Reading Bad

Bruce Robbins reads Merve Emre's "Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America."

Reading Bad

Paraliterary by Merve Emre. 304 pages.

IN A DISCUSSION of the TV show Breaking Bad, the critic Emily Nussbaum once pointed out that the character Todd — who saw the show’s protagonist Walter White “purely as a kick-ass genius, worthy of worship” — omitted in his account of the train robbery caper in the desert one minor detail: the kid he’d shot. Todd, Nussbaum argued, exemplifies the Bad Fan. Bad Fans love watching, and that’s good, but there is a problem with their watching that is both aesthetic and moral: “if you ignore the dead kids, son, you are watching ‘Breaking Bad’ wrong.” “Some fans,” she concludes, “are watching wrong.”

When is the last time you heard someone say outright that someone else is watching wrong? These days, to call out wrongness or falseness or badness is to risk being accused of condescension. The desire to make such accusations is taken as a mark of unacknowledged privilege. It’s understood as likely to hurt someone’s feelings. People prefer to play it safe. They hesitate to make such critical judgments.

There are of course reasons for this hesitation, some more legitimate than others. The loopiest reason is the one that (in the academy, at least) seems to have started this Great Reticence: misplaced charity in matters of religious belief. The editors of the recent volume Critique and Postcritique assert that “critique is poorly equipped to engage seriously with spiritual beliefs, sacramental practices, and attachments to the sacred that remain central to the lives of countless individuals, especially in the global South.” This is characteristically mealy mouthed. I would translate “is poorly equipped to engage” as a heavily camouflaged imperative: hands off sacraments and beliefs! After all, many who practice sacraments or hold beliefs are less privileged than you are (you’re a well-educated academic; they live in the Global South). The well-equipped post-critical scholar should regard those sincerely held beliefs as incorrigible, or even as positive forces, whatever damage those spiritual beliefs do, whatever errors they perpetuate. And since bad readers are really just another kind of believer, whose unschooled attachments to bad habits of reading are sincerely and deeply felt, scholars should afford such readers more respect, whether or not those readers — metaphorically or literally — like Todd ignore the dead kid.

Now often associated with the name of Bruno Latour — whose critique of science once looked like a variation of postmodernism, but today looks like a backhanded defense of religion — arguments of this sort first got their religious inflection from a much-cited 2004 essay called “Uncritical Reading” by Michael Warner. Warner ridicules the official consensus in favor of reading critically by listing the supposed sins of uncritical reading: “identification, self-forgetfulness, reverie, sentimentality, enthusiasm, literalism, aversion, distraction.” He also lists the academic establishment’s 11 commandments: “Don’t read like children, like vacation readers on the beach, like escapists, like fundamentalists, like nationalists, like antiquarians, like consumers, like ideologues, like sexists, like tourists, like yourselves.” As the essay draws to a close, the other items drop out of this list and “yourselves” resolves into one item: “fundamentalists.” The essay’s prize exhibit is Mary Rowlandson, a pious captive of Indians in 17th-century New England. Rowlandson opens her Bible at random. Her eyes fall on a passage. She finds in that passage a personal message to her from God.

“The chance opening of the pages,” Warner comments, “helps to ensure that [Rowlandson’s] reading will not be an expression of her agency.” I read this essay some years ago, and I’m still trying to imagine what literature classrooms would look like if instructors were to take their cue, as Warner seems to advocate, from Rowlandson’s agency-free habits of reading scripture. What about grading? When students submit papers on their reports from the beyond, should teachers exercise their agency, or should they await transcendental coaching on whether to award a C-plus or an A-minus?

Another, more compelling reason for not immediately hitting the “wrong” button is gender. Women are much more likely to be accused of reading badly than men, and their experience (unlike religious belief) has never been granted its fair share of interpretive authority. Since Janice Radway’s pioneering 1984 study of the readers of bodice-ripper romance, there has been increasing awareness that those who accuse women rather than listening to them will be depriving themselves of a chance to learn something new and useful. Another landmark was Naomi Schor’s Bad Objects in 1995. Little by little, a tradition has emerged of what Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz call (in their 2006 book Bad Modernisms) “virtuous badness.” Recalling “the predominantly female audiences for genres legible as ‘bad,’” they assert that there has been aesthetic accomplishment in styles of dress, popular fiction, and advertising campaigns — areas of culture that normally get no respect. For this tradition, the expectation is that bad readers will eventually be found to be good readers after all.

Merve Emre’s book sounds like it belongs in this tradition. As its subtitle announces, Paraliterary is about bad readers. Its definition of the bad reader echoes Warner’s: “By bad readers, I mean individuals socialized into the practice of readerly identification, emotion, action, and interaction.” It is appropriately conscious that throughout the 20th century, a disproportionate number of readers labeled bad were female. Its chapters deal respectively with reading that is imitative, emotional, faddish, informative, bureaucratic, and revolutionary; by the end of this list, Emre has arrived at a term her readers are likely to see as good, not bad. By the end of the introduction, she herself has backed off from bad reading to “what looks like” bad reading (my italics). And yet finding hidden virtues in bad readers is not, I think, the book’s game plan. Its intellectual moves (which are many, subtle, and a pleasure to follow) are harder to categorize.

At a lecture at Bryn Mawr in 1905, Henry James is alleged to have told his audience, “What you young ladies should do is imitate! Don’t be afraid to imitate!” The truth of the matter is of course that the young women listening to him were afraid not to imitate. Brought up to feel that their gender was in need of perpetual self-improvement, they were already primed to try to talk like characters in a book, especially a book by Henry James. And when they went to Europe, as James advised, self-improvement is what they were thinking about. But Emre’s point is not that we should therefore cut them some slack, even when they come back from Europe and write very un-Jamesian books — “women’s conduct fictions: peppy and moralizing tales about travel, style, and romance whose purpose was imitation and imitation alone, not aesthetic distinction.” Yes, “female readers often produced discourses about literary texts closer to what we might call critical interpretation than more explicitly ‘literary’ approaches to reading in the early twentieth century.” The professional critics often demanded to know what the devil this or that sentence meant, the assumption being that James was being deliberately and inexcusably incomprehensible. To imitate amateurishly was at least to try to wring some meaning out of those sentences.

But Emre’s point is not to redeem these female imitators any more than it is (as it might have been) to propose that they were basically status seekers. When she notes that Esquire lampooned “innocent” Smith girls on their junior year abroad who “felt no sense of liberal political responsibility but aspired only to lure hapless French and Italian men into casual trysts to help them bolster their language skills,” her point is not that the men were not really hapless or that the girls were really innocent or even how weird it is that the country seemed to feel that the Smith girls were carriers of “political responsibility” — that they were understood to be representing their nation, and thus hindering or furthering the (questionable) goals of US foreign policy. What she wants to argue, as I understand her, is that they were opening up channels through which discourse could flow, an achievement she presents as important in its own right — more important than the readings, good, bad, or indifferent, that passed through them.

Emre’s favored term for this achievement (or meta-achievement, since it deals with the pre-conditions of achievements to come) is institutions. Among the institutions in which she discovers and examines bad reading are the “ladies’ culture clubs,” which organized James’s American lecture tour, and about which James was gently sardonic (though he seems to have had no objection to the fees collected). Some are institutions you would not think of as involving reading at all, like the Junior Year Abroad, which was invented in the wake of World War I, largely as a site for female cultural improvement. Others, fascinatingly eccentric, include the Peace Corps, Fulbright fellowships, American Express travelers’ checks, and the glossy photographs of National Geographic magazine. All of these are shown to have some relation to literature in its high, aesthetic, or “good” sense, if only because they made up the material environment in which writers like James Baldwin, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Mary McCarthy, and Erica Jong lived the ordinary, non-writerly sides of their lives. Other than Whitman and Melville as interpreted by F. O. Matthiessen, blazing a trail for American Studies departments abroad by identifying great literature with love, it’s not obvious that she finds any of the literature discussed here overwhelmingly worth reading. What Emre focuses on is how particular institutions facilitated particular forms of communication.

After all, why are we so leery of institutions? Why are we fine with exploring parts unknown, say, until the experience of the larger world gets embodied in organized tours, groups, and American Express offices, at which point it seems fit for nothing but mockery? Emre prefers big magazines to the more fashionable little ones, and when she talks about mass-circulation glossies, she offers a gloss on the (literal) gloss. Yes, it’s an illusion that photographs offer unmediated, face-to-face experience of the faraway, but they come to us mediated, and we need be no more fearful of photographs than of any other experience of armchair cosmopolitanism, including the greatest of the great books.

The main polemical framework here is against “good” readings that are aesthetic in the sense of being pure — standing apart from or above life’s usual profane interests, motives, and consequences, and thus offering themselves as a sort of secularized religion. The bad reading for which Emre wants to make the corresponding case is reading that, because it happens in institutions, is consequential, a force in the world, if also inescapably tainted by that world, hence impure. Those who insist on thinking of themselves as pure are gently mocked. Emre tells the story of writers who, contacted by or on behalf of the government, suddenly discovered a defiant new identity for themselves: whatever else they were, they were proudly not bureaucrats. The high dudgeon of Saul Bellow, called upon by William Faulkner to participate in the Eisenhower-era program of international outreach called the People-to-People Initiative, shows us Emre at her most entertaining. How could any bureaucratic institution, Bellow grandly and indignantly intimated, possibly find an appropriate outlet for the dark swirling abyss of a creativity like mine? The program failed, and yet Bellow’s creativity was in fact harnessed and institutionalized. Henderson the Rain King (1959), the Africa novel Bellow was writing when summoned to Washington, inspired Kennedy’s establishing of the Peace Corps in 1960 and was then distributed to Peace Corps volunteers in their book lockers.

But there is also a polemic that aims in another direction. As opposed to reading practices today that offer themselves up as “political,” Emre wants to stake out a zone of greater neutrality, one that is less instinctively committed to naming rights and wrongs. The achievement she brings into relief and for which she quietly applauds or at least credits her authors is merely opening up channels of communication, whatever the messages that channel will then convey. Her true subject is political infrastructure. She generally speaks of institutions, but the argument is strongest not for institutions in general but for those specific institutions that work across national borders, where it can be assumed that channels of communication did not already exist.

These anti-anti-institutional polemics in no way interfere with Emre’s wildly interesting observations on the biographies of her chosen writers, most of them in the period after World War II, and in particular on the forgotten, institutional sides of their lives and writings. She discusses the literary use to which Sylvia Plath put her Fulbright scholarship (Plath arranged to have a set of fashion pictures taken of herself, and published, and in a story “left her mark” by biting a male poet’s cheek), followed by the more direct uses to which Ben Lerner put his Fulbright. She discusses the meaning of traveler’s checks for William S. Burroughs, who “describes in a letter to Allen Ginsberg how the male prostitutes he frequented in Peru would steal traveler’s checks from him but not know how to forge his signature to access his funds. ‘Rolled for $200 in traveller’s [sic] checks. No loss really as American Express refunds,’ he wrote after one wild night, with relief and a touch of glee.” In a kind of mimesis of her subject matter, she bravely approaches within hailing distance of the language of advertising itself. When she talks about what the American Express office meant to James Baldwin or Erica Jong, an oasis of stability amid willed foreign estrangement, one can almost imagine American Express making her a handsome offer for an excerpt. Ditto for National Geographic, and this even when she describes the famous stay-at-home Flannery O’Connor preferring to sniff copies of the magazine rather than look at the pictures, or the satirical novel Operation Bughouse, written by an editor of National Geographic who also happened to be an agent of the OSS, predecessor of the CIA.

In other hands, the intimate relationship that Emre lays out between National Geographic and US military intelligence (which subsidized the magazine, its journalistic cover allowing agents access to sensitive regions) would no doubt have received harsher treatment. But Emre is no more interested in making obvious points about political complicity than she is in claiming that the intersections between writers and institutions generated (or blocked) writing of enduring aesthetic value. The institution-builders who talked to donors, raised funds, and made the Junior Year Abroad a reality, hoping thereby to improve the nation's cultural level and worldwide prestige, were not so much bad readers as bad writers. In researching Paraliterary, Emre must have spent more hours than she liked holding her nose at the cheerleader-ish rah-rah-rah of their sentences. But she permits herself a bare minimum of snark. The work, she implies, was in both cases well worth doing. Why? Because uncool as they may seem, institutions matter. The moral seems to be that if literary studies want to stay relevant to a society in which high literature has become a minority taste, they will have to focus on communication, instrumental as well as symbolic. It’s the assumption that sponsored the rise of Cultural Studies in the same postwar period that most interests her. Perhaps her book is a sign that Cultural Studies is staging a comeback.

How much communication actually happened as a result of the channels opened up in these years? Emre’s best example of the paraliterary is also the least international. It’s the way African-American novelist John A. Williams took a conspiracy he himself had invented for his 1967 novel The Man Who Cried I Am and circulated it separately, first as a pamphlet left in New York City subway cars, then in other places as well. He did this not in order to sell copies but in order to encourage African-American readers to believe that the conspiracy known as “King Alfred” — a conspiracy to exterminate the country’s black population — was real and to rise up in a Watts-like rebellion. Emre argues that the conspiracy was real — not as a specific unified plan, but as a collection of policies realizing the aim of continued racial injustice. From the point of view of African Americans, then, paranoia cannot be dismissed as exaggeration or delusion.

Here Emre engages directly with the polemic with which I began. The literary practice of critique, which reserves the right to speak of certain readings as wrong, has been under loud and prolonged attack. The anti- or (as it prefers to be called) the post-critique side has taken paranoia as emblematic of the foolishness of its opponents. In doing so, Emre observes, post-critique has misread Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who put the term paranoia in play as a style of reading but did not disavow it. More important, however, the post-critiquers have dislodged and disrespected the experience of African Americans, for whom paranoia is a perfectly acceptable language for the experience of systemic racial injustice. As it is for the experience of other marginalized communities, including queers, women, immigrants, and a range of racial minorities. To omit their experience is like Todd on Breaking Bad omitting his shooting of the kid. Todd’s story about Walter White isn’t false in an empirical sense. But it is dishonest because of its omissions. Morally and politically, it’s a bad reading, and we should be able to say so.

Sedgwick points to a disconnect between the habits of interpretation we fall into as teachers of culture, which often privilege the mystically inscrutable, undecidable, and unsayable, and the politics we believe in as citizens, which assumes, correctly, the positive values of rationality, communicability, and truth. Literary studies doesn’t have to disavow the so-called “liberal subject,” and it would find itself living in less hostile surroundings if it did its best to produce more such subjects. Sedgwick, who at the time of writing was suffering from advanced cancer, explicitly asked for more attention to banal but crucial institutions like health insurance, the sorts of bad objects to which literary critics are not usually attracted. In her own insistence on banal but crucial institutions, Emre is channeling her. In a piece of conclusive name-calling that’s remarkable because name-calling of any kind has had so tiny a place in the book as a whole, Emre does not hesitate to describe uncritical or surface reading as “part of the neoliberal political and economic order’s ‘attempt to rule without penetrating interiority.’”

Like the current occupant of the White House, who has made the neoliberals happy without himself being one, post-critique speaks a populist language. Populism can be tempting — there is such a thing as a left populism — but Emre avoids that temptation. Her concern with bad readers remains low-key, non-redemptive. It never swells into full-blown anti-elitism, which as we have learned is a weapon that is liable to explode in your hands. She does not demonstrate the value of bad reading. None of her bad readers could have written this very good book.

What Emre is even more definitively not is a nationalist. Though she doesn’t inquire into the foreign reception of those messages that the United States was so eager to project abroad, leaving that to a next round of researchers, she seems motivated throughout by the dream of international exchanges that would be deeper than those we have and a good deal more self-critical. In 1958, when Faulkner spoke at the University of Virginia about his leadership of the People-to-People Initiative, he was asked, “Mr. Faulkner, how does a man who works in a chewing gum factory in Detroit communicate with a man who shepherds sheep in Algeria?” Emre repeats the question twice. The chewing gum factory may no longer be there, or for that matter the Algerian shepherd, but it’s still a good question.


Bruce Robbins is Old Dominion Foundation Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University.

LARB Contributor

Bruce Robbins is Old Dominion Foundation Professor of the Humanities in the department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His books include Perpetual War: Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Violence (2012), Upward Mobility and the Common Good (2007), Feeling Global: Internationalism in Distress (1999), and The Servant's Hand: English Fiction from Below (1986). His essays have appeared in n+1, The Nation, Public Books, and the London Review of Books. He is also the director of a documentary, Some of My Best Friends Are Zionists, available at


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