On Reading Well: A Conversation With Karen Swallow Prior

On Reading Well: A Conversation With Karen Swallow Prior September 12, 2018

If you enjoyed my reflections on “Tenth of December” the other day, thank Dr. Karen Swallow Prior! Currently flying off the shelves, her new book On Reading Well has introduced several new pieces of literature into my life, as well as providing new perspective on some old favorites. Since everyone else is talking about it, it seemed like a good time to seize the day and squeeze in a little interview of my own. Trying to avoid treading where many outlets have already trod before me, I freshened up our topics a bit, expanding focus to include the craft of literary criticism, the state of the humanities, and the academy in general. I also ask what books were on her alternates list and whether she knew how she was going to structure the book from the beginning (the answer will surprise you!) Most controversially, I even dare to ask if we can disagree about Flannery O’Connor (gasp!)

In a future update, I hope to add a bit of the lovely art you can expect to find together with Karen’s analysis, contributed by Ned Bustard. Bustard has a unique style, and his images strikingly capture the theme of each work in a simple, yet profound way.

Now, without further ado, please enjoy my conversation with Dr. Karen Swallow Prior. Many thanks to her for making time to answer my questions.

Creative Commons/Karen Swallow Prior

Did you always know you were going to organize the book by virtues (cardinal, theological, etc.), or did you consider other structures?


This theme and organizational structure is not even close to the one I proposed and had accepted by my publisher. It is a testament to the writing process and its power to create and develop that the original idea changed so much. (I may use that first plan for a later book, so I am going to keep that to myself.) The idea of using the virtues came to me because of the influence of James K. A. Smith on my thinking in the past few years. I’ve been reflecting a great deal on practices and habits, which was something my editor suggest I throw into the mix—and that leads naturally to virtues.


While this book’s theme is how literature inculcates virtue in the reader, what are some other rich benefits of reading literature well besides the direct improvement of one’s character? 


Other benefits of reading high quality, literary writing is the exercise of critical thinking skills, the expansion of the imagination, the deepening of aesthetic sensibilities, and the sheer joy that comes from pleasure—the same sort of joy we get in hearing a beautiful song, watching a dramatic performance, or walking through a lush woods. This is the real reason we should read well.


I appreciate the simplicity of your old-fashioned approach to literary criticism, considering the text on its own terms even if that means admitting there are no shocking new “discoveries” to be made about it. Would you agree that the obsession with always publishing “some new thing” has been a major factor in the deterioration of literary scholarship?


This is absolutely the case. The “publish or perish” paradigm that has dominated academia for the past few decades has pushed quantity over quality. Combine that with the politicization of nearly every discipline, and the subject matter itself has greatly suffered. It is old-fashioned now to love literature for literature’s sake, to love the text more than theory, and to seek first to understand the author on his or her own terms before adding our own.


As a personal follow-up to the last question, literature will always be my first love, but I went into STEM because I foresaw an uphill climb against the corruption not only of the literary discipline but the humanities in general. Someone once asked me why I couldn’t have been a gadfly, but I still think I chose wisely. In advising young would-be Christian scholars, do you sympathize more with the “Benedict Option” approach or the gadfly approach to the humanities? Or do you think it’s impossible to weigh except on a case-by-case basis?


I don’t think it either/or. In order to be a good gadfly, one must be in some way part of the effort Rod Dreher calls for in the “Benedict Option” (which is not withdrawal, a common misperception, but rather intentional preservation and cultivation of Christian belief and practice in the face of the seductive powers of an increasingly secular culture). What the nineteenth century critic Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said” will be lost without those who would preserve it and those who would promote it.


In your chapter on Shusaku Endo’s Silence, you say progressives and conservatives alike have missed the point, which is that there is no “point.” Endo should not be read as if he has a definite opinion on what the reader “should” think of Rodrigues’s choice. You argue the story has no clear “moral” and is open to multiple interpretations. While I know you favor a classical approach to literary criticism, could it not be argued that in this case there is a danger of falling into a post-modern mentality?  


I don’t exactly say that there is no point in Endo’s novel or in any other literary work. What I try to show is that the novel is not concerned with the point many readers seek which is the answer to the question of whether or not Father Rodrigues’ choice proves him to be an apostate. The novel asks us to examine the complexity of such a question, not to prove the rightness of a particular answer. That is the “point.” There is nothing postmodern about the recognition that great literature reflects reality by depicting complex, ambiguous characters and dilemmas and asks more questions than it answers. This is and has always been the difference between good literature and a good sermon. Good literature, including Silence, doesn’t deny the existence of truth by demonstrating that truth is not as easy to grasp as we would often wish it to be.


Your final choices for selection in this book are well regarded but may not all be to everyone’s taste. I personally do not rate Flannery O’Connor as highly as you do, to give one example. Is there room for spirited, thoughtful disagreement over the quality even of respected pieces of literature?  


Of course. However, it is probably even more important to distinguish between objective markers of literary quality and subjective experiences of taste and preference. There are many great works of literature and art whose quality I can recognize and affirm while acknowledging that they may not be to my taste. For me J. R. R. Tolkien is a perfect example. The quality of his literary art is much greater than my desire to read fantasy. With that said, the objective qualities that define great literature—what is called poetics—is a subject worthy of endless examination and study. I teach an entire graduate course on the topic and in the class we barely begin to scratch the surface of this great question.


For someone who doesn’t consider himself a reader but would like to begin learning how to read better and deeper, what are a couple of fictional works you would recommend to start the journey, either from this book or not?


Usually when people ask me for suggestions like this, I want to know more about their interests and tastes: History? Culture? Tragedy? Comedy? Ancient? Modern? There is so much good literature out there, I encourage people to find something that will interest them as well as challenge them. Librarians are a great resource. Tell one that you want to read more classic literature and share your interests. The books I cover in On Reading Well aren’t presented as much as recommended titles as they are models for how to read any great work well.



What were some alternative works you considered that didn’t make the final list?


The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, among others.


You candidly discuss your own fears and vulnerabilities when it comes to death and suffering throughout this book, especially in the chapter on George Saunders’s “Tenth of December.” Speaking for all of us, you talk about how “very, very afraid” you are of the weakness and indignity that will inevitably come with aging and dying. Would you say your accident and its painful recovery process have given you a greater peace and inner strength as you consider these things?


In some ways the trauma of the accident has given me new fears.  But I hope these fears will diminish as time goes on and I continue to recover. But I can say that having faced such physical pain and impairment has given me insight I never could have had about suffering, mortality, the will to live, and the things that really matter. I can now imagine facing death and dying in a way I couldn’t have before, and overall, I am, I think, a little less afraid. Studying and writing about the virtues I was required to exercise during this time prepared me, ironically, to bear these difficulties better than I would have.

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