Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Are Aesthetic Properties Mostly Irrelevant to Reading Novels?

Peter Kivy argues that they are in his book Once-Told Tales:  An Essay on Literary Aesthetics.  A typical kind of claim he makes is "the structure of novels can be and sometimes is the bearer of aesthetic properties. the normal experience of novel-reading, whatever aesthetic properties novelistic structure may possess are seldom the direct object of the normal reader's aesthetic attention.  Furthermore, whatever influence they may have is in the background, although in certain circumstances, to be sure, they can be foregrounded by a certain kind of reader."  (73)  I continue to find this wildly implausible, and am currently just trying to figure out why he would believe such a thing.  There is no question that Kivy is an immensely sophisticated listener to music.  He is perhaps the foremost musical aesthetician of our time.  In line with this, he notes that it a common experience for him to listen to music for its underlying structure.   Perhaps he thinks that in comparison to his experiences of music his experiences of reading novels is aesthetically thin.   (This would go the other way for me:  I find it extremely difficult to listen to music in the way Kivy does and can only admire him for his accomplishment there.  On the other hand, I seem to have less trouble than he does in reading novels aesthetically.) The title of his book tells us a lot:  he avers that normal reading of novels is one-time only, that people usually read novels for the story, and so reading any of a novel for a second time is a waste of time unless one has forgotten the way the story goes.  He admits that some people do this, but only certain specialists, perhaps teachers or critics.  It strikes me that Kivy is keen on comparing extremely sophisticated music listening (the type he engages in) with very unsophisticated novel-reading, and then discovering that the later comes up short when it comes to aesthetic experience.  This just seems unfair to the novel.

A big feature in Kivy's distinction between listening to what he calls "absolute music" (music without words) and reading a novel is that we treat gaps in the experience differently.  In reading the novel, gaps are important (on his view) since during this time we think about the content of the novel. By contrast, he believes there is no content to absolute music, and so there is no possible enrichment in the gap.  Now what does one do during the gap:  one does something like philosophy, i.e. one ponders the truth (he claims) of certain theses put forth by the author.  This just does not seem right to me.  Pondering theses is something that can happen, but I doubt that considering whether or not certain sentences are true or false is an important part of the experience of a literary work, or if important, it is not necessary.  It is true that in reading mystery novels we often ponder whether the sentence "The butler did it" is true or false.  So, I suppose it is important in this way.   Nor do I deny that reading novels can lead us to philosophical contemplation.  But I think that something richer and deeper goes on in reading and contemplating literary works, something very much unlike doing philosophy. 

Another aspect of my reading experience that does not seem to fit with Kivy's way of talking is that I do in fact attend to the writing style of the writers I read, savoring some styles and finding others distasteful.  Isn't the prominence of good careful, well-honed style what distinguishes good literature from the cheap popular novel?  It seems that Kivy wants to reduce the reading experience to the reading of the cheap novel.   To be sure, Kivy tries to avoid this, saying that the first and only reading of a literary novel "will provide greater readerly satisfaction than the first and only reading of a run-of-the-mill whodunit, at least to the reader qualified to appreciate its superior qualities” (p. 7)  But if he grants this, what happens to his main thesis that aesthetics plays little role in reading novels?

Is it even true that in reading novels, we do not go back and reread parts?  Not in my experience.  I do not consider myself a particularly sophisticated reader.  However, I do belong to a book group.  Before I go into the group I often reread certain passages, as I do sometimes during the meeting (when I disagree with the interpretation of another member, or am just puzzled about something) and then later I will sometimes go over parts of the book, for example by way of reading commentaries on it and then checking or rereading certain passages.  It seems to me that this is all part of reading a novel.  Moreover, at the beginning of our group sessions, someone will retell the story or plot of the novel, and I do listen attentively.  On Kivy's view, this would be a mistake.  He quotes with approval a Homeric poet who asks what could be more tedious than to hear the same tale twice.  (145)  But actually it is not tedious at all. 

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