Reading · Teaching

Reading for Character, Reading for Plot

Lettore READER Lettrice
“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.  Relax.  Concentrate. Dispel every other thought.  Let the world around you fade.  Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room” (3). When you sit down to read Calvino’s hypernovel, the narrator starts talking to you directly.  He addresses you, the Reader, in the second person, just like he’s talking to an old friend.  He draws you in, you–the Reader, by describing what can be seen as pretty generic descriptions of how people read. But just like when you read a horoscope or a Facebook quiz, the description is vague enough (and informed enough—he knows what readers do) that you can find enough truth in it and buy in to his game.
But he addresses you as Reader.  In English this is wonderfully vague.  It is gender-neutral and judgment-neutral. The latter matters because in this book about the acts of reading and writing, there are lots of kinds of readers and lots of kinds of writers, and there is certainly some judgment thrown around.  At the beginning, though, we don’t know what kind of reader you are; you are just a Reader.
In class I spend considerable time asking my English majors what kind of readers they are.  Do they read for plot mostly, to find out what happens?  Do they read to get to know the characters?  Some people won’t read a book unless they like or can identify with an important character.  Do they read for long, richly evocative descriptions, like Dickens’s three-page description of Mr. Tulkinghorn descending into his wine cellar for port?  Do they read to see their favorite kind of story retold anew?  What people look for in books varies, and the students sometimes form support groups for factions.
The self-described “plot whores” hang together and defend each other.  Story above all!  The “character-lovers” share each other’s outrage when film versions give lines to the wrong character or when adaptations make the characters do something contrary to their original character. “Hermione didn’t say that!  Ron said that in the book!”  We decide how we read in relation to Calvino’s characters, and deny others like Lotaria, the overly zealous critic whose acts of interpretation seem violent attacks on the book (at one point she puts novels through a word counter and only reads the list of frequent words to figure out what the book is about! Another time, she rips one chapter out of a book and says that’s all she needs to judge the book.)  All of this helps people figure out their own reading persona, and sometimes through reading this book, they even get a bead on their writing persona.
But this time when we talked about the Reader, the subject of identification with the Reader got a little more attention.  In English, “Reader” is gender-neutral. That means until “you” get in to the second chapter, “you” could be anyone, and it is only at that point where the Reader Calvino envisions identifies as a man, trying to meet an attractive woman, the Other Reader, that female readers have to adjust. (This confusion doesn’t exist in Italian, where the word “Lettore” indicates a man, and later on, a female “Lettrice” appears.) I have read this book a dozen times, and every time it’s a little letdown.  I enjoy the pages where it feels like he’s talking to me—really to me, not the character he’s asking me to be. And sometimes I slip in to my new role as male character with more grace than others. I’m used to it, after all. The default has been male for so long, and I’ve read so many books where the protagonist is male. And sometimes I’ve gone right ahead and identified with him, because I’m trained: females are asked to assume a male persona more regularly than the converse. Still, I’m often a little jarred when I reach the point where I can no longer pretend he’s talking directly to me.
It’s this point that stuck today, in this reading, after the Women’s Marches around the world.  The default is still male.  This book was written in a far more sexist time and culture than 21st century America, but the default is still male.  Gender is understood by more people now as a spectrum than a binary, though, and somehow it was this strict adherence to increasingly outdated gender assumptions that made it feel dated this time, rather than the story about the guy who runs from house to house, thinking all the landline phones along his jogging route are ringing for him.  We talked about how we read and what we looked for in books, and none of those groups of character-readers and plot-fiends were divided along gender lines.  This book keeps bringing up questions about how we read and why we write, and some of the answers are changing, but the most important ones are not.  We all know who we want to identify with—the readers of novels who really enjoy books, who use them as links to understanding other people, who throw stories like ropes across the void between souls, to make friends.  

2 thoughts on “Reading for Character, Reading for Plot

  1. I loved your poeticism at the end! It spoke to my heart. Understanding others and being understood can be transformative and impacting as we share and listen to stories, especially those of a personal nature. Thank you for gracefully touching upon so many topics, in particular that of gender representation in literature. I had a conversation with a friend earlier about how a beloved author of ethnic literature develops complex, male characters but gives very little attention to the female characters, and it broke my heart. It broke my heart because I know what it is like to not feel represented in art and it broke my heart for the way that it potentially made them feel because I know that so much of mainstream culture slants towards men.

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  2. Thanks so much, Fernando. I always appreciate your comments. These issues are important to me too, as you know. Representation matters. I don't blame Calvino, a squarely 20th century Italian, nor will it stop me from reading, loving, and recommending his books, but I do think it's important to think about as we move forward. Cheers!

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