In an essay in The Hindu Literary Review, novelist Tabish Khair makes a number of provocative points about historical inaccuracy in contemporary British fiction. Particularly good is this general discussion of the role of readers:
. . .The reader, not as a blank receptor of the intentions of the author or the text, but as someone who actually reads. The reader as the critic. Here the etymology of the word "read" has to be kept in mind: to read is to "think, suppose, guess; discern the meaning of (chiefly in read a riddle, a dream); inspect and interpret... " Related, as the word is, to the Sanskrit rãdh and the Old Slavonic raditi, it also includes the active sense of "accomplish" and "attend to" respectively. Moreover, one of the original senses of the Germanic root is that of "taking charge" and the act of interpreting written symbols is suggested by its Old English root.
But then he adds:
Reading is also an act of digging. A reader is not only someone who stays on the surface of the text, but an active thinker and interpreter. She attends to the text, but she also accomplishes and takes charge.
It seems to me that attending to a literary text is one thing--something that in fact too many readers don't do carefully enough--but to "dig" into it in the way Khair has in mind is something else. The reader participates in the creation of the text's "meaning" (more loosely, whatever significance a particular text is going to have for a particular reader), but to "take charge" of the text almost seems to undermine the very purpose of reading a work of literature in the first place, to make the act of reading always the possibility of waging war on the text. (Granted, this is the preferred strategy of much of current academic criticism, but it's obnoxious nonetheless.)
Simply taking pleasure in the reading of literature is converted by Khair into a "passive celebration" of it. Again, I understand that this kind of wariness of being "passive" and of being insufficiently skeptical of literary representation when it purports to depict marginalized groups is built into the project of contemporary cultural studies, especially that version that has come to be called postcolonial studies, but at what point does such wariness simply become an impatience with literature altogether? Must a poem or a novel always be ultimately an excuse to determine what improper attitudes it's illustrating? If, as a reader, you're looking for that work that's going to express only pure thoughts and pristine beliefs, or as a writer you want to produce such a work, you're not going to succeed. And even if you do, how boring that book is likely to be.
The literary offenses Khair uncovers seem to me pretty minor. Zadie Smith seems to be confused about a character's religious affiliation. Yann Martel gets a name wrong. Monica Ali appears too enamored of Britain's cultural freedoms. It's an awfully puritanical view of a poor novelist's obligations to insist that mistakes can't be toleratied, that a novelist can't just write novels without being held to account by the politically-inspired "diggers" and the attitude police.
Khair concludes by speculating that "one can only imagine the Reader-without-History as a non-reader, as a passive receptor, as a simple celebrator of the text, not as someone who interprets, guesses, digs. It is at best a reader — to the extent that she is brought into being — who wants to escape from history. It is a reader who wants to feel good about being who or what she is, and a knowledge of history — even one's own history — does not always cause one to feel good." How about a reader who neither wants to escape from history nor "feel good about being who or what she is" but instead read novels for the aesthetic pleasure they might provide? Is such a reader also being irresponsible? Are aesthetic resources not precious enough to dig for?
Thanks to Amardeep Singh for the link.