Friday, December 18, 2009

The reader as a character

In the 54th volume of "Fiction" magazine that I bought this summer in NYC and have just finished reading, there's an excerpt from a 1981 interview with Max Frisch. Mark Jay Mirsky, an editor of "Fiction" and a professor of English at City College of New York, invited Frisch, a renowned Swiss novelist and one whom I greatly admire , to give a series of lectures and Q&A sessions with the students of the department. (In his introduction to the interview, Mirsky mentions that, apparently, Frisch and his wife Marianne helped start "Fiction" and Marianne is still its European Editor).

The interview is fascinating -- if hard to read because Frisch's English was not very straightforward -- especially where Frisch touches upon narrative theory. At one point, he's asked to elaborate his previous statement that he "invents a reader." Here's his answer (I'm heavily editing for clarity):

I would say it's not that I'm inventing a portrait of the reader, or even the age of the reader, . . . I am thinking, very vaguely, of somebody of my cultural background. I am not thinking of a Japanese or a Latin American person because I don't know [them]. So that's the first choice. . . . If you're writing for somebody, who you are afraid of, or who you want to show how bright you are, or whom you consider an idiot so that you have to teach him, this makes your style. I said last time that Tolstoy, for instance, treats me as a partner. Other writers, very good ones, treat me as a reader. If I am intelligent enough to understand them well [and good], if not it doesn't matter. They are not partners you know. That's the invention. But you shouldn't think I have a special person in mind. But [you] might also ask if it is mostly a male reader or a female reader? And I would have to think about that; I think sometimes I'm thinking of female readers, because I know I don't understand them.
First, Frisch starts out talking about the implied reader he addresses in his novels: a person roughly of his own age and cultural background. Second, he analyzes texts of other writers (Tolstoy specifically) and the way Frisch himself negotiates his position as a real reader vis-a-vis the implied reader of these texts. Perhaps what he's saying is that reading Tolstoy, he's participating in the process as an authorial reader -- and somehow Tolstoy is encouraging an authorial reading of his work. And, third, coming back to the notion of the implied reader Frisch himself envisions when he writes, he's not sure whether or not it's a male or a female reader.

I'm not making very much progress with Peter Rabinowitz's text, Before Reading -- I am approaching it as a dictionary to find concise definitions of terms, and this is not a good way to work with a theoretical text. But I'm starting to understand something. Rabinowitz introduces the notion of authorial audience:

An author has, in most cases, no firm knowledge of the actual readers who will pick up his or her book. Yet he or she cannot begin to fill up a blank page without making assumptions about the readers' beliefs, knowledge, and familiarity with conventions. As a result, authors are forced to guess; they design their books rhetorically for some more or less specific hypothetical audience, which I call the authorial audience. (21)
An authorial reading is the kind of reading where a reader attempts to align herself with the point of view of this authorial audience.

The authorial audience's knowledge and beliefs may even be extracommunal—that is, not shared by any community (and we all belong to several) of which the actual reader is a member at the historical moment of reading (what current community shares the belief in Zeus characteristic of the authorial audience of the Odyssey?). But these authorial audiences, whatever their distance from actual readers, certainly have their own engagements and prejudices. To join the authorial audience, then, you should not ask what a pure reading of a given text would be. Rather, you need to ask what sort of corrupted reader this particular author wrote for: what were that reader's beliefs, engagements, commitments, prejudices, and stampedings of pity and terror? (26)
All this quoting means I'm still very confused. But it's good to know who specifically Frisch was thinking in terms of his "authorial" audience. Not the Japanese or Latin Americans, but bourgeois and university-educated, perhaps, with special interest in Marxism, probably with first hand experience in the WWII, and maybe women. Or maybe not.

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