I can’t remember how exactly Liz McCausland and I came to be in touch, but she’s one of the people I most enjoy talking with on twitter. She also writes a fantastic blog, My Extensive Reading (“to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”). On its face it’s a review blog, but Liz talks more about how she reads than what she reads, which is what I love about it.
I was trying to pin down why exactly I knew I wanted Liz to write a post. Then I realised there’s something in the way she reads I recognise: She approaches reading with a cynical, critical attitude, while at the same time filled with this fierce, desperate desire to love what she reads. Like she wants to applaud this genre she loves, but is unflinchingly honest about what she sees.
Thinking about Anna’s wonderful post on “id writing,” I realized that most of the books I’d put on the top of my personal Greatest Books Ever list are “super-ego” books.
Take Jane Austen, for instance. She’s deeply suspicious of the impulses of the id. Her characters are punished for impulsive, id-driven acts, whether it’s Emma’s verbal aggression towards Miss Bates at Box Hill or Lydia’s elopement with Wickham. Id-driven men, however initially appealing, are not heroes but the men her heroines learn to reject. There are emotional gut-punches in her books, but perhaps their strongest emotions are shame and mortification, the penalties of transgressing the Law.
Mystery, my first genre fiction love, is a super-ego genre: outbreaks of murderous aggression are safely re-contained within the Law, evil-doers brought to justice. Romance, which I discovered more recently, I think of as an “ego” genre: while the disruptive desires of hero and heroine are safely contained within marriage (at least in the traditional version), readers are assured that in the happy-ever-after the lovers will go on indulging them. Like the ego, romance mediates between the demands of id (lust) and super-ego (Law), offering the promise that both can be satisfied; in the happy ending that reconciles these conflicting demands, readers too find satisfaction.
When Anna asked if I wanted to write a post about the connection between literary criticism and romance, I thought of this id/ego/super-ego paradigm, because one of the questions she asked was “Can we just not help reading critically, even when it’s such pleasure reading?” There’s an implicit opposition in this question between academic reading and pleasure.
Many people firmly believe critical reading and pleasure reading are opposed (though Anna is clearly not one of them). They talk about how studying a book in English class ruined it for them or say others are reading too much into a book or taking it too seriously. For these readers, critical reading is super-ego reading, reading according to rules, reading where you can get it wrong and be shamed for your errors, reading that inhibits emotional pleasure.
I used to believe that these people just had bad English teachers, but now I recognize that readers simply have different tastes in pleasure. When I want an “id” experience, an unthinking emotional reaction, I turn to music. When I read, even when I’m reading for pleasure, I want pleasures of the head as well as those of the heart and the gut. I enjoy thinking about how a book works, about the choice of language, the use of tropes, the way the story is structured. But not everyone does.
And that’s why I can only answer Anna’s question, “Can we just not help reading critically?” for myself. My answer is no. Whether because of temperament or professional training, I analyze, ask questions, make mental notes as I read. This has its costs: for example, the Law in engrained enough in me that I can’t see past mechanical errors and sloppy sentence structure; there are some books others love for the pure emotional impact that I can’t enjoy. But my way of reading has rewards, too, those lightbulb moments when I think, “I see what you did there, author!” Reflective reading has its own emotional highs.
The best romances allow me to be an “ego reader.” They combine literally visceral thrills (the swoon, the suffering, the heat of love) with writing that repays careful attention. Some recent favorite “ego” books are Ruthie Knox’s Ride With Me and Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened.
In the online romance community, I’ve found a world of “ego reading.” It’s a place where scholars and fans come together to talk about books—and where the scholar and the fan can come together in one person. The conversations are smart, informed, and impassioned. They move from “OMG that hero is so hot, swoon” to “I thought the author reversed gender roles to interesting effect” in a heartbeat.
I think these conversations have made me a better academic. Part of my job is to help my students move from personal, emotional responses to their assigned reading to more critical ones. I can do that better if I model it for them. Maybe “Mrs. Bennet is a crazy bitch” or “Darcy is so hot” can’t be the thesis for your paper, but it’s a place to start.
As a fledgling scholar, I was very much a super-ego reader: determined to follow the Law, prove I was good enough, please my teachers. As a newly minted college instructor, I tended to focus on teaching students the Laws of academic reading and writing. But readers and writers who are too rule-bound, afraid to take risks or be wrong, can’t achieve real insight. So I try to mediate my legalistic super-ego impulses and ensure there’s space for emotional engagement and gut responses—my own and my students’—in my classroom.
I hope my classroom is a place for ego reading, a place where my students and I can experience all the pleasures books have to offer, both the emotional gut-punch of an instinct explored and the intellectual thrill of critical attention to language, structure, and themes. It’s in the space where those two come together that the deepest insights into books emerge. And this is the way I read romance. It’s the only way I can.
Note: every comment puts your hat in the name for an accidental housewife e-reader cover!