What readers bring to texts

What readers bring to texts March 10, 2008

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).

This idea has enjoyed a consistent discussion in the bloggernacle. For example, Brad Kramer has outlined the advantages of a reading of the Book of Mormon that treats the narrators as unreliable, and TT has discussed the bearing of AfroAmerican and Feminist Hermeneutics on our reading of our canon, as well as the importance and question of a Mormon Hermeneutics. I also have argued along similar lines in stating that a source-critical reading of Exodus 34 changes the meaning completely. (Of course I’m leaving out many relevant examples–feel free to point them out.) In addition to these more intellectual discussions and calls-to-arms, Latter-day Saints implicitly recognize the heavy burden placed on the reader in the generation of meaning nearly every Sunday. Few of the laity would argue with the contention that the text means different things to different readers, especially in light of Nephi’s injunction to “liken” the scriptures to individualized situations, or with the observation that meaning will change even for a single reader at different times in her life as she reads the text in different circumstances.

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?

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