — not characters — would only "dare" to do away from home? McCarthy's oddly contemporaneous invocation of the "Jackie-and-Ari color-supplement flavor" of expatriate fiction suggests that James's influence wasn't limited to the literary characters of the twentieth century but a curiously embodied fact of American public and political life: that his works of art had somehow come to shape the practices, rituals, and lifestyles of the rich and famous over half a century after his death in 1916. Contrary to McCarthy's proclamation of the fading out of expatriate fiction, James's legacy was not dressed down in avant-garde or decadent literature's fading tropes but dolled up in Jackie O's powder-pink Chanel traveling suit and pillbox hat for all the world to see. And although the acerbic quality of McCarthy's tone may suggest Jackie O's ditzy obliviousness to James as her stylistic predecessor, this, too, is misleading. During her time in Washington, DC, Kennedy had pointedly stacked James's novels in the White House library as part of her attempt to bring high culture to Cold War America — one model for how to live the beautiful life amid the ugly glare of Soviet-era geopolitics. Yet even before she was rearranging the first family's textual furniture, Kennedy was McCarthy's near contemporary at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, where both women had read James's novels in the classroom and dorm room and concluded that he was their favorite American writer. While these two public figures had pursued wildly incomparable paths after graduation — Jackie to Paris, where she wrote her European travelogue One Special Summer (1974), and Mary to the New Republic in New York — as readers and imitators of James's expatriate fictions, their literary education had shared a common point of departure: the institution of the women's college.

Indeed, it was at institutions like Vassar, as well as Vassar's sister colleges Smith, Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe, and Mount Holyoke, that reading Henry James gave rise to enduring practices of what I call literary impersonation: a strategy of fictional mimesis that turned on a series of unconventional assumptions about the relationship between reading subjects and their textual objects. By "literary impersonation," I do not mean the "performance of impersonation" within literature: a formulation that many critics have invoked quite loosely to describe a wide range of fictional tropes, from narrative vocalization to mimicry, imposture, personification, forgery, and fraud. I mean, rather, the uncanny convergence of literary discourse with real speech acts: utterances that have taken place in richly specified and, to a certain extent, historically recoverable contexts. Literary impersonation asserts the portability between textual properties of the novel and formal properties of speech, gesture, and face-to-face interaction — what McCarthy called the "power of communication" in her dismissal of James's novels. As Benjamin Lee and other sociolinguistics have argued, the interplay between literary discourse (i.e., how people talk about literary representations) and the performativity of speech (i.e., how speech instantiates an action or constructs a subject position) offers a unique nexus from which to examine how literature can shape the formation of social relationships and the individuals who participate in them. Both linguistic performativity and literary discourse, Lee writes, "utilize a shared 'fashion of speaking' about subjectivity that is created by the structural relations among ... speaking, thinking, and feeling." Literary impersonation reveals a set of readerly logics by which a literary device (like dialogue or narrative interiority) can come to shape lived practices of communication (like speech) across vast expanses of space and time. If reading literature can mediate between literary production and the production of speaking subjects, it does so through a set of unorthodox reading practices that flourished within the institutions of the women's college.

Allow me to orient this claim in more historically specific terms, as it offers this book's first inroads into a prehistory of international communication from the beginning of the twentieth century to its mid-century efflorescence. This chapter suggests that a certain "fashion of speaking" about James's novels and a certain fashion of speaking emerged as twinned components of what women's colleges touted as the first systematic "experiments in international living": the earliest attempts to institute highly regimented and repetitive practices of international communication during the interwar period. There's no good reason why any of the tens of millions of students who have participated in these experiments in international living over the last half century, or even the university administrators and educators who have organized them, should know about the literary historical origins of these massively popular sociolinguistic training programs. By the time McCarthy was writing in the 1970s, study abroad programs, as they are commonly referred to today, were already ensnared in a vast and sprawling network of government-issued texts that discussed "the benefits of study abroad" for college students. In these pamphlets, brochures, conference proceedings, and conduct guides, the benefits enumerated were seldom literary and overwhelmingly social and political: the spread of "friendship," "goodwill," "understanding," and underpinning it all, "communication." These benefits, however, cut both ways. For administrators at the State Department and USIA, students served as ideal national-institutional subjects for international communication projects, no matter what the project's specific purpose was. After all, who more amenable to the imposition of carefully crafted speech and behavioral protocols than fulltime learners? Who more willing to embrace with cheerful studiousness their teachers' instructions to say and do certain things and not others?

This point was made early on by educators John A. Garraty and Walter Adams in A Guide to Study Abroad (1962), a conduct manual that featured a brusque and bellicose introduction by then-vice-president Lyndon B. Johnson. Reprinted every year until 1977 and widely championed by Dr. Paul R. Conroy, USIA chief of professional training, as essential reading for all college students, A Guide to Study Abroad emphasized that "students make excellent 'ambassadors,'" for they are "intelligent, eager, curious, purposeful, energetic, and (being young) attractive." While it was "human for the natives of any country to resent the mere tourist who is idling away his time, often frivolously," the strictly regimented and demanding activities of students tended "to attract sympathy and respect" (12). According to the authors, who aspired to "make the world our campus," there was no better way for students to attract the natives' sympathy and respect than by staging scenes of reading. The Guide thus instructed all students to pack a "Six Inch Library" that would include a map of the United States, a "college American history textbook," Richard B. Morris's Basic Documents of American History, and D. C. Doyle's The United States Political System and How It Works. Students who wanted to be "really well-armed ambassadors" were encouraged to pair the hard facts and figures contained in maps, textbooks, and documents with "a collection of your own favorite paperbacks to lend or give to people you meet" (61). Yet even the construction of one's personal literary arsenal had to follow certain guidelines. "Take books that have some literary stature, of course, but not simply those that you know are highly regarded," the Guide cautioned. "Literary stature," a function of cultural prestige, always came second to the student's performance of literary discourse: her ability to communicate, through her impassioned advocacy, a deep knowledge of and personal affection for her books of choice. "There is no better way to gain the respect of foreigners both for yourself and for your country," the authors crowed, "than to talk about a good book that you know well and about which you are enthusiastic" (62).

In the Guide's mingling of textual objects and genres, we can identify the same processes of readerly preparation that my introduction teased out of international communications initiatives like Radio Free Europe. But a very different view of the relationship between reading literature and the power of communication emerges if we look back at the longer history of these experiments in international living. Although various branches of the federal government worked hard to co-opt students as young and attractive communicative subjects — the most titillating chapter in the guide is titled "Sexual Communication" — the history of international literary socialization dates back to the early twentieth-century women's college, a far cry from the board rooms and back offices of Washington, DC. In the bucolic college towns of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania and Northampton, Massachusetts, administrators, teachers, and students first debated the communicative practices of international living — a debate set off by none other than Henry James, the progenitor of all expatriate fiction. While James was not interested in students as political actors, at least not as explicitly as the State Department or USIA in the 1950s, he was similarly preoccupied with the problems and possibilities of international communication and its relationship to a national literary culture. Indeed, it was during his 1905 American lecture tour that he debuted "The Question of Our Speech," a prickly critique of the communicative habits of American women, which he first delivered as a commencement address at Bryn Mawr and which was subsequently reprinted in every major magazine and newspaper in the United States. The lecture provoked widespread public outcry across the nation for its unflattering comparison of America's "young ladies'" speech — indistinct from "the grunting, the squealing, the barking or the roaring of animals" — to their European counterparts (46). The failure of women to exercise proper aesthetic discrimination in their practices of communication, James postulated, would lead to the careening cultural decline of the United States in the twentieth century. The scandal that resulted from his lecture tour was unprecedented but not unproductive. By the early 1920s, the lecture's reception had given rise to various programs of speech pedagogy for young women, most notably, the first experiments in international living, which originated at Smith College and spread rapidly to other women's institutions before attracting the attention of the US government and its communications bureaucracies after World War II.

More rigorously than midcentury government bureaucrats, James's lecture elucidated an ambitious theory of literature's social and pragmatic uses, one opposed to both McCarthy's pooh-poohing of expatriate fiction and modernist literary studies' continued association of James with aesthetic autonomy. The lecture, both by virtue of its style and its genre, insists that literary writers and the novels they produced were uniquely positioned to help transform international communication itself into an aesthetic form that could bestow "literary stature" onto the speakers themselves. In a memorable scene in "The Question of Our Speech," James portrayed the speech of American women as "our transported maiden, our unrescued Andromeda," abandoned to her own devices in "the international concert of culture" — a "poor dear distracted organ" waiting to be saved from aesthetic ruin and cultural condemnation by one who had mastered the distinctions between "form and the absence of form" (52). While it would be improper to read James's melodrama without a sense of humor, his audiences were ready to take him at his word as the aesthetic savior of American speech and communication, or the "cosmopolitan patriot," in the words of one critic, whose finely honed mastery of literary form could discipline the speech of his female readers. Like the attractive and industrious students addressed in the Guide, the young ladies housed within the women's college were to emerge in the national public sphere as "excellent 'ambassadors'" for James's literary aesthetics and, thus, excellent representatives to communicate the nation's linguistic and cultural singularity in the international public sphere. Decades before government-sponsored Kulturkampf would propel thousands of students across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, equipped with guides to help them "communicate fluently" with international audiences, James's fictions had already laid the blueprint for how international communication ought to look — and sound — in the earliest phase of its national development (71).


Excerpted from "Paraliterary"
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Copyright © 2017 Merve Emre.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

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Chapter One
Reading as Imitation

Chapter Two
Reading as Feeling

Chapter Three
Brand Reading

Chapter Four
Sight Reading

Chapter Five
Reading like a Bureaucrat

Chapter Six
Reading like a Revolutionary

Retracing One’s Steps

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