So, grading papers was a little bit of a bummer this weekend. While one student who struggled with the last assignment worked extraordinarily hard to produce an A paper this time around (after one of the most productive workshop sessions I’ve ever moderated, meetings during office hours, and three complete overhauls of his rough draft), a few of my students who had previously done well took a few steps back, committing some of the same errors that I had previously thought were limited to three or four individuals. Namely, they are using their chosen texts as excuses to talk about their personal views on a subject rather than producing an analytical argument based on clear evidence from that chosen text.
A few of these students came after me after class to say that they recognized the mistakes that they had made, that they didn’t like the papers that they had written either (which is encouraging) and that they would spend more time on the assignment going forward. But I do think that a number of my students are laboring under that common misconception that the study of literature is essentially a free for all, that the “subjectivity” of interpretation means that interpretation is essentially personal, that there are no wrong answers, that anything can mean anything. So, I brought in Vladimir Nabokov’s essay “Good Readers and Good Writers” today in order to talk about what the first task of any reader or observer of a work of art is: to fully understand what the creator of a work was trying to communicate. This means setting preconceptions aside and allowing oneself to be transported into a particular world with particular protocols, particular rules and causes and effects that may or may not have direct correlaries in the real world:
If one begins with a readymade generalization, one begins at the wrong end and travels away from the book before one has started to understand it. Nothing is more boring or ore unfair to the author than starting to read, say, Madame Bovary, with the preconceived notion that it is a denunciation of the bourgeoisie. We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so the first thing we should do is study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know. When this new world has been closely studied , then and only then let us examine its links with other worlds, other branches of knowledge.
For Nobokov and for philosophers like Martha Nussbaum, this is a moral and pedagogical imperative: art and the effort to faithfully understand what the author is trying to communicate is how we learn to come into sympathy with other perspectives. Upon re-reading this essay, I was surprised at how much I resist this way of reading, how suspicious I am, in fact, of looking at a work of art as a contained body of meaning, hermetically sealed off from its context. The good postmodernist in me believes that meaning are unstable, that artists, in many ways, do not control what their works mean for each individual who encounters it. The feminist in me is inherently suspicious of author’s motives and of the way in which the realities contained in texts are both socially constructed and participate in the construction of contingent knowledge as historically transcendent. In other words, in my own work, I reflexively attend to everything that comes after “then and only then” in that paragraph and perhaps do a poor job of helping my students master everything that comes before it. Because while I still hold that meaning is unstable and contingent and that artists are not infallible, I have to get my students to a place where they can see that while there are multiple available interpretations for any given work of art, the number of interpretations is, in fact, limited. Otherwise, I get papers on why the Will Smith character in I Am Legend is a Christ figure based on a criteria so loose that it could apply to almost any protagonist in any narrative in Western literature. I also wind up getting papers that tend to read, say, sections of Paradise Lost as an object lesson or a sermon–no matter which character is speaking at any given time–rather than a Milton’s particular entry point into theological and political debates about the nature of freedom and its relationship to both divine and civil law.
Thus, at the moment, I am trying to summon up the good little Formalist in me and disciplining myself to ensure that my students understand, first and foremost, what the author means before moving on to any historicist or postmodernist critique, though this is the first class in six years where I’ve really felt the necessity of doing so. Either I’m becoming more aware, or I’ve just been dealt a class that is particularly in need of work at the level of reading comprehension. It’s probably a little of both.