Monday, December 15, 2008

Reader (Etc.) Response Theory

One of the formative experiences of my youth was getting into an argument with other people at my high school summer camp over George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss. Everyone else argued that Maggie Tulliver was a very sympathetic character; I protested that I found Eliot as a writer to be very manipulative (a point on which I haven't changed my mind; I had the same reaction to Adam Bede 8.5 years later) and that her attempts to gin up sympathy for Maggie made me inclined to rebel. My memory, though it may be somewhat distorted, is that even the professors running the class were kind of aghast that I was unable to just "enjoy the novel" without analyzing it; sure, later on, after finishing the book, it was a good and respectable thing to consider what the author had apparently been trying to do, but when you were just reading the book for the first time, in order to get as much pleasure out of it as possible, you should ignore that kind of thing and just react, without having these bizarre meta-reactions.

Well, later on I came across this attitude as the anti-English department attitude - people should just enjoy books, all of that analysis just gets in the way. I'm unable to buy it, just because I can't imagine turning off that analytical part of my brain. I'm not trying to claim that, on my first reading of a book, I ever do an in-depth, sophisticated reading of it that remains my stable critical attitude towards the book. But, let's face it. My reaction to narrative is inherently an active one; I can't even imagine what it would mean to passively absorb a story. Reader response theory appeals to me to the degree that it assumes that the reader is always playing a role in creating the story, because that's very true to my experience. I'll finish a book and just KNOW things about the characters that the author never bothered to say. And, furthermore, I'll also always come out of a story with a double sense. Ignoring the authorial intent issue for now, let's just say that I come out of a story with two reactions - on the one hand, how did I feel about the characters, plot resolution, setting, etc., and, on the other hand, what would a sympathetic reading of the story have to say about the characters, plot resolution, setting, etc. Sometimes, to be sure, those two reactions are more or less synonymous - but even then I'm consciously aware of the synonymy!

As with Maggie Tolliver, these perceptions quite frequently focus on characters. Sometimes I'll find myself disliking a character that I feel the story itself wants me to like. And sometimes I'll find myself adoring a character where that adoration doesn't feel sanctioned by the story. The latter situation happens to me a lot with Dave Duncan books. Most recently, I read his novel Demon Sword (published under the pseudonym Ken Hood). The hero of the novel is a young guy named Toby, and there's a significant secondary character named Rory. Throughout the novel, Toby has a very vexed relationship with Rory. Rory often treats him badly, and Toby dislikes Rory on first site (later, it's suggested that he subconsciously realized that Rory was a romantic rival for the female lead when they first met). On the other hand, Toby also recognizes many good qualities in Rory and occasionally has moments of showing great respect for him. One assumes we're supposed to root for Toby, based on the fact that he's the hero of the book, makes mistakes but often triumphs, shows a consistent and at least somewhat laudable morality, and, in the climatic moment of what seems to be a fairly light book, triumphs. Thus, Rory is presented ambiguously throughout. Finally, in his last few appearances, it's revealed that, despite his many positive characteristics, he really is a fundamentally lousy guy; he's willing to leave Toby to his death in order to get money and the girl. The structure of the story makes me assume that the reader is being led to repudiate Rory, just as Toby's loyal supporter Haimish ultimately does. And yet I found myself unable to do so. I'm strongly inclined to forgive Rory for his admittedly horrible behavior towards Toby, because I just found him more likable throughout the entire book than I found Toby. So, even though the structure of the narrative made the hero quite obvious, as a reader, I had to ignore that and pick my own, somewhat more flawed, hero.

Actually, despite my divergence from the planned narrative, my reaction to Demon Sword was very positive; I enjoyed the book and didn't really feel bothered that I differed from the narrative's perspective! My reaction to Final Fantasy VII in this regard is more problematic, however. At least Rory is legitimately ambiguous throughout the book. But with FFVII, up until the end of the game, I was convinced that the narrative was setting up redemption for Sephiroth. He did some pretty bad things, to be sure. But the game seemed to stress that he had been lied to all his life, had been manipulated, had never really had any chance to understand goodness. At one point, the protagonist, Cloud, comes to the conclusion that all his life he had taken physical strength as the only means to gain respect and that he's now realized the problems with that attitude; since he specifically considered Sephiroth to be a model of physical strength, I really believed that this scene was set up for the end of the game, when they would reveal Sephiroth's strength to be just as much of a pose, hiding the abused, unloved boy within. I played the game with my brother, and when he told me that we were up to the final dungeon, I didn't even believe that was possible, since the whole part of the game that came after Sephiroth's redemption was yet to come.

Well, Sephiroth, rather famously, was never redeemed. And that struck me as very different from Rory's situation. In Rory's situation, although I liked him a lot more than the narrative seemed to, his ambiguity throughout the book seemed to justify both the narrative's negative end to his story and my own more positive stance. But, in FFVII, I never felt that the narrative was ambiguous. I was expecting the narrative to agree with me. And it was a real shock and disappointment to find that the narrative really didn't.

On the other hand, those stories where the narrative and my own perceptions seem to be in sync can be really powerful. This is probably at the heart of my deep, abiding love for Please Save My Earth - there, the story has some very ambiguous characters whom I love. The suspense of the narrative for me comes from the way it often seems to skirt the edge of throwing off them off the cliff - in reading it, I can't help but feel nervous - what if the narrative ultimately presents Shion or Rin as ultimately evil? But, in fact, the narrative always comes right back and reasserts that my positive understanding of the characters is right! It's a very empowering story for me to read; I love the delicate dance between the possibility that my interpretations ultimately won't be justified and the constant clues the story provides that they will be.

I'm thinking about this in the throes of anticipation for Lost - which I really am very excited about ;-). I feel like my perception of Sawyer might be like my perception of Shion or Rin - an ambiguous character, whom the story often seems to risk presenting as fundamentally problematic, but one in whom my deep faith will probably be justified in the end. And Ben Linus is another case entirely - an ambiguous character whom I find enjoyable to watch as a mostly bad guy, with a few good sides; I'm not on Ben's side, but I enjoy watching him and continuing to not be on his side. I hope the narrative doesn't end up justifying all his actions, but I find him fun to watch nonetheless. But Kate is more of a problem for me; she's an ambiguous character who the story seems to think is more justified than I do. The key difference between Sawyer and Kate is that Sawyer doesn't think he is a good person for having committed horrible acts; he does some pretty bad things, but he doesn't like himself for them and doesn't really expect anyone else to like him, either, because he doesn't think he deserves it. The narrative in that sense helps to exonerate him; it suggests he has at least the possibility of some day making up for his errors. And I'm in line with the narrative. But Kate is presented as a heroine, someone whom, while we're supposed to doubt her, we're also supposed to root for. However, she never shows the same kind of self-doubt or remorse as Sawyer; she expects other people to like and respect her despite the horrible things that she's done. The narrative seems to think that it's exonerated her, at least to the same extent that it's exonerated Sawyer, but I can't go along with it. That's the main reason why her character really gets on my nerves.

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