In this comment thread on my recent post defending James Wood against William Deresiewicz's critique of his aestheticism, Richard Crary claims to be confused by my distinction between reading within an always-present context and reading "for aesthetic purposes."
. . .nearly every post you put up gives readers the impression that you do read entirely for aesthetic purposes, while strongly giving the impression that you see aesthetic issues as somehow easily distinguished from others (political, etc). I think readers might be forgiven for repeatedly coming to the conclusion that you think context can and ought to be ignored altogether!
This seems as good an opportunity as any to try to clear up this confusion, which perhaps can be reduced to a lack of clarity about uses of the word "reading." In one of my own responses to Richard, I maintained that while "Aesthetic 'issues' are easily distinguished from others," it is nevertheless impossible to read "absent any consideration of context," since it "plays a part whether I like it or not." In the latter case, I am "reading" in the common, most literal sense of the term: encountering the text for the first time, reading it as innocently as I'll ever be able to, as purely for the experience of reading the words on the page as will ever likely be possible. When I'm reading in this way, "context" refers to all of the ideas, emotions, and experiences I bring to the reading experience, which indeed I couldn't discard even if I wanted to. (Among those experiences would be my previous experiences with this author, or with this kind of fiction, etc.)
But I can also engage in a "reading" of the text following some reflection on the initial reading, after consulting critical commentary on the text, and perhaps after re-reading the text itself, wholly or in part. (This is not quite the same thing as interpretation, which generally narrows the text's possibilities in order to pin down its "meaning"; the kind of reading I am describing is an attempt to expand those possibilities, to open up the text in order to make its palpable qualities more accessible.) It does seem to me that at this stage it is entirely possible to separate aesthetic "issues" from other issues on which one might want to focus attention and that, depending on the specificity of one's definition of "aesthetic," such a separation is not difficult. Some people might think this separation is undesirable, but that doesn't mean it can't be done.
It's probably because I do often insist that the aesthetic qualities of a literary text ought to be at the forefront of the reader's initial encounter with it (notwithstanding the "context" within which this occurs, which nevertheless cannot be denied), and because my own preference as a critic is to concentrate on "aesthetic issues" that I am called an "asethete" and that I am accused of believing that reading can occur in a context-free zone. I don't mind the first, but the second assumes I am some sort of aesthetic ideologue willing to deny reality in order to keep my beliefs conceptually afloat.
I insist on this blog that we attend to the aesthetic prerogatives of literature because in today's literary culture, both academic and generalist, those prerogatives are so often denied in favor of sociological analysis or a concentration on what a writer has "to say." The formal and stylistic accomplishments of fiction especially are frequently dismissed as "merely literary." My perspective on literature has become a minority view, but just because this approach to literature and criticism has become unfashionable does not make it therefore wrong. I don't know if some form of aesthetic analysis will again become more acceptable, but even if it doesn't, I still intend to speak up as one of its proponents. Thus the sometimes emphatic manner in which I do often defend aesthetic criticism on this blog.
As an illustration of the way "aesthetic issues" can legitimately be trumped by "context," by political or cultural considerations, I would agree with Jacob Russell's comments on the subject of this previous post, James Wood: "It's the unexamined claim that the books he prefers more powerfully or more accurately represent "the real," the validity of which is not a matter that can be decided within the limits of aesthetics. It's that extra-aesthetic claim that generates economic, political and social implications." Although I think it is possible to have an aethetic preference for realism over its alternatives, and vice versa, James Wood unfortunately does not really support this preference "within" aesthetics, as Jacob puts it. It's at best a metaphysical preference for Wood, and his clinging to his metaphysical conception of the "real" as represented in fiction does make his criticism useful to the "status quo" for the "economic, political and social implications" to which Jacob alludes. I cannot myself overlook these implications in judging Wood's critical writing, however much I do admire his commitment to "close reading."