Reader vs. Reader

Reader vs. Reader

Reading the old guys can be tricky sometimes. After I reviewed Robert E. Howard’s Almuric last week, I got some correspondence accusing me of being “politically correct” (that terrible thing it is so incorrect to be nowadays) because I had suggested, in the mildest possible way, that REH’s depiction of the black-skinned, sexually predatory and cannibalistic Yagas has racist overtones. Well, in my view, it has, and I didn’t draw that opinion from a bank of statements pre-approved by some central committee. If we entertain, for the sake of argument, the idea that I am right about this, what does it mean about how we read REH?

It means we read REH the same way we read anyone else: in two different ways, simultaneously. Umberto Eco famously dubbed these two readers the naive reader and the sophisticated reader. The naive reader wants the hero to kill the bad guy and marry the space-princess (or space-prince, or what have you). The sophisticated reader is muttering, “Yes, this is much like the plot Burroughs used, with overtones of Hamlet and the occasional oblique reference to postmodernism which is de rigueur for self-consciously retrogenerical pastiche, n’est-ce pas?” The naive reader just wants to sit back and enjoy the movie. The sophisticated reader is the guy sitting in the row behind who won’t STFU.

Everybody has the naive reader experience and everybody has the critical reader experience. The cry of political correctness is just one example of the type of objection which is usually raised when someone’s sophisticated reader is interfering with someone else’s naive reader: e.g. “This story about space pirates is Just For Fun! Your comments about the historical reality of piracy and slavery in the ancient Mediterranean are unwelcome to me. Drop dead, won’t you?”

But the sophisticated reader will never drop dead, or at least will never stay dead, because everybody has one hard-wired into them. More importantly, the defense usually used of naive reading is a bad one because it tends to undervalue the experience. The naive reader experience is fun, but why is it fun? What makes certain symbols, certain imaginary experiences emotionally powerful, and others emotionally trivial? Why are certain stories appealing to some people and repellent to others? Where shall wisdom be found? Where is the place of understanding? Answering these questions, or even discussing them, requires some effort from the sophisticated reader, and that effort is worthwhile if it deepens the reader’s experience. And the nature of sophistication is that it’s a community experience: one becomes sophisticated by contact with others, and it is natural for our sophisticated reader to be informed by the readings of others.

But the naive reader’s objections about interference are not ill-founded. In fiction, anyway, the naive reader is the real reader, the one for whom the reading experience is emotionally fulfilling. Sophisticated readings may disrupt that experience without adding anything of real value. The guy talking behind you may distract you from something potentially important that is happening up on the screen. So how do you tell when a sophisticated reading (whether your own, or one borrowed from someone else) is going to fatally disrupt your naive reading experience?

The rule is that there is no rule. Say that there’s someone approaching you with a knife, proposing to cut you open. How do you tell whether he’s a serial killer who wants to add your liver to his collection, or a surgeon who wants to remove your burst appendix and save your life? Context will help: is this happening in an alley or a hospital? Other clues may help: is he wearing a hockey mask or an operating mask? In the end, you’ll have to make a judgement call.

And sometimes those judgements will be wrong. With the worst intentions in the world, the serial killer may not even be able to seriously threaten you. With the best intentions in the world, the surgeon may kill you. What this metaphor means (at least what I mean it to mean) is that sometimes a naive reading experience will be fatally compromised by a sophisticated analysis. (Don’t even ask me about the last time I read Asimov’s Foundation; I don’t want to talk about it.)

Is this bad? Maybe. Maybe not. If naive readings die, but the naive reader within you lives on, maybe it’s not so bad. Nothing lives forever–unless, somehow, it can never die.

Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack
And death shall have no dominion.

You knew a unicorn would have to show up at some point.

And where’s the promised review of Kline’s The Swordsman of Mars? Still just a promise: I’ll kick that out next week. Really. If you can’t wait: the capsule review is that anyone who likes sword-and-planet should read the book. Watch this space for further details from both my naive and sophisticated reader.

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There’s another “reader dichotomy” which occurs when reading material written generations ago, and hat’s between the cultural mores of the author’s time, and those of the reader’s time. I’ve read a lot of revisionist reviews which will excoriate a given writer for his racism (I’m not accusing you of excoriation), but such criticism is easy from the vantage point of social hindsight. It’s very very difficult to transcend one’s time in terms of social and cultural attitudes (otherwise those cultural attitudes would not be so easily perpetuated, and so slowly changed). So while, on the one hand, it is entirely possible that Howard held some racist attitudes (there are certainly some aspects of Conan stories that lend themselves to a white-Supremacist viewpoint), it s arguably unfair to criticise him on the point because realistically, how would he have known better? So I believe the right course is to point out where racism can be seen (and sexism, and class distinctions, and other social mores that we may now consider outdated), but not to attach any opprobrium to the writer, simply for the “failure” of not having been better than everyone else of his time.

Bill Ward

An excellent and well-considered look at the levels of reading James. This is something I think anyone that talks about books encounters, and especially if they must review books, where a lot of the subjectivity of taste really seems to have to do with the willingness or ability to read on one level or another at a given time.


I had not considered these arguments in such specific context before. The speed that I read at, has slowed considerably in recent years and my analysis has certainly deepened. I find myself examining type of sentence structures and paragraphing, and what level of physical and sensory detail has been applied.

Unfortunately, this has made some stories far less enjoyable than they would have been prior.

I attribute this change to the desire to improve my own writing. Of course, some stories simply sing, and they silence the sophisticated reader entirely with their near-magical prose. For those, I am gladly willing to wait until I’m done before I dissect them.

John R. Fultz

Isn’t the truly GREAT story/novel the one that simultaneously pleases both the naive and sophisticated reader inside us? When I get distracted by either one of these, the story experience suffers. When you read Lord Dunsany, for instance, the absolute beauty of his prose stuns both the n. and s. readers to silence. R. Scott Bakker did this to me with his PRINCE OF NOTHING series. Clark Asthton Smith’s ZOTHIQUE tales do this to me every time. As do (most recently) Martin’s SONG OF ICE AND FIRE books. There are others, of course. But from my viewpoint–I have to get an equal (or semi-equal) satisfaction from my naive and sophisticated reader at the same time…or I end up putting the book down and never going back to it. Life is just too short to read something this lacking–in any way. Of course, that’s just my personal preference. But why not demand that both readers’ sensibilities be satisfied?
Great blog, James…

Matt Snyder

I think it’s pretty important to examine what we read. Of course, I think it’s also important to find some reward in what we read, too. Which, of course, is your point, James.

There’s a troubling amount of material in favorite pulp adventures that don’t do well under that examining microscope, and I think pointing it out is worthwhile.

Of course, doing so isn’t always harmonious. The thing that strikes me about concerns of being too “politically correct” is that it’s almost never about someone’s analysis being wrong (it certainly happens, or at least interpretations differ). It’s more often that the accusing person feels threatened — as though someone else’s examination or interpretation of fiction takes away meaning and pleasure in their life.

What a strange idea. If such a thing is so easily taken, how valuable was it in the first place?

[…] fiction Feb04 4 February 2009, John Markley @ 6:54 pm Via Grasping for the Wind, I came upon this interesting post by James Enge, in which Enge talks about the role played in each person by the “naïve reader” and the […]

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