Last week we learned of the discovery of another example in an increasingly long line of forged memoirs: Margaret “Jones” Seltzer was discovered to have forged the story of her life as a gang-affiliated, drug-running youth in LA, when her sister saw her picture in the NY Times and ratted her out. Of the many journalists covering the incident and those like it,NPR’s Scott Simon makes several points worth remembering (they’ve been made many times before) about the nature of genre in literature:
“Now if some Brooklyn or London novelist had written a story set among drug gangs and uttered those words [referring to an audio clip by Seltzer] people might have dismissed them as pretentious nonsense. Put those sentences into a so-called memoir and people call it ‘gritty and real’, or ‘raw, tender and tough-minded’ like the New York Times did.”
The point that this raises, for the purposes of this post, is that the meaning of a text cannot be divorced from the expectations brought to it by its reader(s). Simon also says “the people who wrote these frauds knew that if they had presented their books as novels they would have had to withstand a whole different kind of criticism; what critic will bash the literary style of a memoir by someone who was suckled by wolves, ran with gangs, or was dragooned into being a child soldier? Calling these books ‘memoirs’ allows their flaws to masquerade as proof that they’re ‘raw and real.'”
This has obvious implications for reading sacred literature that are already visible in the genre “sacred literature”. What it reveals is not so much about what the text contains as it does about what is invested in the texts by certain communities. Compare, for example, Herodotus with Samuel-Kings, or the Iliad with Genesis or Isaiah. It’s only because we have such a genre that we can have courses called “Bible as Literature,” in which the professor proclaims (already in the title) that the text will not be read from a denominational standpoint, but rather from an altogether different perspective (whatever “literature” means).
My question is this: If intellectuals and non-intellectuals alike agree broadly on the fact that readers are complicit in meaning-making, what governs the range of acceptable interpretation? When do readings become illegitimate in the eyes of a community? What happens to our own texts when generic lines are blurred?