Vernacular Criticism


One term that has come up in our discussions at Sprint Beyond the Book is vernacular criticism, and it’s one that I think is worth picking up on as a useful concept for considering the relationship of readers to the machinery of textual production which Robert Darnton sets out in his diagram of the circuit of communications (recently updated for the late twentieth century and for self-published authors by Padmini Ray Murray and Clare Squires). A great deal of smart stuff has been written about this already, for example Rosa Eberly’s Citizen Critics (2000) and Jan Radway’s ethnography of readers of romance novels, Reading the Romance (1991), one of the foundational texts for the field of reception studies. In the contexts examined by these studies, the “real readers” in question had no opportunity for making their readerly preferences known, and for pushing back on the publishers and authors who produced content they may or may not have liked. Many of Radway’s romance readers described their dislike for insufficiently happy endings, for instance, but the only opportunity they had to register this discontent was to refuse to read and/or buy such titles.

Now, however, digital platforms that take account of reader preferences—both consciously delivered feedback and unconsciously delivered metrics about, for instance, how far a reader gets through a text before abandoning it—make it possible for those at the production end of the communications circuit to take into consideration aggregated data about reader preferences as they produce the texts those readers will consume. On my flight to Arizona, the in-flight magazine had an article about precisely this (Boyd Farrow, “The Happy Ending You Asked For”) and what struck me was not the content of the article—which is not news to anyone who studies digital books, or even keeps half an eye on the culture pages of major newspapers—but the fact that this disruption of publishing practices is sufficiently interesting to feature in a publication such as an airline magazine that is designed to appeal to as a wide a range of readers as possible. Farrow cites publishers who take reader suggestions on board and require authors to alter their storylines accordingly, and points to some historical precedents (the 18th-century rewriting of the ending of Romeo and Juliet). Digital interfaces for reading, however, have both sped this process up—reader feedback can be delivered to publishers far more swiftly—and allowed it to happen at a level of greater granularity (the exact page a reader stopped reading vs. a petulant letter to a publisher that might or might not reach an editor, agent, or even an author).

There are several ways to look at this development. One response is to be delighted at the disruption to conventional structures of literary authority whereby a small cadre of elites dictates who, and what, will be published, and a second cadre of elites of critics decides on where these published texts will sit within the field of cultural production: the cultural space where some artistic products occupy positions of prestige (e.g., “difficult” texts such as the works of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and T.S. Eliot), some are deemed popular (e.g., comics, television soap operas, romance novels), and others sit somewhere in between (e.g., “middlebrow” books such as might feature on the reading lists of book clubs). Self-publication has helped with this process of disruption: examples abound of feel-good stories of authors who began self-publishing fiction that had been summarily rejected by publishers, and found acceptance, fame, and eventually wealth through the magic of the interwebs. But for those who read rather than write, their preferences as readers now have the power to be examined by publishers, and to shape what those publishers deliver, in ways that may or may not be visible. If you are a reader who has ever been dissatisfied with the way a book has ended, or the way a character has been treated, these kind of readerly interventions may be appealing.

Another response is to think about this development in terms of the threat to authorial autonomy. An author has a vision for her text, and having to attend to, and fall into line with, readerly desires is unlikely to be conducive to that. Authors, of course, have never been free of external strictures: publishers put pressure on them to deliver certain kinds of texts, editors shape their prose, and many other elements contribute to a cultural product that is not conceived in isolation. But digital platforms for reading are delivering a whole new kind of reader feedback that—especially at a time when publishers are struggling with the financial implications of the advent of digital technology—make it easier for publishers to demand texts that deliver what the market wants. I’ll nail my colors to the mast here: part of me is horrified at the thought of the difficult, challenging narratives that I love being in some way tempered to fit audience expectations, in the way that blockbuster films produced by the major studios undergo audience testing so as to deliver the ending that audiences want. Think of twentieth-century literature without the magnificent polyphony of Ulysses, the bewildering ending of Coetzee’s Disgrace, the abjection of Dolores Haze at the end of Lolita, and the lack of closure of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Our cultural heritage would be the worse for it. I think of a study I did some years ago which looked at audience responses to Joss Whedon’s (hilarious) superhero musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, serialized and disseminated over a period of weeks on the Internet. When the final installment aired, fans were initially dismayed, as the narrative contained developments that did not initially appeal to them. But as they discussed their responses to the story together and tried to make sense of it as an interpretive community, they came to understand and appreciate the narrative in a different way, in part by resituating the text in a different genre, that of the origin story. (The study, which is one of the most fun things I’ve ever done, is here, if you are interested.)

So: should vernacular criticism, and the voices of real readers, play more of a role than they have previously in the mechanisms of book production? Should literary criticism be opened up to a wider range of people than just book reviewers and literary scholars? Has this ship already sailed, and are these questions therefore purely rhetorical? I’d like to think that some corners of the literary field could be protected from too much encroachment, even as we welcome the changes to conventional structures of literary authority that have already begun to change the shape of the publishing landscape.

2 thoughts on “Vernacular Criticism

  1. This is a great piece and an important part of our current publishing ecology. A contrarian question, though, would be: to what extent is this new impingement on a work’s autonomy a difference of degree rather than in kind? I think here of the focus groups and screening that has characterized the film industry for decades now, and I wonder to what extent the idea of a work’s autonomy is more comfortable to critics than it is reflective of literary production.

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