The relationship (or lack thereof?) between critically engaged reading and emotionally immersed reading, between thinking and feeling, is a topic I’ve been circling back to in one way or another as long as I’ve been blogging. This particular post stewed so long while I was busy with end of term grading that I’m no longer sure what I wanted to say or why I thought it was important. But I also can’t quite set it aside. So here are some bullet points. They’re meant as discussion starters, not as a polemic. I think. I hope.
What Started Me Thinking About This Post:
- Pamela’s post on “Overthinking and Balance,” in which she asks, “can I love what I read and surrender to the reading experience, and still think and write critically about it?”
- Sunita’s post on “Fetish Reading and Genre Reading,” which I think is considering–perhaps only implicitly–what happens to the genre when a lot of our conversations about it focus on reading primarily to satisfy particular emotional desires (including, but not only, sexual ones).
- A tweet I saw saying that “literary fiction requires us to detach emotionally, unlike romance/popular fiction” (not an exact quote, and I’m not citing the source because it’s a tweet from a conference, so I don’t have the context for it. I don’t want to call out any particular person, because it’s a sentiment I see a lot around Romanceland).
Thoughts, Questions, Responses:
- To that last idea, I say “bullshit.” The book scene that moved me most lately was from Catherine O’Flynn’s Mr. Lynch’s Holiday, where Eamonn takes his elderly father’s hand and presses it to his cheek. And it worked because by that point I understood these two men, and the distance between them, how they loved each other but couldn’t easily express it. (I will say that in the classroom we are required, to some extent, to detach emotionally, and that’s where a lot of people have encountered and been turned off literary fiction).
- I have just finished listening to George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a novel I love and that I (rightly) think of as highly intellectual. But it also ends with a series of emotionally-charged encounters between various pairs of characters, scenes to which Juliet Stevenson’s narration did full justice. Eliot’s novel is often think-y about feeling, but it’s also often emotional.
- Why are we so quick to separate thinking and feeling, anyway? Here again, I think of Middlemarch. Eliot writes about how Dorothea learns “to conceive, with that distinctness which is no longer reflection but feeling–an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects–that [her husband] had an equivalent centre of self.” This is a pretty dense sentence that requires some unpacking (thinking/detachment) to understand. But it’s also one to which I have an emotional response: Yes! I’ve felt that! That moment when someone else’s subjectivity is not just an abstraction but a reality you know and feel in your gut (um, yeah, what Eliot said much better). Reading and thinking about that sentence, I remember and feel over again the moments when I’ve had that emotional experience. This connection between thinking and feeling is something Eliot comes back to several times in the novel.
- What do we mean by “feeling” anyway? I’m not sure what a feeling is, I’ve been thinking about this so long. I need a dictionary. Do we only count as “feels” what we feel in our bodies as well as in our hearts or minds, or wherever feelings live? Only things that give us a clench in the stomach or the chest, that make us cry, or breathe faster, or arouse us sexually (my least favorite phrase, “underpants feels”)? Because when I’m working on a paper, or a blog post, or just thinking about a book and I suddenly have an insight, make a connection, solve a problem, find an interpretive claim–I don’t know what to call the result of that thinking except a feeling of joy. I am not emotionally engaged with the text in the same exact way as when a scene roils my chest, but I’m still emotionally engaged.
- Following on from that: I realize that my own temperament and training lead me to value thinking over feeling. My participation in Romanceland has helped me work against those prejudices and assumptions. And I don’t want to denigrate reading for enjoyment, for pleasurable feelings, for arousal, or to satisfy a particular kind of sexual or emotional kink. I’ve done all those things. But I do think conversations among both writers and readers tend to focus on a fairly narrow range of feelings as the ones we read romance for–not only sexual ones, but certainly that’s part of it. And I wonder if that focus on certain elements begins to narrow the range of what books try to do, which is a shame. (I don’t know what I’d suggest should be done about this. I wouldn’t want to impose rules on other people’s conversations even if I could).
- My biggest realization is that all of this is part of why I haven’t been enjoying romance much lately. I am actively resisting allowing a book to make me feel something, because I’m sick of “feels.” I sort of feel like every book is just out to push a few emotional buttons, not bothering to earn it with full characterization and a richly-drawn world. I said to a friend that sometimes I feel like I’m reading about a pair of sex dolls in a vacuum. I know that this is over-reaction on my part, exaggeration. But recognizing that it’s an over-reaction to something specific has helped.