Modern bestsellers: a lack of 18th-century leisure and 19th-century boredom

Before I started teaching, I never thought that a high school English teacher is, or should be, a reading teacher. But literary criticism really is reading instruction, and we English teachers distill literary criticism into decoctions for our students to drink with challenging texts. That’s why I’m so thankful for the New Critics, despite my qualms: Cleanth Brooks and Red Warren tried out and refined their theories in their college classrooms. Looking back on it, I think some of my best English professors saw themselves as something like remedial reading teachers.

Roland Barthes’s small, rewarding book The Pleasure of the Text, which I’m slowly working through, points out, I think, the chief reason reading must be taught, even in AP-level English courses and in college:

Now paradoxically (so strong is the belief that one need merely go fast in order not to be bored), this second, applied reading (in the real sense of the word “application”) is the one suited to the modern text, the limit-text. Read slowly, read all of a novel by Zola, and the book will drop from your hands; read fast, in snatches, some modern text, and it becomes opaque, inaccessible to your pleasure: you want something to happen and nothing does, for what happens to the language does not happen in the discourse: what “happens,” what “goes away” . . . occurs in the volume of the languages, in the uttering, not in the sequence of utterances: not to devour, to gobble, but to graze, to browse scrupulously, to rediscover — in order to read today’s writers — the leisure of bygone readings: to be aristocratic readers. [Pages 12 – 13, emphasis original]

Have Barthes’s “aristocratic readers” died off with Fielding’s and Sterne’s readers? The comparison between the best of modern fiction with (what I take to be) eighteenth-century novels suggests that reading instructors may find help from the Age of Enlightenment.

Despite New Criticism’s now-watered-down ascendency, we’re still trained principally to read for discovery and information, and our writers are expected to leave gleanings for modern-day Ruths to discover with little effort. Certain aspects of the plot-centered, unselfconscious ninteenth-century novel live on in a thousand bestsellers today. We’re skilled first-draft readers, and we’re frustrated by novels that promise a second reading’s reward partly by frustrating our first reading’s expectations.

Though Barthes loves the prototypical nineteenth-century classic, too:

Yet the most classical narrative (a novel by Zola or Balzac or Dickens or Tolstoy) bears within it a sort of diluted tmesis: we do not read everything with the same intensity of reading; a rhythm is established, casual, unconcerned with the integrity of the text; our very avidity for knowledge impels us to skim or to skip certain passages (anticipated as “boring”) in order to get more quickly to the warmer parts of the anecdote. . . . And yet, it is the very rhythm of what is read and what is not read that creates the pleasure of the great narratives: has anyone ever read Proust, Balzac, War and Peace, word for word? (Proust’s good fortune: from one read to the next, we never skip the same passages.) [Pages 10 – 11, emphasis original]

But it’s the lifelike pacing and the vast worlds these novels contain, including the concessions to boredom that any world will exact, that the modern bestselling fiction has not inherited from the Victorian Era’s novels. To me, most modern bestselling fiction rejects both the eighteenth-century novel’s emphasis on the utterance and the nineteenth-century novel’s emphasis on rhythm. But what Barthes terms “the modern text, the limit-text” recalls the eighteenth century novel’s self-conscious experimentation and play. To enjoy these modern texts, we must learn how to graze again.