reading while academic: or id, ego, superego


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.

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Comments 13 Responses

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  2. Brie

    I think there’s pleasure in both. You can have a very guttural reading experience where your emotions are fully engaged, while doing a more critical appraisal of what you’re reading. Just as we can discern enjoyable from quality and agree that we can like books that aren’t necessarily good.

    But I have to admit that reviewing and blogging changed the way I read books. I used to be an id reader, and now I think I’m more of what you call an ego reader. And I think that the reason why I changed, and found pleasure in reading more critically, was because I became a more social reader, meaning that now I don’t read the books alone, but actually discuss them with other people. Before blogging I didn’t talk about books with anyone, and now I spend half the day doing just that, so I’m not surprised that the way I read also changed. I guess what I’m trying to say is that maybe we have to learn how to be ego readers, whereas id reading is something we do instinctively.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I love this idea. I agree that social reading has completely changed how I read. In some ways interacting with/having access to authors lessens my pure “id” enjoyment of a book, but it adds to the overall enjoyment of being a reader within a reading community. (Actually, moreso of being a writer within a book community.)

  3. Ruthie

    I love this post! I also loved Anna’s id post because it clarified a number of things for me as a writer. This one clarifies a number of things for me as a reader.

    I was an English and history double major in college. In grad school, I entered a history program but took a number of English lit classes — until I stopped. Because more and more, trying to read from the id was stealing all the joy I found in literature.

    When I started writing romance, I feared that even the experience of writing — with the necessary self-critical eye — would ruin my joy as a reader. I worry about that less now, though it’s happening. I DNF more books than I used to, especially in my own subgenre.

    What it comes down to, I think, is that I want to read from the id and analyze afterward. I want that ego experience of utter immersion in the text (and it’s no coincidence that in grad classes, my favorite theory was reader response theory). But at the same time, I’m profoundly grateful that there *are* people who read like Liz, like Anna, like the crew at Dear Author. I’m profoundly grateful for the Twitter enclave of romance readers and writers who flip from “OMFG Darcy is hot” to “Did you notice the way Milan used class to amplify the conflict?” and suchlike. When I’m done having my emotional experience, there’s nothing like having these folks to pick it apart with. 🙂

    And thanks for the Ride with Me shoutout. Aw, shucks.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Being a writer does destroy the joy of reading to an extent – though I feel like we’ll never give up chasing that perfect reading high :-). Especially when I’ve had some interaction with writers, or read interviews with them etc., I find it hard not to imagine them writing. I think, “They must have been so happy with that line,” or I imagine them in that quiet-thinking-punctuated-by-furious-typing space. I imagine them thinking about their characters and struggling to make plot-points work. So I get less enjoyment as a reader, but learn a lot more as a writer.

      Earlier in the year I took a week off and read about 20 hours a day. It was pure unadulterated reading bliss, partly because I was on holiday from being a writer, and partly because I was reading outside my own sub-genre. Mostly the former though, I think.

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  5. Kaetrin

    I think I probably started my own blog because I had too many thoughts about the books I was reading and I wanted to share them. I’ve never thought of it in terms of id or ego but I find great pleasure in dissecting a much loved book and poring over the whys and hows. Part of the joy of reading romance for me these days is participating in the romance community – via blogs and especially on Twitter. Reading is no longer solitary, but shared and I love it.

    The books I love best though, are the ones where my reaction is purely emotional during the read and only afterwards am I thinking more critically. The ones where I’m thinking within the book too much, I find myself distanced from the action. The best books (for me) are ones where that critical stuff happens via osmosis and I only realise it later because I’m too caught up in the story to think about it.

  6. Mary Ann Vadnais

    Reading this amazing post and the commentary, I can’t stop thinking about how the book is a technology. It’s generally acknowledged that literacy has changed over time, and we have some formation of an idea that what was available to read shaped literacy (your local village marketer was not likely to bed down with a hand-illuminated manuscript at the end of the day). Social movements shaped how literacy was made accessible, but the value of that literacy to the public had a great deal to do with the increasingly accessible technology of the book–bound small to be handheld on ever more inexpensive paper.

    And that technology shaped, then, writing. Why not write a longer story focused on people one may actually know, if this small brick of cheap paper could be available to so many? I am rehashing what all you smart people know, but what I actually can’t stop thinking about is the logarithm applied to contemporary publishing, writing, and reading that mean the technology of the book is shaping literacy, writing, and accessibility to writing even as I type this. I’ve read a lot lately about how something like Twitter may actually be *necessary* to a writer and their readers, an extension of the available text. Whatever your received experience with a book in the moment, it seems more and more of us are ego readers by the very definition of what it is to be a contemporary reader, reading.

    Since I can remember, I have been a voracious, omnivorous, slutty, and dissembling reader. The first time I participated in a book discussion, about a book I had read, the whole fucking world made sense, finally. Writing, for me, was fantastically worse–the very best kind of pleasure-pain. The contemporary atmosphere for readers and writers, where every book and discussion happens at the same time–well, I’m just so glad to see this. There isn’t anything more pleasurable than reading a writer getting away with something, unless its talking about exactly how it was managed, and then of course there’s trying something hard, yourself, scribbling your way into dark corners.

    Thank you so much for this discussion, Anna and Liz. xo

  7. Mary Ann Vadnais

    Note: and by dissembling, I meant disassembling. Autocorrect obviously believes me to be all sneaky-like. Though I suppose I DO sneak reading (as all mothers have to do).

  8. Sunita

    Liz, I think you just explained the Kristen Ashley lovefest. Because that is clearly not about ego or super-ego, given the way her fans describe the experience.

    I can still read either way (id or not). I don’t write fiction, and maybe if I did I’d see it differently, but as a reader and reviewer I don’t separate the pleasure from the analysis. But then my id is more often sated by well-written novels with a strong emotional punch, rather than by purely emotionally or physically arousing ones. The former give me a deeper and longer-lasting pleasure, and if the latter are badly written I put them down because I can’t get into the book enough to forget the problems.

  9. Liz Mc2

    Thank you so much, everyone, for these great comments. It’s funny, I never was that interested in reader-response theory but now I am fascinated by how I and other people experience reading.

    Mary Ann, I have been thinking about the changing technology of the book. With the rise of e-publishing, the sudden attention to fanfic from mainstream publishers, the return to serialization, will we even have “novels”–which have been formally fairly static for 200 years or so–in the future, or some new form of fiction? For sure, we’ll always have stories. As Sunita alludes to, some at least of the books made possible and popular by these developments are very id-satisfying (in fact Anna talked about that in her original post).

    It occurred to me writing this that blogging is one of the more ego-driven things I’ve ever done–the idea that people who aren’t paying to sit in my classroom might be interested in what I had to say about books (well, some of my students aren’t interested!). I thought I might be talking to myself when I wrote this, and it’s so rewarding to find others connect to it in some way.

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